What can a farm animal biography accomplish?

Tsovel, A. (2005) What can a farm animal biography accomplish? Portrait of Burger as a young calf, Society and Animals 13:3.

How do we come to know about the lives that farmed animals lead in the run-up to slaughter? The informational sources that we have available to us—agricultural reports, animal welfare studies, animal rights literature—are disparate in intention and thus in eye, and all (with the exception of animal rights exposés) tend to clump the animals into a collective entity, the lives of individual animals lost in the numbers. Yet we can relate to the an individual life story in a way that we cannot to numbers or statistics: a story illuminates the particulars of experience, bringing it closer to our own; it creates a narrative we can become involved in, and facilitates emotional response in the reader. In What can a farm animal biography accomplish? Portrait of Burger as a young calf [Society and Animals 13:3 (2005)], Ariel Tsovel discusses Lovenheim’s (2002)  pioneering documentary story of an individual cow within an intensive farming system [Portrait of a burger as a young calf: The true story of one man, two cows and the feeding of a nation. New York: Harmony Books]. Lovenheim’s project started after a visit to MacDonald’s with his daughter. As restaurant staff handed out doll cows and bulls for children to play with, Lovenheim (an “ordinary, urban guy”), was struck by the “deep disconnect between what we eat and where it comes from”:  “were children really expected to hug and play with a toy cow as they ate the grilled remains of a real one?”. Determined to “connect the dots and observe up close the process by which living animals become food”, he proceeded to documented the lives of twin calves born on a farm in New York State. By agreeing with the farmers to buy the calves and own them until slaughter, Lovenheim was allowed to enter the farm anytime, interview staff and document the calves’ lives.

Ariel Tsovel’s article is an overview of the achievements of Lovenheim’s book as well as its limitations; through this process, he illuminates both the potential held in farm animal biography and the challenges likely to be encountered by anyone attempting it. Tsovel starts with Lovenheim’s “ground-breaking achievements”: 1) his attempt to follow the calves’ lives from collection of the father’s sperm for insemination through until consumption of their flesh is unique, and led him to witness processes that no other medium does; 2) With a background in journalism, Lovenheim’s observational techniques are flexible, without a limiting methodology or theory; this means that he recorded details that professional observers of any discipline would have likely missed. Additionally, he 3) presents his observations raw, as complex anecdotes for the reader’s interpretation, without reducing them to theory-laden conclusions. 4) By documenting processes as they happen and simultaneously interviewing farm staff, Lovenheim unveils many of the human motivations behind actions taken towards the cattle; (5) he is also transparent and honest about his own motivations, which are integrated into the narrative. Through Tsovel’s words, a picture emerges of a methodology (first person led journalistic documentation) with the potential to succeed where others fail: in bringing the lived reality of an animal on an intensive farm alive to a reader.

Tsovel then moves on to point the limitations in Lovenheim’s work: Firstly, there are Lovenheim’s ‘conventional moral choices and views’, which Tsovel clearly does not share (“Lovenheim does not exhibit ethical insights concerning his moral position in relation to the calves”). However, Lovenheim’s honesty allows the reader to see into his assumptions and biases, and thus we can “learn how to approach his report”. Another limitation lies in the fact that Lovenheim, as a journalist, was “drawn to stories wherever he could get them”, and stories came more readily to him from human lips than from the slow unfolding of animal actions. Lovenheim focused on interviews and conversations with the farmers, and failed to see “that the exploiter is not a credible source of information regarding the circumstances and experience and of the exploited”. In pointing out this limitation in Lovenheim’s work, Tsovel draws attention to the subjective nature of seeing and thus of documenting: “moral conceptions determine the horizons of factual perception”. The lived reality of farm animals is mediated by farmers and the animals are “deprived of their potential power and sociality”. It is thus difficult for humans not to see farm animals as “agricultural objects”. Despite Lovenheim’s intention to document the cows as subjects of a life, his attempts to engage with the calves on their own terms (and thus document from their point of view) were “modest, if any”. Yet another limitation in Lovenheim’s work stems from the starting point of his relationship with the animals: by purchasing the calves he became an ‘owner’, thus approaching them somewhat like pets, albeit nameless ones, destined for slaughter. The moral and emotional complexities of that choice permeate throughout the study.

To conclude the paper, Tsovel suggests avenues for further exploration in documentary farm animal biographies: 1) comparing the views of several documenters, some with training in ethology and animal welfare science; 2) exploring varying degrees of involvement with the animals, from non-involvement to uninhibited attachment; and 3) reflecting on the study in light of knowledge of animal rights theory.

Summary by Joana Formosinho

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