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Animals have personalities. There is a general and convincing consensus that many species, particularly our companion animals and mammals, are sentient beings who display personality traits and live rich lives. However, we tend to not experience animal personality when it comes to the species we consume regularly on our dinner plates. When Cecil the Zimbabwe lion or the Cincinnati zoo gorilla Harambe died tragic deaths, an international moral uproar caused the public to question and challenge hunting laws, the ethics of trophy hunting, and the well-being of zoo animals. Yet, many of the people who condemned the death of these animals might very well eat a tuna sandwich or chicken salad for lunch while considering themselves animal lovers. Even though farm animals are consumed on a regular basis in astonishingly high numbers, not much thought is generally given to them as individuals with personalities. Thus, while people care a great deal about certain animals, they contribute to the suffering and killing of many other animals without worrying much about them. In Personalities on the Plate, Barbara King argues that learning about the personalities of animals, including food animals, allows for changing the relationship that humans have to animals used for food.
King's contribution is vital to the re-imagination of animals raised, caught, or processed for food. She focuses on one type of food animal per chapter: insects and arachnids, octopi, fish, chickens, goats, cows, pigs, and chimpanzees. King first explains the cultural and historical significance of why these animals are consumed. She then combines her knowledge and personal experience as an animal behaviorist to show that food animals indeed have distinct personalities that should be considered in deciding whether to eat them. Thus, she allows the reader to reevaluate his/her relationship with animals by making food animals more visible to the consumer. In this respect, King's book is an important response to Melanie Joy's work on carnism (2011) that considers the cognitive dissonance we experience regarding different species. While many people dote on their pets or respectfully admire wildlife, they can easily eat a steak or a burger without feeling a huge moral conflict. King attempts to close that cognitive gap by powerfully combining personal narratives and scientific evidence about the animals that end up on the table to be eaten.
Personalities on the Plate starts with insects and ends with chimpanzees. Every chapter, devoted to a category of animals commonly consumed in a specific culture, explores our relationship with food animals by looking at how they have been used in the past, what triggered our behavior towards them historically, and what scientific explorations can contribute to seeing animals in a more holistic way. For instance, King shares evidence that aelosimus studiosus, a spider that can be found in the North and South American forests, displays maternal care which can be found commonly in spiders. This spider protects her young from danger and feeds her offspring through regurgitation (24). Moreover, King elaborates on the findings that octopuses engage in future planning (43) and that cows can function as alpha cows who lead with determination (127). Learning these specific portrayals of personality helps the consumer understand important details about types of animals used for food.
But King does not exclusively focus on animal behavior in Personalities on the Plate. She also discusses the detrimental effects of raising animals for food on the environment and human health. Waste from factory farms causes air and water pollution to the extent that children living near Central Valley, California, suffer from asthma at a rate almost three times the national average, and their life expectancy is 10 years lower than the national average (130). Many of these children living in California farming communities belong to ethnic minorities and are raised in poverty. The pollution caused by factory farming thus becomes a socioeconomic or environmental justice issue. Feminist scholars in particular have concluded that this intersectional nature of meat entails abstaining from animal products as another way of rejecting systemic oppression, reaching beyond the traditional arguments of food ethics. King acknowledges the ethics of consumption of but does not take the argument as far as other ecofeminist writers, like Lisa Kemmerer. While King agrees with Kemmerer that veganism "points us toward concern for animal suffering; for our own medical health; for the welfare of oppressed people; for the values espoused by the world's religions (but of course not exclusively to the religious); and for the environment;" King is a proponent of reducing the consumption of animals for food as an effective way to introduce change, rather than insisting on an abolitionist approach (190). This view reflects King's affinity with a rhetoric that aims for inclusion rather than exclusion. This way, King appeals to a larger audience that can include people whose response to food ethics varies from reducing to completely abolishing animal products.
King uses a combination of storytelling and scientific research to present her arguments. Because of this, her audience includes specialists and non-experts alike. King also reaches out to the consumer of animal products by building a foundation for understanding rather than conflict. Personal narratives that focus on human interaction with food animals and experiences that help us understand how food animals indeed display personality connect rather than separate us from one another, and the author's own experiences with food and animals strengthen her message to look more critically at our food choices through knowledge. The combination of storytelling and sharing evidence based on her thorough literature review allows King to morally nudge her audience rather than convince them with arguments alone.
The rhetorical approach in Personalities on the Plate is invitational. King makes it clear from the beginning that her book should be viewed as "an invitation to see clearly who we eat, and our connections with animals who, in their different ways, experience the world with awareness and intention" (4). By focusing on one of the most important characteristics of invitational rhetoric, openness and mutual respect, King builds an atmosphere of trust between herself and her audience and therefore reaches those who have not been exposed much to food ethics or animal cognition (Foss & Griffin, 1995). This rhetorical framework can be seen in King admitting herself that she still consumes animal products to a certain extent and that she previously did not automatically morally consider the animals presented to her on a plate, even when she was a graduate student who studied the behavior and cognition of chimpanzees in Africa and considered herself an individual who deeply cared about animals. The widespread lack of awareness when it comes to food is a crucial reason why farm animals can be treated as they are, with little regard to their well-being. By attempting to overcome this lack of awareness, King makes these animals more morally relevant, giving her readers the opportunity to reevaluate their food ethics without being told directly what to do. In this way, Personalities on the Plate becomes a book of gentle activism. Without judging other people's food choices, and without making an argument for rigorously following a specific diet like veganism, King presents strong evidence and convincing narratives that the animals we eat are undervalued, often misunderstood, and underestimated.
Changing the way we view animals can indeed introduce a cultural shift that can be understood as one of the first important steps towards reducing animal suffering. King emphasizes, "[a]s we work toward a world of empathy for other creatures, our gaze must take in not only the primates closest to us but also other mammals, birds, fish, and invertebrates. Only then we will see whom we are eating" (188). Personalities on the Plate opens a window for that gaze and contributes to seeing all species, and not just our companion animals or charismatic wildlife, on our moral radar.
After leading her reader to consider a variety of species used for food, King ends her book with a powerful afterword: By being aware of the sentience of animals we use for food, we have the opportunity to rethink how we use these animals (189). Since we can make a difference in how we treat animals, we can very well rethink how we treat species used for food. A strong example here is how we view dogs as loving pets while other cultures process and consume dogs as food animals (196). King explores how other cultures view certain species differently. If we can understand that some cultures have a different ethical mindset when it comes to dogs, we can also challenge our own ethical mindset when it comes to eating pork or beef.
Personalities on the Plate is an important read. By knowing more about the suffering of animals, by being open to learning about the minds of food animals, King allows her audience to answer one of the most common ethical questions we all are confronted with on a daily basis: What should I eat today?
Foss, S., & Griffin, C. (1995). Beyond persuasion: A proposal for an invitational rhetoric. Communication Monographs, 62, 1-18.
Joy, M. (2011). Why We Love Dogs, wear Cows, and Eat Pigs. San Francisco: Conari Press.
King, B.J. (2017). Personalities on the Plate. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
© 2017 Silke Feltz
Silke Feltz, Michigan Technological University