Tag Archives: animal welfare

Wild animal welfare in Hans Christian Andersen

Continuing the theme of wild animal suffering in children’s lit

Hans Christian Andersen’s stories involve a lot of suffering of both human and animal varieties. “The Ugly Duckling” takes a brief detour from describing the duckling’s repeated social humiliations to describe being a waterfowl in winter:

The winter grew cold – so bitterly cold that the duckling had to swim to and fro in the water to keep it from freezing over. But every night the hole in which he swam kept getting smaller and smaller. Then it froze so hard that the duckling had to paddle continuously to keep the crackling ice from closing in upon him. At last, too tired to move, he was frozen fast in the ice.

Thumbelina” likewise details bird hardship in the Danish winter:

In the middle of the floor lay a dead swallow, with his lovely wings folded at his sides and his head tucked under his feathers. The poor bird must certainly have died of the cold. Thumbelina felt so sorry for him. She loved all the little birds who had sung and sweetly twittered to her all through the summer. But the mole gave the body a kick with his short stumps, and said, “Now he won’t be chirping any more. What a wretched thing it is to be born a little bird. Thank goodness none of my children can be a bird, who has nothing but his ‘chirp, chirp’, and must starve to death when winter comes along.”

“Yes, you are so right, you sensible man,” the field mouse agreed. “What good is all his chirp-chirping to a bird in the winter time, when he starves and freezes?

Not that different from “The Little Match Girl“, in which a child freezes to death on the streets of Copenhagen:

She was getting colder and colder, but did not dare to go home, for she had sold no matches, nor earned a single cent, and her father would surely beat her. Besides, it was cold at home, for they had nothing over them but a roof through which the wind whistled even though the biggest cracks had been stuffed with straw and rags.

Her hands were almost dead with cold. Oh, how much one little match might warm her!

I don’t really know where I’m going with this. Interesting that an author who didn’t shy away from human suffering in his fairy tales also didn’t shy away from animal suffering.


Thoughts on Samuel Pepys

I’ve been listening to the diary of Samuel Pepys on audio. He wrote it between 1660 and 1669 while living in London and working in the British government. He’s unusual among diarists in that he was interested in everything from politics to fashion to music, spared no detail even about his own faults, and witnessed some major historical events.

At first I was enjoying the details about daily life and their similarities and differences with daily life now — What he thinks of his new wig! The argument he and his wife had about whether the dog should sleep in their room! Boy, there are a lot of public executions!

Maybe the most striking thing to me is how much he writes about sex. I can think of a few contributing reasons:

  • he was just unusually interested in sex.
  • lots of people are very interested in sex, and I usually don’t read their diaries.
  • this is an abridgment of the original million+ words, and they kept the juicy bits in and cut some of the details about his day at work.

By the time we get to 1665, I was pretty done with the constant description of his interactions with bosoms and was relieved that he started talking about the Great Plague of London instead.

The fastest way to find the sex passages is to search for the phrase “God forgive me,” which basically always means the rest of the sentence is him trying to figure out how to get it on with his servants, his friends’ servants, his friends’ wives, or random strangers.

“God forgive me, I was sorry to hear that Sir W. Pen’s maid Betty was gone away yesterday, for I was in hopes to have had a bout with her before she had gone, she being very pretty. I had also a mind to my own wench, but I dare not for fear she should prove honest and refuse and then tell my wife.”

One of the rare bosom-themed passages in which he does not ask God’s forgiveness, apparently because it was the fault of the Mrs. Penington involved:

“she willingly suffered me to put my hand in her bosom very wantonly, and keep it there long. Which methought was very strange, and I looked upon myself as a man mightily deceived in a lady, for I could not have thought she could have suffered it, by her former discourse with me; so modest she seemed and I know not what.” Poor Sam, so deceived.

Maybe the nerviest episode is where he tries to grope a woman in church, she threatens to stab him, and he just moves on and tries another woman in the next pew instead:

“I walked towards White Hall, but, being wearied, turned into St. Dunstan’s Church, where I heard an able sermon of the minister of the place; and stood by a pretty, modest maid, whom I did labour to take by the hand and the body; but she would not, but got further and further from me; and, at last, I could perceive her to take pins out of her pocket to prick me if I should touch her again — which seeing I did forbear, and was glad I did spy her design. And then I fell to gaze upon another pretty maid in a pew close to me, and she on me; and I did go about to take her by the hand, which she suffered a little and then withdrew. So the sermon ended, and the church broke up, and my amours ended also.”

(Through the 1910s, hatpins were used for a similar purpose.)


Another (literally) striking aspect of the diary is the casual attitude toward physical violence. He routinely complains about injuring himself while beating his employees.

“I sent my boy home for some papers, where, he staying longer than I would have him, and being vexed at the business and to be kept from my fellows in the office longer than was fit, I become angry, and boxed my boy when he came, that I do hurt my thumb so much, that I was not able to stir all the day after, and in great pain.”

“I bade  Will get me a rod, and he and I called the boy up to one of the upper rooms of the Comptroller’s house towards the garden, and there I reckoned all his faults, and whipped him soundly, but the rods were so small that I fear they did not much hurt to him, but only to my arm, which I am already, within a quarter of an hour, not able to stir almost.”

He has a similar approach to his wife. After giving her a black eye, he does admit to being “vexed at my heart to think what I had done, for she was forced to lay a poultice or something to her eye all day, and is black, and the people of the house observed it.” It’s unclear how much of the vexation is due to the black eye and how much is due to the servants noticing.

He married her when he was 22 and she was 14. In the early years, he discusses the pleasant times they have talking, singing, walking, and “sporting.” As time goes on he more often complains about her requests for money.

At one point she gives him a letter asking for him to hire her a female companion so she won’t be so lonely during the day while he’s gone (working/drinking/wenching). He burns the first copy without reading it. When she reads him a second copy, he’s afraid it will become an embarrassment to him. What’s a husband to do? Destroy her documents:

“She now read it, and it was so piquant, and wrote in English, and most of it true, of the retiredness of her life, and how unpleasant it was; that being wrote in English, and so in danger of being met with and read by others, I was vexed at it, and desired her and then commanded her to tear it. When she desired to be excused it, I forced it from her, and tore it, and withal took her other bundle of papers from her, and leapt out of the bed and in my shirt clapped them into the pocket of my breeches, that she might not get them from me, and having got on my stockings and breeches and gown, I pulled them out one by one and tore them all before her face, though it went against my heart to do it, she crying and desiring me not to do it, but such was my passion and trouble to see the letters of my love to her . . . to be joyned with a paper of so much disgrace to me and dishonour, if it should have been found by any body.”

“Though it went against my heart to do it.” Why do it, then? Just the kind of stupid prideful argument most of us have had, taken too far? Or to be sure she knows her place? Much more on the scene here.

The scene reminded me of literature-class debates about The Taming of the Shrew. Surely Shakespeare didn’t really mean the happy ending (Katherina abandons her pride and submits to her husband’s every whim) unironically? He wasn’t really celebrating the breaking of a woman’s will, was he? After reading this passage, written about 70 years after The Taming of the Shrew, I find it a lot more likely that the answer is no. A 17th-century audience may have just found this good comedy.


I worked in a jail, right? I’ve heard people talk about bad stuff they’ve done.

What feels disturbing about this one is that he feels like part of my tribe. He’s super into books and playing the flute. He gets all excited about practicing his multiplication tables when he realizes it will help him find errors in the books at work. This is the kind of person I might well have been friends with.


I come away with both a sense of disappointment about human nature (this is how powerful people treat less powerful people if they can get away with it) and also a sense of progress.

If it’s no longer acceptable in developed countries to beat your employees until your arm is sore, if destroying someone else’s documents is now considered abuse rather than a husband’s right— maybe there’s hope.

One of the main reasons animal advocacy doesn’t appeal to me at an intuitive level is a sense that the power imbalance here is eternal and intractable. The economic change involved would be staggering. To teach my children that animals are not there for us to use would require a lot more critical reading of most of our books. (“Why is there a pig on Old MacDonald’s farm?”) In short, it wouldn’t be easy.

But the idea that Pepys’ wife could earn her own money or choose her own friends was likewise unthinkable to him in 1663. A lot has changed, and it wasn’t easy.

Maybe someday my meals will seem as archaic and barbaric as the dinners Pepys describes:
“a dish of marrow bones; a leg of mutton; a loin of veal; a dish of fowl, three pullets, and two dozen of larks all in a dish; a great tart, a neat’s tongue, a dish of anchovies; a dish of prawns and cheese.” I’m not sure what would need to change, but it seems less impossible than it used to.

Children’s lit as source for intuitions about animals?

People have wildly different intuitions about what kind of lives wild animals have and whether their lives contain more enjoyment or suffering.

I suspect that opinions about this vary a lot by how you view nature. Before the Romantic era, nature/wilderness was not seen as a charming place. Nature was what made you die of exposure or starvation.

I don’t know what people in a pre-industrial society would say if you ask what kind of life a mouse has. Maybe they’d think the question too silly to answer. But I suspect they wouldn’t have the intuition I had for most of my life, that being an animal would be kind of charming and fun.

Some of this is being raised in the era of the environmentalist movement, with its emphasis on the beauty and wonder of nature and the importance of preserving habitats so that wild animals can do their thing.

But In raising kids, I keep noticing another influence: almost all the depictions of animals they see are cute anthropomorphized ones.  There are old Aesop-type animal stories with anthropomorphized animals that talk to each other, but the genre really expanded in the 20th century, starting with Beatrix Potter’s 1902 The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The illustrations make the depictions especially salient.

(There’s a whole other topic of how farms and farm animals are depicted  which is only on old-fashioned non-industrial farms run by the like of Old MacDonald — but I’ll stick to wild animals here.)

In many books the animals are just stand-ins for humans: think Goodnight Moon or The Berenstain Bears where the characters live in houses and go to school. But even the ones where animals do animal activities leave out most of the things that might be unpleasant for actual animals, like starvation or being eaten. The Very Hungry Caterpillar‘s only problem is a stomachache after eating too many pickles and cupcakes.

Another factor is that children’s books are designed to be read at bedtime, so a large portion of them end with the characters going happily to sleep. My favorite cozification of animals is Ashley Wolf’s illustration of the Raffi song “Baby Beluga”, where the (fish-eating) whales snuggle fish as we read

When it’s dark, you’re home and fed
Curl up snug in your water bed.

So naturally kids conclude that wild animals have charming, pleasant lives.

These animals aren’t living in a dirty hole getting rained on without enough to eat; they’re nice middle-class animals. And we definitely don’t talk about r-selection.

Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Two Bad Mice

Layers of animal advocacy

I’ve been reading a lot about animal advocacy lately and thinking about layers of it. I’ve been vegetarian and nearly-vegan in the past but currently am doing nothing at all to help animals. I’m trying to think about which levels make most sense, and trying not to be too motivated in my reasoning.

Some caveats:
Other people have thought about this way more than I have, and this is my incomplete attempt to grasp the basics.

This focuses on animal suffering, not environmental impact. These sometimes point in the same direction (beans are a low-suffering and low-impact food) and sometimes in opposite directions (beef is better than other meats for animal suffering, because one steer provides so much meat, but worse for carbon emissions). I’m not too bothered about the emissions, because going vegan is estimated to save 1.5 tons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gasses a year, which costs only a few dollars to offset.) But there are other worries like antibiotic overuse.

This doesn’t get into how to compare animal advocacy with other causes you might work on.

Some stages one might go through:

  • Animals don’t want to die. We shouldn’t kill them. (This was my basic viewpoint during the 10 years I was vegetarian.)
  • Cows and chickens suffer to make milk and eggs, too. In fact, egg production probably causes more suffering than most types of meat. So you should be vegan.
  • If animals have a net positive life, it might be good to raise them even though you then slaughter them. Pastured cattle seem to have pretty good lives (though hens in battery cages seem to have really bad lives), so certain kinds of meat might be okay.
  • Advocating for change matters way more than what you personally eat. Combing the cracker aisle for ones without any whey powder is a ridiculously bad use of time and attention, particularly given that the market for milk is pretty inelastic (meaning it doesn’t change that much based on small consumer decisions.) Whereas advocating for wider changes, like getting your state to ban the cruelest farming practices, is far more effective. Paying more for pasture-raised meat or cage-free eggs is just buying your own purity when you could be doing something more effective with the money, like funding advocacy. Personal diet is basically a distraction.
  • We shouldn’t just advocate for incremental change; we should aim for a world in which animals are treated like they matter. This is like advocating for treating slaves nicely rather than abolishing slavery.[1] You can’t advocate for a constituency while simultaneously eating their corpses. Also, once you start thinking of animals as beings who matter it is seriously horrifying, rather than enjoyable, to eat their bodies.
  • And what about wild animals? Even if we didn’t directly cause their suffering, it’s probably still pretty miserable to always be scared, cold, and hungry and to eventually get eaten by something bigger than you. And there are something like 50 times more wild birds and mammals than farmed animals (not even counting wild fish, reptiles, etc.) Some farming practices might be better or worse; like grass-fed beef might be better because fewer mice and other small critters will live on pasture. But in general a habitat that houses fewer of one kind of wild animal will house more of another, and it seems super difficult to figure out which direction is more helpful.
  • Again, look to the big picture of society rather than personal choices.Things we might do in the future, like terraforming, could affect far more animals than exist today. Getting society to generally care about the welfare of all animals, farmed and wild, is the best goal. If people care, they will bother to do better research on this stuff, and once we know more about the results of our actions we can make more humane choices.
  • You can’t build a coherent movement and get society to think of animals as people rather than commodities without also having the lower layers. So it still matters what you eat.
  • Widespread elimination of animal foods seems really unlikely; the people I’ve met who think vegetarianism or veganism will sweep the planet seem pretty out-of-touch to me. Maybe a movement for animals is better off advocating moderation, like reducetarianism and humane treatment or meat replacements, than abolition.
  • I’ve seen a lot of sketchy logic for both points, but I believe some effectiveness-minded animal advocates have looked at the history of various social movements and have better information here than I’ve found.

[1] Except the New York Manumission Society was formed partly of slaveowners, including the founder. They were successful in phasing out slavery from the state of New York.