Sunday, March 25, 2007

Elvis is in the House! Elvis is in the House!

Mirroring Our Humanity: An Interview with Jon Katz
March 6, 2007

Author Jon Katz with his rescued cow Elvis.
(Photo by Peter Hanks)

Journalist and novelist Jon Katz is perhaps best known for his acclaimed non-fiction books that detail his relationship with the dogs who have been a part of his family, including "A Dog Year," "The Dogs of Bedlam Farm," "A Good Dog," and more. Katz has also been a reporter and editor at major newspapers such as The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Boston Globe, and was executive producer of the CBS Morning News.

A supporter of The Humane Society of the United States' work to protect farm animals, Katz shares his farm with numerous rescued animals. Below, he shares his thoughts on farm animals with the director of The HSUS Factory Farming Campaign, Paul Shapiro.

Paul Shapiro: At what point did you become interested in animals and helping to protect them?

Jon Katz: I've always had animals—dogs especially—but until I bought an old Civil-War era family farm in upstate New York in 2003 and got some sheep, cows, donkeys, chickens (and dogs, of course) I wasn't as conscious of these wonderful creatures as I am now. Far from the political and media sensibilities of urban and suburban animals, these are animals we drive by but often don't know. That was the case with me. The more I know about farm animals, the more I see that there is much more going on in their lives than many of us think. They are capable of great attachment and affection, are trainable and have quite distinct personalities.

PS: You're most well-known for your writings about dogs. What led to your interest in farm animals?

JK: First, I began herding sheep with my border collies. That led me to buying Bedlam Farm. I've got four dogs, two steers and a cow now, and adopted a lonely donkey named Carol. Now I have four donkeys. You see them differently when you live with them and care for them, of

I have a chicken, Henrietta, who likes to ride on the backs of donkeys and cows. Elvis, my giant steer, loves to nuzzle and drool on people.
course. I never dreamed that I would bring a 2,400-pound Swiss Steer a candy bar every day or that he would rest his head on my shoulder while I scratched his nose. Nor did I know how loving my donkeys were, or how spiritual, or how individualistic and alert sheep can be.

I have a rooster named Winston, who injured his leg protecting his hens from a hawk, and he is a dutiful, gentle and dignified creature. I am fond of him.

PS: How has your relationship with Elvis, Henrietta, and the other farm animals with whom you live affected the way you think about cows, chickens, and farm animals in general?

JK: The vet came recently to treat one of my donkeys for a lung infection, and it was touching to see how the other donkeys gathered around Lulu, who was sick, and nuzzled her while she was examined and got her shots. They were clearly protecting her and concerned about her.

They form relationships, attach to people, are quite fond of one another and aware of each other. My barn cat Mother, who is ferocious to rodents and birds, is fond of one of my chickens, and sleeps next to her at night.

All of my animals are gentle with people. The better treated they are, the calmer and more affectionate they can be.

PS: For years, you've written about how individual dogs have transformed your life. How do you see farm animals' personalities in comparison with the dogs you've come to know?

JK: Dogs are much more interwoven with the lives of humans. They know humans well and understand them and have been living with them for thousands of years. Cows and other farm animals don't usually get that opportunity. If you live with them, you see that almost all of them have distinct personalities, and differing personas. Some like to come right up to people, others are more cautious. I have a chicken, Henrietta, who likes to ride on the backs of donkeys and cows.

Few people, including me, are aware of the chilling and brutal conditions under which so many farm animals spend their lives.

Elvis, my giant steer, loves to nuzzle and drool on people. When he sees somebody at the gate he comes thundering over. When I come to the gate, he comes running to see me, and we often hang out together. He is a good soul, gentle and curious and affectionate. I have trained him to come, and to stay, feats of which I am particularly proud. I ask many of my farmer friends how long Elvis will live, but they all say the same thing: They don't really know, as they have seen few steers [live] past the age of two or three.

I have one ewe who loves crackers and loves to have her head scratched. She loves to hang out with the donkeys and is very attached to Jeannette, my oldest donkey. The donkeys are extraordinarily intuitive, loving and spiritual creatures.

These animals are less domesticated and I wouldn't want people to think of them as household pets. But they have strong personalities. I believe they show playfulness, love, anxiety and a lot of animal and human attachment. At times, they radiate patience and contentment, and quite a bit of resilience.

PS: Do you believe most people are aware of the common practices on factory farms today? And how do you think most people would react if they were able to interact with farm animals on a one-to-one basis?

JK: Few people, including me, are aware of the chilling and brutal conditions under which so many farm animals spend their lives. If not for The Humane Society of the United States, I would not know. If I didn't have cows and sheep and chickens, I would perhaps not be as sensitive to it. My animals are fond of me, and I love many of them, and feel strongly that there is no reason to treat them so cruelly and inhumanely.

I have enormous respect and compassion for farmers, and the cruel treatment of animals is not common to farmers, or to farming. Quite the opposite. The level of scope and cruelty is new, and I believe it is completely unacceptable to the vast majority of Americans. I talk to animal lovers all the time and very few know about the conditions detailed by The HSUS and other animal advocacy groups.

I understand that, in our society, people need to make money and have a right to be profitable. But profit is not incompatible with mercy and decency.

Animals mirror our own humanity and morality. The better we treat treat animals, the better we are as human beings, the more self-aware, the more human, the more ethical.

PS: Why do you think it's so important that Congress pass the Farm Animal Stewardship Purchasing Act?

JK: Animals mirror our own humanity and morality. We judge ourselves by how we treat these often helpless and dependent creatures. The better we treat animals, the better we are as human beings, the more self-aware, the more human, the more ethical. No benevolent society would chain millions of animals up their entire lives and deny them any mercy, pleasure or contentment. I also believe that treating animals well has enormous implications for the rest of society: The better we treat them, the better we treat each other. The more callous we are to them, the easier it is to be callous to one another. There is no reason to treat animals so brutally. It is a stain on our humanity.

PS: You've mentioned that you'd like your writing to help improve the lives of factory-farmed animals. What do you think are some of the best ways to work toward that end?

JK: We need to reconnect with nature, I believe. We need to spend more time with animals, know more about them, get in touch with animals and the animal parts of ourselves. A culture as estranged from the natural world as most of us are—as I was before I was fortunate enough to get this farm—is by nature alienated. It is difficult for me to simply to go about the business of life knowing there are millions of creatures, all of us sharing this planet, who spend their lives shackled or confined in filthy and cruel conditions just so we can buy a few different kinds of sandwiches more cheaply. This is not the act of a moral society, as we like to think we are.

©2007 Peter Hanks (Used with permission from Jon Katz)
Originally printed by the Humane Society of the United States


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