“The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional World of Farm Animals”
by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

Reviewed by Dan Balogh

Jeff Masson must be getting grief from all sides. After Masson co-wrote his best-selling “When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals,” circus enthusiasts, hunters, and all those who make a living or derive pleasure from animals in confinement, must have been up in arms, resentful of the guilt pangs Masson was helping bring to the surface. The release of “The Emperor’s Embrace: Reflections on Animal Families and Fatherhood” must have added to that.

One could assume, however, that his books on dogs (“Dogs Never Lie About Love: The Emotional World of Dogs”) and cats (“The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats: A Journey Into the Feline Heart”) were much more palatable to most people. After all, we love our pets like family members – so we know they have feelings, right? That’s a no-brainer.

But after lulling his audience into a false sense of security, Masson is back with what might turn out to be his most cathartic book yet – “The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional World of Farm Animals.” Why so cathartic? Because this one hits the reader on the gut level (literally). It deals not with the animals we glimpse in circuses or zoos, or the animals that sleep in our laps. Far from it. This book deals with the emotional lives of animals we know much more intimately – the ones we kill, then put into our mouths, chomp on, and swallow.

Basically, all animals (including us) have evolved in a given natural environment over millions of years to the point where we developed very specific instinctual behaviors that helped our species survive. Masson spends lots of time describing, in obvious loving detail, many of those behaviors, including the incredible love mothers have for their children, no matter what the species. Performing these behaviors makes us all feel good, which indicates to us that we’re on the right track (furthermore, when something doesn’t feel good, we know we’re off track). The problem is, today’s farm animals live in completely perverted environments than those in which they evolved. And because of this, they are routinely denied the opportunity to exercise those urges (like chickens unable to take dust baths, or cows unable to nurse their young). Consequently, they are denied the pleasure and happiness that accompany those behaviors. And this continues throughout their entire lives.

Why haven’t farm animals adapted to domestication? Because, according to Masson, evolutionary changes in animals occur on the order of hundreds of thousands of years. But their environment, through domestication on farms, has changed much more swiftly – on the order of only thousands of years. Evolution simply hasn’t had time to catch up. Pigs, cows and chickens in the year 200,000 A.D. (!) might be adjusted to current conditions, but until then these animals continue to suffer, their evolutionary needs continually ignored simply for our gustatory pleasure. And while the worst offenders are the factory farms, any animal kept outside its natural environment is subject to the same problems.

The final irony is that even those animals who are allowed a life as natural as possible on the more enlightened farms, are killed much sooner than they would have died naturally – simply because we like how they taste. As Masson says, it’s disingenuous to claim that these animals were well cared for when we all know the ultimate goal is their exploitation (no one would bother otherwise). Imagine the same argument being used for our beloved cat or dog – “Well, yeah, I did end up killing Snuggles 12 years before she would have died in order to make this cat stew, but at least I allowed her a very good 1-year life.” I don’t think so.

So why the difference in the way we think of cats versus pigs? Are cats smarter? Not at all. And even if they were, is intelligence the standard by which we choose to eat or not to eat? Do we eat only dumb animals?

Masson ponders these questions and many more in the 250 pages of this powerful book. Each animal (pig, chicken, cow, goat/sheep, duck) is given its own chapter where facts, history and anecdotes are powerfully balanced. For instance, we learn the following about pigs: they’re cleaner than dogs and easier to housetrain, of all animals their flesh is most like ours (something to think about when we bite into our next ham sandwich), they are incredibly friendly and will curiously follow us all day. But how does Masson describe a pig on a factory farm? “The pig’s life has been distorted, perverted, deformed, contorted beyond recognition. They are not allowed to live any part of their lives in the natural world outside. They never see the sun.” And, unfortunately, the assessment is basically the same for the other animals whose emotional lives are explored so poignantly in this book – all sentient beings who have wonderful characteristics all their own, many identical to ours, like the love we have for our children. The discussion, at times, can be brutal because the truth can be that way, but Masson, who is optimistic about current trends toward animals, does a superb job of balancing the good with the bad.

Some of this material has been covered elsewhere. For instance, Karen Davis’s superb “Poisoned Chickens Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry” will teach you more about the extraordinary life of chickens (and the cruelty inflicted upon them) than this book. But Masson’s book might be the only one available that provides a comprehensive view of all farm animals. In fact, the reason Masson wrote the book was his impatience with being sent to the children’s section whenever he asked a bookstore employee where he could find books on farm animals!

It’s easy to remain despondent when one considers the fact that 10 billion animals (not counting fish or other aquatic creatures) are killed for human consumption in just the United States every year – especially when it’s been clear for hundreds of years that we don’t need to eat animals to survive (vegetarians and vegans have lived long healthy lives throughout recorded history). And mounting evidence shows that vegans live longer and healthier than others (just don’t expect the cow, pig, chicken and dairy industries to agree). As Gandhi said – first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight with you, then you win. Currently, almost no one is ignoring the fact that animals have emotions. Most folks are no longer laughing. Many folks are fighting over it, with some battles being won and some being lost. Clearly, however, the cycle is closer to the end than the beginning. Surely there’s room for optimism, and Masson shows his own by closing the book with many ways the reader can help the plight of farm animals – beyond becoming a vegetarian or a vegan.

At one point, Masson quotes W. H. Hudson, author of the celebrated “Green Mansions” and one of the world’s great writers on birds. Hudson tells the story of another lover of birds who left behind the bustle of English society to settle down on the dreary eastern coast of England because “it was the only spot in England in which, sitting in his own room, he could listen to the cry of the pink-footed goose.” Said Hudson in response to hearing this, “Only those who have lost their souls will fail to understand.” The same can be said of the lessons Masson teaches us in this book.

Dan Balogh is a frequent contributor to VegSource.com and a member of EarthSave® New York City. He works full-time as a systems engineer in the telecommunications industry. He and his wife have been vegans for nearly three years; their kitty Lulu happily approves.