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Summer 2007 - Act•ionLine

by Lee Hall | Summer 2007

Book Review: Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras

Do badgers plan funerals? Why do zebras have stripes? Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras: A Menagerie of 100 Favorite Animals (Ballantine, 2006) puts a creative twist on the traditional encyclopedia concept by discussing such questions in a conversational tone rather than the language of scientific certainty. Here we find a rare glimpse of the insights we could have had about other beings’ lives had we not diverted so much of our energies into controlling them.

Notably, Masson thinks we might regain such insights, and elsewhere has written:

I believe that in 500 years (maybe less) people will look back on us and wonder about many things. No doubt behavior we consider normal today will inspire horror in our more enlightened successors. War, for example. But I also think they may believe our disdain of insects is incomprehensible. Perhaps they will marvel that we could so easily cut down trees and perhaps even flowers.1

Altruistic Armadillos considers animals in groups -- by species -- and yet manages to convey a sense of their individuality, as the author deliberately sets out to counter the tradition in which experts impart information, but not feelings. And what other encyclopedia has ever mentioned, let alone explored, a beetle’s right to existence? In an alphabetically formatted tour that that would intrigue and delight all but the most cynical of readers, Masson gets up to the nests and down to the burrows, supplying anecdotes to illustrate the psychological experiences of other animals. Just as intriguing, if not more so, are the author’s sensitive interpretations of these anecdotes. Throughout the work, Masson’s own feelings come through, and with them come candid descriptions of personal growth.

The book’s gentleness in describing other beings suggests that it’s impossible to really represent them, and that it’s best to discover how to let them represent themselves. Masson declares a feeling of “complete respect” for bald eagles, whom we have utterly failed to understand. To talk wisely of other animals is a paradoxical task, Masson explains, for knowing them as individuals has historically involved their habituation to our presence. And we have to learn, says Masson, to leave other species alone: “I don’t see anything we can give a free-living animal that could possibly replace the life evolution designed.”

The armadillos, we learn, can’t be forced to breed in captivity. Oddly enough they’ve been forced to perform in races; Masson wryly notes the lack of evidence that the armadillos share our enthusiasm for such sport.

Speaking of Australian magpies, Masson writes, "I long ago decided that buying birds and keeping them in a cage was not something I wanted to do.” Caged birds, writes Masson, live “as diminished prisoners in an alien world.” Regarding birds enlisted to hunt, Masson writes that the birds, taken to the site masked, “are not cooperating--they have no choice--and the training invariably involves food rewards."

The factual information selected for this book is exquisite. Bats, we learn, can hear an insect walking on a leaf. Prairie dogs have distinct calls to warn of various dangers, including one call when a human is approaching, and another call when a human approaches with a gun.

Jeffrey Masson

By the time we get to “bison,” the book’s theme is clear: Valuing others without desiring to use or have them is the hardest thing for humans to learn. Bison have been wiped out by the same “curious hatred” that decimated pre-colonial peoples. But then there was the pet buffalo who killed the Idaho rancher who owned and rode the animal. Recounting the story, Masson reflects critically on our quest to make other animals like us and to transform them into our companions.

In a detailed chapter on silk production, Masson reports the silkworm breeder’s claim to treat these caterpillars as “royalty” -- not due to any affection for them, observes Masson, but because they are a valuable commodity. The extraction of pearls from oysters is explained in vivid detail; we also learn that Masson’s father was a pearl merchant.

Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras is the perfect pick for a budding animal-rights activist or those who enjoy linguistics and creative questions. The seasoned activist too will find this book valuable, because it sustains so gracefully the theme that’s surely the core of animal rights theory. For the real point of animal rights is not the end of animal suffering; and the challenges we face would be only partly resolved by declining to consider animals our property. The positive core of animal rights is the interest of other animals in simply being permitted to live unmolested.

I contacted Jeffrey Masson to ask, now that the book has been out several months, what discussions have arisen. Has the book’s message been universally understood?

If so, not all readers have wanted to accept it.

 “Some readers have been infuriated by the book,” Masson said.  “They have objected to what they call the book’s ‘animal rights slant,’ finding it positively astonishing that I would ask that animals be left alone to live the lives for which they have evolved. They were particularly appalled that I would make these comments about pearl oysters and silk worms -- for god’s sake, as they put it, as if they were living creatures worthy of our concern!”  

“I find it equally astonishing,” said Masson, “that anyone who has ever observed these animals could think otherwise.”  

 And this is precisely why Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras is so important. It shows much richer our lives and thoughts could be if we would consciously strive to acknowledge other animals as having value on their own terms.

Lee Hall

Act•ionLine Summer 2007

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