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Animals' Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild

Animals' Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild

by Barbara J. King
Animals' Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild

Animals' Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild

by Barbara J. King

Hardcover(First Edition)

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“King’s Animals’ Best Friends is the most comprehensive exploration I’ve read of the complex relationship between the human and nonhuman, full of great insights and practical information.”—Jeff VanderMeer, New York Times Book Review, “By the Book”

Finalist for the 2021 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature

As people come to understand more about animals’ inner lives—the intricacies of their thoughts and the emotions that are expressed every day by whales and cows, octopus and mice, even bees—we feel a growing compassion, a desire to better their lives. But how do we translate this compassion into helping other creatures, both those that are and are not our pets? Bringing together the latest science with heartfelt storytelling, Animals’ Best Friends reveals the opportunities we have in everyday life to help animals in our homes, in the wild, in zoos, and in science labs, as well as those considered to be food.

Barbara J. King, an expert on animal cognition and emotion, guides us on a journey both animal and deeply human. We meet cows living relaxed lives in an animal sanctuary—and cows with plastic portals in their sides at a university research station. We observe bison free-roaming at Yellowstone National Park and chimpanzees confined to zoos. We learn with King how to negotiate vegetarian preferences in omnivore restaurants. We experience the touch of a giant Pacific octopus tasting King’s skin with one of his long, neuron-rich arms. We reflect on animal testing as King shares her own experience as the survivor of a particularly nasty cancer. And in a moment all too familiar to many of us, we recover from a close encounter with two spiders in the home.

This is a book not of shaming and limitation, but of uplift and expansion. Throughout this journey, King makes no claims of personal perfection. Though an animal expert, she is just like the rest of us: on a journey still, learning each day how to be better, and do better, for animals. But as Animals’ Best Friends makes clear, challenging choices can bring deep rewards. By turning compassion into action on behalf of animals, we not only improve animals’ lives—we also immeasurably enrich our own.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226601489
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/23/2021
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 551,193
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

After twenty-eight years of teaching anthropology at the College of William and Mary, Barbara J. King retired early to become a science writer and public speaker. King’s work has been featured at Scientific American, Aeon, Undark, SAPIENS, NPR, the BBC, Times Literary Supplement, the World Science Festival, and the annual TED conference in Vancouver. Her TED talk on animal love and grief is available online at She lives in Wicomico, VA.

Read an Excerpt

“If you turn your back on these calves, they will mount you!” Standing in one of the cow barns at Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen in Upstate New York, I heard shelter director Susie Coston’s voice ring out through the warm August air. During Farm Sanctuary’s 2018 hoedown, an annual open-house weekend, Coston led a small group of invited speakers and our families around the property to meet some of the 735 resident animals. Calves who had been bottle fed at the sanctuary, like the one named Alexander Beans who reclined near me, often feel such warmth for people that they jump up and “embrace” a visitor in an excess of youthful exuberance. It’s meant well—but it can hurt, because at six months these calves may weigh over three hundred pounds.
Keeping my eyes open and my back unturned as I walked among the calves, I reached under a chin here and there to offer a caress. Eyes were upon me, and not just Coston’s: a cow called Bonnie stood just outside the barn door. Bonnie fixed a protective gaze on us visitors as we weaved among the youngsters. Famous in the world of rescued farm animals, Bonnie was born at a beef farm in Holland, New York. At four months old, her herd went up for sale when the farm owner died. A man soon showed up with a trailer to take away the cows, including Bonnie and her mother, to his own farm. The herd reacted with distress and fear.
Making a fateful decision, Bonnie bolted. She ran into nearby woods, and there she stayed for almost a year, an escapee who became known to local residents through brief glimpses and trail-cam images. Even at such a young age, Bonnie showed resourcefulness in surviving out in the forest, a wholly unfamiliar environment to her. Her most inspired choice was to join up with a herd of deer. Bonnie and the deer ate, slept, and traveled together. Trail-cam images show this wasn’t a lonely cow trailing haplessly after deer but a truly mutual acceptance. Whether Bonnie missed her mother we will never know, but through her wits, she found a new family for herself.
Bonnie’s second wise decision was to accept help from a human. Many local people admired Bonnie’s bold escape, but one woman named Becky went a step further and took action. Each day in the early morning, she walked out into the woods with a sled piled with food and bedding for Bonnie. Slowly, Bonnie came to trust her. In this way—surrounded by the bodily warmth of her deer companions and the kind caring of Becky—Bonnie survived a cold and snowy winter.
Forest living was not sustainable for Bonnie in the long term. The harsh winters were bad enough, but some local people considered her a pest and announced they would eat Bonnie if they could. The notion of this animal becoming a family’s supply of steak was too much for Coston and the Farm Sanctuary staff, who mounted a rescue. Twice the rescuers set out from Watkins Glen at 3:30 a.m. to be at the “breakfast spot” where Bonnie met Becky at 6:30. Twice Bonnie eluded capture. Her trust in Becky did not generalize to trust in other humans (with good reason). But gradually Bonnie became accustomed to entering a small corral constructed by the sanctuary team as a feeding area. On the third rescue attempt, rescuers darted Bonnie with a stronger sedative. That worked. Bonnie was transported back to Watkins Glen, where she permanently resides now. Gazing at Bonnie’s body posture and facial expression that August day, I could see for myself what a presence she has.
For so many of us who love animals, our dogs and cats, bunnies and ferrets, and snakes and fish are family members. We care for them through everyday acts of devotion to make their lives better. Opportunities to transform the lives of animals beyond our pets can be found, too, all around us; the trick is to uncover those opportunities and decide if we wish to act on them.
At Farm Sanctuary I used my sense of touch to soothe and be soothed by animals rescued from industrialized farms or other places where they had been abused or neglected. For two hours, animals of species whose thinking and feeling capacities I had written about for years snuffled, shuffled, and walked up to me—or sometimes away from me in a desire not to interact, as sanctuary residents are free to do. Unexpectedly, the strongest bond I felt was with a goat called Cynthia. A goat of the LaMancha breed, Cynthia responded blissfully when I stroked her head, neck, and chin; she turned firmly into my hand as a signal that I should not, please, think of stopping. Her former life on a Hudson Valley farm had been rough; according to Farm Sanctuary, she had arrived “lice-covered, anemic, weak, and quiet.” Eventually Cynthia recovered to become healthy, energetic, and in love with loving attention.
Like the cow Bonnie and the calf Alexander Beans who kindly did not mount me that morning, in sanctuary Cynthia has a life with a dual nature. She is recognized for the unique individual she is with all her moods, likes, and dislikes. Simultaneously she is a symbol of the powerful effect that compassionate action has on animal lives.
One morning just after Christmas 2017, thirteen elk fell through the ice into eight feet of frigid water in a reservoir near the Alpine Feed Ground, not far from Jackson, Wyoming. Morning commuters saw the herd suddenly go under. Stopping on the side of the road, a group of them mounted a rescue effort that soon came to include officials from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office.
One of the passersby who joined in, Dusty Jones, later spoke to the media about the event: “We began cutting a little path toward the shore so the animals could walk out but they were so cold they couldn’t move. That’s when we just started grabbing them and pulling them out.”
Video of the rescue shows a group of men tying ropes around a thrashing and obviously frightened elk cow in the water, then hauling her out. The men run after another elk, now free of the water, in order to remove the rescue rope from her neck before she flees. Powerful animals who may easily weigh five hundred pounds, elk cows are no easy force of nature to handle, especially when they are adrenalized by fear. The effort required courage and hard cooperative labor. All thirteen elk were rescued.
A month earlier and over eighty-five hundred miles away from Wyoming, a baby elephant fell into a well while trying to cross a river in the town of Thattekad in India’s state of Kerala. Just as with the elk, “regular people” and government officials came together to help, this time with the aid of a mechanical digger in a five-hour rescue operation. The elephant infant’s kin had crowded around in distress; when finally the baby was able to walk up an incline of soil packed down by the rescuers for this purpose, a joyful family reunion occurred. Parts of this rescue, too, were captured on video. At the end, as the little herd moves away to cross the river, one of the adult elephants turns around and calmly raises her trunk toward the rescuers, who ululate in celebration. Was the raised trunk a gesture of gratitude? Knowing what I do about elephants’ intelligence, I think it’s perfectly possible.
In any given week, stories about animal rescues go viral on the internet. Some are as large-scale and dramatic as the elk and elephant examples, as when hour-by-hour updates come in from teams trying to rescue whales in the ocean who become entangled in fishing equipment. Others are smaller-scale: a family chooses an elderly cat to bring home from the animal shelter, or a driver, already late for work, stops to move a turtle to safety from the middle of the road.
When we see animals in trouble, concern wells up in us. We may worry for our neighbor’s dog chained outside in subzero temperatures, a bored-looking gorilla at a zoo, or a wild orca population in grave danger of extinction. Our compassion may blossom for a truckload of chickens headed to slaughter or for a spider crushed by a friend just because he finds arachnids to be creepy. The contexts are almost endless, and while that reality is sad, it also creates space for action. As Hope Ferdowsian puts it in her book Phoenix Zones, when we allow ourselves to see the urgency in situations of suffering, we are given a chance to make a difference. In our everyday lives we constantly make choices that affect animals for good or ill. When we tune in to the animal lives threaded through our own, opportunities for positive outcomes expand and flourish. That process catches us up in a net of rewards: our world may transform as we see how animals rejoice in good days and endure bad ones; love their families and friends and grieve their losses; and struggle to overcome physical and emotional challenges. When each of us takes positive steps to help, the collective impact is enormous, an arc in which we strive to create a better world for animals.

Table of Contents

1 Cultivating Compassionate Action 1

2 Animals at Home 23

3 Animals in the Wild 57

4 Animals in Zoos 95

5 Animals on Our Plates 143

6 Animals in Research Labs 187

Epilogue 233

Acknowledgments 239

References (including Links to Video and Audio Clips) 241

Index 261

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