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HOW TO LOVE ANIMALS in a Human-Shaped World by Henry Mance book review

  • Written by  Lucy Kehoe
  • Published in Books
HOW TO LOVE ANIMALS in a Human-Shaped World by Henry Mance book review
02 Jul
by Henry Mance • Jonathan Cape

Do you love animals? Most of us would say yes. We adore pets, enjoy videos of pandas rolling down ramps and get angry about orangutans in Borneo grieving for forests lost to logging.

In his debut non-fiction work, Financial Times chief feature writer Henry Mance puts our infatuation to the test and holds up a magnifying glass to the countless industries and experiences that depend on interspecies relationships, weighing up our treatment of animals against our appreciation. In short, can we ever come to terms with animal suffering and – if not – why do we continue to not only allow it, but sustain it?

This is a broad-ranging book that pinballs from arguably ‘necessary’ evils – farming and animal testing – to pet ownership, rewilding and hunting. Mance pulls on overalls for a stint at the abattoir, jumps into the mud to try pig farming and even picks up a gun with deer in his sights to examine the ethics and sustainability of our interspecies interactions.

Shock factor drives the book’s argument that we’re failing our fellow planet dwellers. Chapter-by-chapter, Mance offers up vignettes of the unintentional, and intentional, cruelties of humans against animals. We run Frankensteinian farm practices, breeding pigs so grotesquely large they suffocate their own piglets. Our beloved French bulldogs can barely breathe thanks to extended pedigree breeding. We’ll happily pay to watch rocking elephants in cramped zoo enclosures but won’t spend a penny on protecting their actual habitats. His examples aren’t drawn from the very worst of the system: these persecutions happen on British soil, in institutions that meet accepted standards. Zoos, in particular, are condemned – the statistics on how few provide real value for conservation efforts weighed against the damage captivity does to the animals is eye-opening. Essentially, this is PETA’s manifesto rewritten to inspire a less radical audience. But unlike PETA, Mance sees a far more damaging undercurrent than explicit cruelty. His accusation is that we already knew all of this. The statistics might be shocking, but they’re not novel. We simply refuse to acknowledge our impact on animals in the Anthropocene.

The fishing chapter is particularly unsavoury: between 800 billion and 2.3 trillion wild fish are killed every year; one tenth of that catch is credited to just 12 giant fishing companies. And humane slaughter? Let’s just say that we don’t extend our fears of animal suffering to marine wildlife: fish are crushed to death over a period of hours in trawler nets; unexpected decompression can cause swim bladder explosions; most are left to suffocate.

Hunting gets an easier ride than you may expect. After attempting both, the writer elevates ecology-driven deer and boar hunting as a necessary sacrifice for protecting wider environments. Even reviled trophy hunters come off better than you may think: after all, they pay thousands of dollars to African hunting reserves for the privilege of shooting ‘charismatic’ fauna. Their contribution to species protection arguably outweighs a once-yearly petition signature.

As a features writer at a prestigious publication, Mance’s writing is sharp and full of wit, as you would expect, but there’s an all-too-often pivot to outlandish schemes and characters – those trying to change our relationship with animals through science, tech or surreal philosophies. At times, these far-out alternatives feel like a distraction, although elsewhere they’re a welcome relief from the barbarism.

Inevitably, Mance’s answers for improving our relationship with animals are substandard: he searches but struggles to find concrete solutions. Each chapter further highlights the fact that our very system of living is fundamentally broken. Conclusions are borrowed from old arguments: give up meat, dairy and seafood, try to realign yourself with nature once more, shrink your footprint and call out unethical animal control in our wider community (reluctant vegans might be buoyed by the tentative argument for bivalves remaining on the menu; scientists think mussels, oysters and clams don’t have the capacity to feel pain, making them one of the few creatures we can eat with a clear conscience).

The overriding accusation in this book is our hypocrisy: we love our pets, we take joy in frolicking spring lambs, but we knowingly turn a blind eye to animal suffering in industrial farming, fishing, and for the expense of our entertainment and ease of living.

We tell stories and believe narratives we know to be inconclusive or untrue. Mance couldn’t live with the guilt – and he wants to know if you feel the same. 

Does this book offer anything new? That depends on the reader’s background. Those clued up on the current environmental catastrophe will find much of the shock-factor stats unsurprising. But that’s almost the point – it’s our wilful blindness and refusal to accept obvious problems that grinds Mance’s gears. For the writer’s bread-and-butter broadsheet readers, How to Love Animals may well prove to be a wake-up call; there are more than a few references to millionaires spending big on conservation and the benefits that doing so would have for Britain’s wildlife.

If nothing else, this is a panoramic overview of our current relationship with those with whom we share our planet and a foundation on which to consider both their future, and ours, in a warming climate. Mance thinks it’s time to fess up to our impact and enact restraint. Only then can we protect the animals we claim to love. 

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