Author, filmmaker and parenting educator Amy Hatkoff recently turned her attention to the plight of farmed animals in the United States. Her new book, The Inner World of Farm Animals: Their Amazing Intellectual, Emotional, and Social Capacities, is part coffee table book, part scientific treatise and part love story. Amy graciously took some time out from her busy touring schedule to answer our questions.
SuperVegan: Hi, Amy. Thanks so much for talking with SuperVegan!
Your background is in family and children’s issues. What made you decide to write a book about farm animals?
Amy Hatkoff: I was riding the Third Avenue bus in NYC and saw a sign about farm animals. I don’t remember exactly what the sign was, but it depicted their suffering. I felt like I’d been struck by a lightning bolt. I had an overwhelming feeling that I had to speak up for farm animals, showing how aware and capable they are. I’d done something similar for babies in my book You Are My World: How a Parent’s Love Shapes a Baby’s Mind. However, I didn’t really know very much about farm animals and was secretly hoping the idea would go away. But the vision held on tight and kept tugging at me. So as soon as I finished a project, I got on the Internet and began my exploration into The Inner World of Farm Animals.
SV: The book is filled with beautiful photos. Did you have a chance to meet many of the animals who appear in it?
AH: One month before my deadline, I visited Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary in upstate New York. There I had the amazing experience of meeting several of the animals pictured in the book, including Dylan, Olivia, Ralphie, Elvis, Jack, Felix and Albie. I also had the pleasure of meeting Bob Esposito, whose photographs are featured prominently in the book. Bob is a genius at capturing the personalities and souls of the animals. I have since been back to Woodstock and have visited Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen. Being with the animals is a profound experience. I hope more people get to visit a sanctuary and spend time with these amazing creatures.
SV: There are five main chapters in the book, each of which is devoted to different types of animals: chickens; geese, ducks and turkeys; cows; pigs; and sheep and goats. Did you have a favorite animal prior to writing the book? Did that change based on what you learned or experienced?
AH: It’s hard to pick favorites. It’s sort of like asking a parent to pick their favorite child! I will say that I immediately fell in love with the faces of the sheep. I am now deeply in love with the calming presence of the goats. And I was so moved by the friendliness and personalities of the turkeys I met. I was also amazed and soothed by the peaceful, gentle nature of the cows. And I was most surprised by the cuddliness of the chickens and what I learned about their intelligence.
SV: The anecdotes from the farm sanctuaries and the rescuers are wonderful! And there’s a lot of information from scientists and researchers, much of which will be new to a lot of people. For example, I didn’t know that chicks communicate with their mother and siblings before they hatch. I also loved learning that ducks have regional accents and that male sheep prefer mates who resemble their mother! What was the most surprising thing you discovered while doing your research? The most disturbing? Heartwarming?
AH: I think the complexity of the intelligence of the chickens was the most surprising to me. I was shocked to find out that they can count and use geometric principles, to name just a few of their capacities! I think the most disturbing thing is that, with scientific confirmation of how sentient, capable and aware all these animals are, it becomes even more unbearable to think about what happens to them on a daily basis on a factory farm. On a lighter note, one of the most heartwarming stories in the book is that of Debbie, a cow who fell to the ground because of her crippling arthritis. She was surrounded by 13 of her bovine friends, who mooed until help came. Sadly, Debbie had to be put to sleep. The cows then laid on her grave and mooed and cried. Then they disappeared into the forest for two days, not even coming out for their grains. The book is filled with stories like this, which show the loyalty, personalities, emotions and devotion of these animals.
SV: Some of the information wasn’t surprising at all: The mere presence of a human of whom a cow is frightened lowers milk production by 10 percent, and stressed pigs are two and a half times less likely to become pregnant. What do you say to people who doubt that animals have thoughts and emotions?
AH: I think the information in the book is very convincing. I was extremely careful not to make any claims that weren’t based on evidence. I interviewed scientists around the world who were documenting the emotional, cognitive and social capacities of farm animals. I read a huge number of scientific articles and books and was very careful about accurately synthesizing and translating this information. This was a painstaking process; I didn’t want anyone to say I was anthropomorphising. I think the facts are very powerful and will hopefully speak for themselves.
Sam Gosling, PhD, speaks about the kinds of reactions he gets when he shares his research demonstrating that animals have personalities. Some people say to him, “You’re crazy! Of course, they have personalities.” And others say, “Are you crazy? There’s no way animals have personalities.” I think it can be hard to change people’s minds, but I hope the information in the book sheds new light on farm animals.
SV: You mention that you visited Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary. Did you visit egg-laying and dairy facilities, too? How about slaughterhouses?
AH: I haven’t been to any egg-laying or dairy facilities or slaughterhouses. I think it would be excruciating to visit those places. I have to brace myself to watch the footage of them captured in the many powerful documentaries. I have the deepest admiration for the people who do undercover work and bring these images to the public view.
SV: You say several times that farm animals are social beings who form close bonds. You also write: “…as we discover who these animals are, we will be inspired to become part of the growing movement to treat them with much deserved compassion and respect. By exploring their inner world, we will hopefully be moved to push practices forward that are more ethical and humane.” What kinds of practices are you referring to?
AH: I am referring to the cruel practices that are inflicted on animals on factory farms. I am particularly thinking about the three cruelest: gestation crates, veal crates and battery cages, in which pigs, calves and chickens, respectively, are confined in spaces too small to move or turn around. While my hope is for a world in which animals are not killed, in the meantime, my hope is that they are protected from inhumane treatment. Their beaks and tails are routinely cut off; their teeth are ground down; they are castrated without anesthesia. Most animals never see the light of day and live in filthy conditions. They suffer physically and emotionally on a daily basis. They also suffer intellectually, from lack of stimulation and from not being able to live out their lives in any kind of natural way.
SV: Former vice president Al Gore asked you to develop a plan for the National Parenting Education program. A lot of people take issue with the fact that he omitted animal agriculture’s role in climate change from An Inconvenient Truth. In the book, you write, “Recognizing their abilities and becoming aware of their sentience may be another ‘inconvenient truth.’ ” Can you clarify what you mean?
AH: Yes. Basically I was borrowing his phrase to address how the awareness of who animals are hopefully brings about change in one’s lifestyle and choices. This awareness makes us think about the food we eat and the clothes we wear. These changes are often inconvenient and take thought, planning and energy. They necessitate breaking patterns and habits and being more conscious, which is not always easy.
SV: You write, “Knowledge is power—and with seeing the truth comes responsibility. If we stand together and take action, we can make this world safer for all those with whom we share it.” Given that 22 billion land animals are raised for food each year, what does a safer world look like to you?
AH: Most obviously, there are light years to go from where we are to a world that is safe for animals. My vision of safety is harmlessness to animals, one in which they are not killed or made to suffer for human use. When I started the book, this possibility seemed only like a distant vision. However, I think now, as awareness of the impact of factory farming on the planet—as well as of the health risks of a meat and dairy diet—and the costs thereof is increasing, this vision is coming within closer reach.
SV: In the section “What You Can Do: Creating a More Humane World for Farm Animals,” you mention the recent bans of gestation crates, veal crates and battery cages in a number of states and suggest different ways that people can become active on behalf of farm animals, from letter writing to making donations to farm sanctuaries to becoming conscious consumers. With regard to the latter, you suggest reducing or eliminating animal food and/or choosing animals who have been “humanely raised.” Are you vegetarian or vegan? What are your thoughts on “humanely raised” meat and eggs?
AH: I’d been vegetarian on and off since I was 19. Shortly before I began the book, I was moving in the direction of a vegan diet. Once I began the book, I could no longer eat anything from an animal. I am happy to share with you that so many readers have stopped eating animals and/or are trying to eat less. I put quotes around “humanely raised” because of all the loopholes and the issue of whether killing is ever humane. My editor thought it would be important to offer this as an intermediary step for those who are not ready to eliminate animal products. Farm Sanctuary has a new campaign entitled The Truth Behind the Labels, which offers excellent information on the fallacies of these labels.
SV: Who is your target audience, and what do you hope the book will accomplish?
AH: The book has been really well received by animal lovers, vegans, vegetarians and animal advocates. It’s also appealing to people who love new information. Parents are picking it up to read to their children. I wrote it in hopes that it would appeal to a wide audience. It was meant to raise awareness in a gentle way. It has something to offer the most seasoned advocate as well as the newly interested. People really love the way the book was designed. The photographs of the animals are moving, and the stories are fascinating. The book is changing people’s minds without hitting them over the head. Many animal advocates are giving it as gifts to friends to introduce them to the issues and to raise their awareness in a nonthreatening way.
SV: A portion of the proceeds from the sale of your book will benefit an animal protection group. Which is the lucky organization?
AH: Several organizations have and will benefit, including The Humane Society of the United States, Farm Sanctuary, Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, Catskill Animal Sanctuary, Animal Place and United Poultry Concerns. For all concerned, I hope the book does very well! And I’m happy to share that I just learned it’s going into a second printing.
SV: That’s fantastic! Congratulations.
You’ve already had a number of book signings here. Do you have any more readings planned for New York? Where are you headed next?
AH: There’s a tremendous amount of interest in the book, and I’m booking talks through to next summer right now. I’m going to Duluth next week to talk at their Vegetarian Week, then I’ll be speaking at Cleveland’s Farm Sanctuary Walk for Animals. A few days later I’m talking to students from Cleveland State University and Case Western, then I’ll be in Florida giving some talks. I recently spoke at the Tilly Foster Farm in Brewster, New York, a wonderful place that protects and raises awareness of endangered farm animals, such as blue rabbits. I had the honor of speaking at Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary’s June Jamboree and at Farm Sanctuary’s Hoe Down in August. And there will be more talks in New York City, which will be listed on my Facebook fan page, Amy Hatkoff.
SV: Will you be writing more about animals in the future?
AH: Right now we’re looking into doing a children’s version of The Inner World.
SV: Great news! Be sure to let us know when it’s coming out.
Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us, Amy. Best of luck with the book and the rest of your tour!