I recently finished reading In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. It’s the chilling story of the rise of the Third Reich from the perspective of the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his family. When they arrive in Berlin, Dodd’s flirtatious, party-loving daughter Martha is immediately struck by the “jolly” and festive atmosphere of the city; an impression that was at odds with the warnings she’d received about the oppressive nature of the new regime.
In between attending grand parties and being courted by handsome young officers, Martha meets with an American correspondent named Sigrid Schultz who recounts alarming “stories of beatings and capricious imprisonments in…concentration camps.” Martha quickly grew “annoyed at Schultz’s effort to tarnish her rosy view…‘I didn’t believe all her stories,’ Martha wrote later. ‘I thought she was exaggerating and a bit hysterical.’When Martha left her hotel she witnessed no violence, saw no one cowering in fear, felt no oppression. The city was a delight.”
Unfortunately, Martha’s disbelief was shared by many – both in Germany and abroad. When reports surfaced about people being beaten or unjustly imprisoned, Nazi officials were quick to dismiss these crimes as isolated incidents carried out by rogue soldiers. Like Martha, most people – including government diplomats and officials – were largely placated by these explanations, allowing the regime to continue unchecked.
As I was reading, I couldn’t help but draw an analogy to what is happening right now to billions of animals worldwide, and the cloud of denial which allows it to continue. Activists struggle to make the voices of the exploited heard via undercover exposés, blogging, videos, leafleting, testimonials from slaughterhouse workers, and so forth. But more often than not, just as Sigrid Schultz experienced, the alarms we sound are met with disbelief, denial and apathy.
True, people are quick to condemn reports of animal abuse, but we’re equally quick to assure ourselves that such treatment is an anomaly. Abuse may happen on occasion, we concede, but it’s rare and isolated and it certainly doesn’t happen to the animals we buy and eat. We only buy from “humane” farms, we assure ourselves. Nevermind that over 95% of animal products sold in the United States come from factory farms, and that many undercover exposés – such as the Conklin Dairy investigation – are filmed on family farms.
Additionally, what most people don’t recognize (or care to admit) is that standard animal husbandry practices – such as chick culling, force molting, veal farming, confinement, tail docking, de-horning, de-beaking, castration, branding, and of course, slaughter, are themselves forms of animal abuse. These practices are perfectly legal, systemic and occur on farms even if they are advertised as family-run, organic, local, or “humane.”
But, like Martha Dodd, most of us are too caught up in enjoying the good times to notice (or acknowledge) that anything is amiss. After all, the violence, suffering and misery we pay others to inflict on animals is carefully hidden behind cheerful packaging, upbeat jingles and feel-good restaurant decor. How could anything be wrong when we’re sitting in a comfy booth at Chili’s enjoying a cheeseburger and shake with our friends and family? It’s easy to see how we’re seduced into ignoring the truth and buying into the propaganda in order to keep the party going.
Today, people reading Larson’s book will likely find themselves appalled at the outrageous denial and apathy Dodd (and others) exhibited in the face of great evil. I’m convinced that future generations will look back on us in much the same way.
“We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference,” writes Jonathan Safran Foer. “Those alive today are the generations that came to know better…We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, ‘What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?’”