[This is one of the finalists in the 2024 book review contest, written by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done. I’ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you’ve read them all, I’ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked]

Matthew Scully, author of Dominion , is an unlikely animal welfare advocate. He’s a conservative Christian who worked as a speechwriter for George W. Bush. That’s like finding out that Greta Thunberg’s Chief of Staff spent their spare time writing a 400-page, densely researched book called “Guns Are Good, Actually.”

Scully’s unusual background could be why it took me years of reading everything on animal welfare I could get my hands on before I stumbled on his 2002 manifesto. Let this be a warning to other authors — write just one little State of the Union address that exalts the War on Terror and your books might not get a lot of reach in more liberal, EA-adjacent circles.

Scully is like a right-wing, vegetarian, Christian, David Foster Wallace. If you read DFW’s Consider the Lobster and thought, “I wish someone would write a full length book with this vibe, where a very talented and surprisingly funny writer excoriates problematic industries,” Dominion is the book for you.

If you are intrigued by the type of person who would use their ingroup status to get other conservatives to let their guard down, only to roast them in print for their views on animals, Dominion is the book for you.

If you have a bone to pick with Peter Singer’s particular brand of utilitarianism but you also begrudgingly respect him, Dominion is definitely the book for you. Singer is mentioned at least a dozen times, and it’s usually to remind people that he’s a godless infanticide defender.

It’s really no offense to Singer though, that’s just how Scully rolls. He’s an equal opportunity criticizer. Whether you’re an icon of the animal rights movement, some guy bragging about shooting a fenced-in lion, a revered conservative thinker like Roger Scruton, basically every Christian except St. Francis of Assisi, the head of a public company, or a dear personal friend who happened to write an article that annoyed him, you get the same treatment in Dominion — cutting, well-researched, and often really funny arguments as to why your views on animals are misguided.

He sees it as a huge moral failing of modern society that most people are indifferent to the suffering of animals that are not our pets. It pains him deeply that this blindspot exists. It is so obvious to him that all animals deserve our respect. But as someone in George W. Bush’s inner circle would surely understand, ethics are complicated and smart people can disagree. In order to stave off as many objections as possible, Scully explores every inch of the animal welfare landscape.

It’s the variety of ways in which he tries to make his plea for mercy that gives the book its unique flavor. He explores hunting, whaling, factory farming, religion, ethics, capitalism, and the science of consciousness. He puts boots on the ground at hunting conventions and inside factory farms, touching squealing piglets with his bare hands. He talks to hippie activists. He engages with lifelong hunters who will die on the hill that dolphins are, in fact, really dumb. He secures interviews with high ranking diplomats from Japan. He can be repetitive, and some of his arguments miss the mark, but the sheer determination of the effort has to be commended. I have yet to encounter another animal welfare writer who put their credibility on the line to secure an exclusive interview with a high-ranking meat industry executive and then called them a moral monster to their face.

The title of the book comes from the Book of Genesis, in which God gives man dominion over “every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” The ultimate question of the book is whether having dominion means we are free to do whatever we want to animals, or if we owe them mercy. Scully leaves no stone unturned in making the case that we should mostly let the creeping things creepeth in peace.

God cares about animal welfare and so should you

Science and reason aside, the bedrock of Scully’s generous spirit toward animals comes from a personal belief that all of God’s creatures deserve “whatever measure of happiness their creator intended for them.” We should care for them simply because “they are fellow creatures, sharing with you and me the breath of life, each in their own way bearing His unmistakable mark.”

It’s a big departure from most interpretations of the bible, especially by conservatives. Most people say that we got dominion, and we can use it as we see fit. If we want to exercise dominion in the name of cramming animals into dark sheds so we can have cheap bacon, so be it. God made the rules.

Not so fast, says Scully. Christians are supposed to be good stewards, only using animals as necessary and never being cruel. A careful reading of scripture reveals myriad instances where it’s either directly said or strongly implied that all creatures deserve kindness. In the Gospel of Mark, God says to “preach the gospel to every creature”. Moses is chosen in part because he was kind to a lamb: “You who have compassion for a lamb shall now be the shepherd of my people Israel.”

Lambs are a big deal in the bible. Jesus is named both The Lamb of God and The Good Shepherd. He also helps a sheep who fell into a pit on the sabbath, because it’s the right thing to do even though Jews aren’t supposed to do work that day. The sheep references are layered metaphors, sure. They can still be revealing of a deeper intent. As Scully puts it, “What kind of mind was it that went back again and again to the lamb and other animals like the birds and fox to convey images of gentleness and suffering and providential love? And why a helpless, harmless creature to illustrate the Christian way instead of a proud and violent predator?”

But weren’t they sacrificing animals all the time back then, and also eating animals? Yes, but focusing on that aspect misses the forest for the trees. Sure, Jesus was not a vegetarian, and there are no stirring quotes where he implores everyone to be kind to the animals. But Jesus’s thing was more about ending barbaric practices. Jesus tells the Pharisees at one point: “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.” Perhaps if early Judea had ‘guaranteed kill’ hunting expeditions targeting endangered animals, factory farms, and rocket propelled harpoons for hunting Whales, Jesus would have condemned those practices too.

While we do have dominion over the creatures, the bible tells us to rule their world with “holiness and justice.” Is it holy to capture baby monkeys and serve their brains to tourists in Indonesia in search of an exotic delicacy? Where is the justice in selectively breeding deers to have gigantic racks and then shooting them in fenced-in preserves?

Another interesting case to consider is that of the post-flood second covenant, where we are told of “the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” Hmm, ‘all flesh’ sounds pretty unambiguous to me. Even more curious is a part in Genesis where it sure sounds like we are told to stop with all this meat eating:

“And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding fruit; to you it shall be for meat.”

It doesn’t say we can’t eat meat. The writers themselves were meat eaters. It does make you pause, though.

I find Scully’s viewpoint refreshing. I’m so used to reading about neuron counts, moral weights, and nociceptors that it can be easy to forget that there are other ways of getting through to people. Maybe it’s worth investing more in an approach that asks whether we really think God/the universe/the simulator smiles on those that castrate baby pigs without anesthetic so that their boar musk doesn’t make our pork taste slightly off?

Here is Scully’s summary of the situation:

“Here I only put to you one simple proposition about the animals we raise for fur and flesh. If, in a given situation, we have it in our power either to leave the creature there in his dark pen or let him out into the sun and breeze and feed him and let him play and sleep and cavort with his fellows — for me it’s an easy call. Give him a break. Let him go. Let him enjoy his fleeting time on earth, and stop bringing his kind into the world solely to suffer and die. It doesn’t seem like much to us, the creatures’ little lives of grazing and capering and raising their young and fleeing natural predators. Yet it is the life given to them, not by breeder but by Creator. It is all they have. It is their part in the story, a beautiful part beyond the understanding of man, and who is anyone to treat it lightly? Nothing to us ​— but for them it is the world.”

This current of thought also interests me because making any inroads with Christians has the potential to greatly reduce animal suffering. There are 2.4 billion Christians on the planet. Convincing even a small fraction of them that God wants them to be nicer to animals could have a hugely positive effect.

My dad is a born-again Christian. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from him it’s that evangelicals love, nay positively live, for quoting scripture. The other day, instead of just being a passive recipient, I tossed back some lines I learned from Dominion. But Dad, doesn’t Jesus count every sparrow? Is there not a covenant between God and the animals, too? And what’s this I hear about Moses being chosen by God in part because Moses offered to help a lost lamb quench its thirst?

These questions opened up a rich new vein of conversation for us. He went from flatly declaring that concern for animals should never get in the way of a farmer’s profit motive to saying, “Sure, allowing them a little more space seems like a decent and godly thing to do.” Then he tried to convince me to start a company that invents more humane slaughter methods. Progress.

As to whether God actually wants us to be kind to animals, we can never really know. But in a Pascal’s wager sort of way, it seems like a good bet to extend love to our furry, feathery, scaly, and even chitin-y friends just in case.

I can’t find the expiration date on this divine mandate

Scully is adamant that we should not pass judgment on farmers, hunters, or furriers of the past. At one point we needed all that meat and fur to survive. Now we have tractors, plant-based proteins, and synthetic fibers. Can’t we thank the animals for their service and send them on their way? Scully thinks so. Once we no longer need the animal, “Responsible dominion calls for a reprieve. The warrant expires. The divine mandate is used up. What were once ‘necessary evils’ become just evils.”

But it’s not clear what those “necessary evils” are these days, and Scully doesn’t provide a clear framework to judge. He leans a little too heavily for my taste on the idea that we can know evil when we see it. I don’t think he adequately addresses how messy this all gets in the real world.

For example, Scully is no fan of xenotransplantation, the process of transplanting animal organs into human bodies. He puts it firmly in the speculative, high-risk, and disturbing category of animal research. While Scully believes biotechnology can be a force for good, he thinks genetic engineering and the making of chimeras tilts us into the realm of playing God. He heeds the words of Pope John Paul II: “Resist the temptation of productivity and profit that work to the detriment of respect for nature.”

But what if we turn to the guy who recently went through the first ever successful transplant of a pig kidney that was genetically designed to be used in humans? I bet he’d consider all the previous carnage a necessary evil indeed.

Scully is also horrified by the research programs that were going on in the early 2000’s that aimed to get rid of the “stress gene” in pigs. Apparently, stressed pigs release a hormone that gives the meat a bad taste. He rails against human hubris and how disturbing it is that we would experiment on these harmless creatures just to make their flesh slightly more palatable.

But he ignores the fact that a less stressed line of pigs will, in theory, be more comfortable. The ACX grant winners at the Far Out Initiative are pushing things even further than those scientists with the stress gene. They are on a quest to alter farm animal genetics so that they don’t feel pain at all. Would it be a bad thing if they succeed? There could be unintended consequences of course, but on the other hand, the most eloquent plea for mercy isn’t going to make the day-to-day pain of being a farm animal hurt any less. There are billions of farmed creatures out there who could use a little more than thoughts, prayers, and philosophical musings about what does and does not qualify as “respect for nature.”

Meeting a parrot is worth a thousand theories

Even if God bestows his love on all creatures, a lot of the oomph of Scully’s argument falls away if animals are merely unfeeling machines. Redwood trees and LLMs aside, it’s hard to get people fired up about the moral treatment of anything but sentient beings.

So, do animals feel pain? Are they conscious? Do they have thoughts in the same way we do, however different from ours? The dominant paradigm in animal research when this book was published was that animals are unconscious. They reflexively react to stimuli but feel nothing. Scully cites many eminent researchers who are adamant about that being the case, but his main foil is the influential writer Stephen Budiansky, who argues that:

“The premise of animal ‘rights’ is that sentience is sentience, that an animal by virtue above all of its capacity to feel pain deserves equal consideration. But sentience is not sentience, and pain isn’t even pain. Or, perhaps, following Daniel Dennet’s distinction, we should say that pain is not the same as suffering…Our ability to have thoughts about our experiences turns emotions into something far greater and sometimes far worse than mere pain…”

In response, Scully calls us to examine how we, as conscious humans, react when we are actually in the throes of pain. There’s not a lot of language use, not a lot of theorizing and rhapsodizing and bemoaning your future. “A kick in the shorts does not send a man into existential crisis or exquisite agony of the soul. It just hurts.”

Also, animals dream. That seems to be a pretty good indicator that they have world simulation models somewhat similar to ours. Or else, what are they dreaming about? A 2001 MIT study stated that rats indeed dream, meaning “the ability to recall, reflect, and evaluate prior experience is something that goes on in animals at many levels.”

I was glad to see Scully focus as well on the fact that the same pain medication that works on humans works on animals. We use them as pain models in research all the time for a reason.

My favorite way Scully repudiates the behaviorists is by flat out rejecting the notion that we can’t know what it’s like to be a different creature. Wittgenstein thought that if a lion could talk, we would not understand it. Budiansky says that to see inside an animal brain would be “to enter a world without the words to describe it — and so is meaningless to us.” Scully is not buying it.

“Both of these strike me as the kind of observations that sound profound on first hearing and preposterous on the second. Observing a lion or lioness, prior to any theories we might bring to leonine reality, you or I might match the creature’s behavior with simple words like: ‘I’m hungry — time to go run down a zebra…I’m tired — time for a nap…The cubs are driving me to distraction…’

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Thomas Nagel. Scully firmly believes that while other beings don’t have conceptual language, it’s not a huge leap to think that we can describe the rudimentary thoughts and desires they have based on their behavior.

Scully’s approach can appear almost childish at times. He liberally quotes from books like Bambi , Charlotte’s Web, and White Fang as ways to express what animals might be thinking and feeling. But I think there’s a method to his madness. He’s getting us to tap into the feeling many of us get when we look at our pet and just know that they have an inner life that matters. Something like that happens to Daniel Dennet himself, he who was once so sure that animals are unfeeling automatons. The incident occurs during an appearance on NPR in the late 90’s. Dennet is on the show with an African Gray Parrot named Alex, as well as Alex’s trainer. After witnessing Alex do things like count out how many blocks of each color were in front of him, Dennet is bowled over, apparently convinced of Alex’s consciousness. He proclaims to all the viewers that:

“Alex is a remarkable and important individual in this world. I have seen enough of what Alex, the parrot, can do to realize that he is not just a well-trained circus animal. He is not just doing this by rote memorization. It hasn’t just been dinned into him. He makes remarkable transfers of knowledge and inferences. Alex is a pretty amazing parrot.”

If animals have any feeling at all, it is incumbent upon us to up our mercy meter by like, 1000x. All of this really, really matters. While some of the most hardened among us truly don’t care if animals actually feel pain, people like Budiansky and Dennet do. And the first step toward a much less hellish world is to get people to see that while a lab rat might not be as smart as Alex the Parrot, can we be sure it feels literally no pain whatsoever?

These days, the consensus seems to be shifting toward recognizing most animals as sentient. Scully was surely heartened by the Declaration on Animal Consciousness that came out of NYU in 2024. It states that: “There is strong scientific support for attributions of conscious experience to other mammals and to birds.” It has collected hundreds of signatures from prominent scientists.

Still, the debate rages on. Eliezer Yudkowsky once gave a full-throated defense of the idea that pigs don’t feel pain because they lack an “inner listener.”

I wonder if Yudkowsky would change his mind if he had witnessed first hand the pig we meet in the first chapter of Dominion. This porcine hero noticed it’s owner was having a heart attack, started crying literal tears (pigs cry, who knew), left the confines of it’s fenced in yard for the first time ever, laid down in front of a passing car to force someone to stop and get out, and led that person to the house so they could rescue their owner. Inner listener or not, mirror test passer or not, that pig seems to be experiencing something.

Dogs will never be bank managers and that’s okay

Comedian Neal Brennan has a bit in his 2023 special about how he doesn’t like it when people ask him if his dog is a rescue.

“Yeah, they’re all rescues. None of these dogs were thriving on their own.

I’ve never heard a story like, ‘Hey, where’d you guys get your labradoodle?’

And they’re like, ‘I went into Bank of America, and she was the manager. Now, she’s our full-time labradoodle!’”

It touches on a key theme in Dominion , which is that we don’t need to assign animals specific rights, or act like they are of equal intelligence to humans, in order to show them mercy. It also shouldn’t matter whether these animals can claim any rights of their own, and it’s irrelevant that they kill and eat each other. The entire point of being given dominion was so that we could exercise reason. We are not supposed to treat the animal kingdom as a moral guidepost.

There are people who insist that because no non-human animal can claim any rights, and because they don’t treat each other as if they have rights, we have no obligation to accord them rights either. In fact, these people say, if we were to grant animals any moral status whatsoever it could lead to a slippery slope, and next thing you know you could be thrown in jail for swatting a fly.

Scully bites the bullet here and says, nah, that slippery slope you speak of, it does not exist. He thinks that what’s actually happening is that people fear they have a limited reservoir of love. They assume that by apportioning kindness out to animals, they will have less for humans. Jean Paul Sartre famously said as much: “When one loves animals and children too much, one loves them against human beings.” Scully doesn’t think that’s how the human heart works at all. Rather, our ability to feel compassion is nearly infinite, and deep down we all understand how powerful and gratifying it is to act with benevolence.

To make this point, Scully recounts the story of a mule who was being used in a coal mine in the late 1800s. A novelist who toured the Pennsylvania mine wrote of mules being kept underground for years at a time in particularly brutal conditions. When eventually brought to the surface, they “almost go mad with fantastic joy…they caper and career with extravagant mulish glee.” This mule refused to go back in at its appointed time, and the workers mercifully decided to just let it stay above ground.

Reflecting on the unbridled jubilance of the freed mule, Scully notes that, “Whenever any animal is locked away, or treated cruelly, or hunted or trapped, that is what we are taking away.” He also writes about a dolphin who is able to escape a fishing net after initially being caught. The dolphin is clearly ecstatic. It speeds off, leaping, spinning, reveling in its freedom. Scully wonders how one could witness such a thing and come away thinking that it matters one iota whether dolphins can “claim rights”.

Similarly, look at how most people react to stories about escaped farm animals. He cites a 1998 story about two pigs escaping from a slaughterhouse in England. Soon “all of Britain was following the drama.” After they were recaptured they were sent not to be killed but given over to an animal sanctuary, as their celebrity status made it intolerable to just eliminate them. Scores of similar stories can be found, such as an escaped cow in the Netherlands that became a social media sensation. A quick crowdfunding campaign ensued, and there was no issue finding 50,000 euros to save her life. When people are actually confronted with the raw specter of a defenseless and innocent creature fighting for its life, the majority are reflexively merciful. It’s like the animal’s struggle for freedom, acting just as any of us would in the same situation, somehow unlocks hidden reservoirs of empathy.

Nowhere is our merciful and loving instinct more clear than when it comes to pets. Scully uses the archetypal family dog as an example:

“You do not ask more of him than he can give, nor do you think less of Scruffy because he can’t rake the leaves or handle the family finances. You don’t even think of him as having ‘rights’ and yet, useless as he is to the practical affairs of the household, over time he comes to fill a crucial place. He’s just sort of there, this furry, funny, needful, affectionate, and mysterious being creeping around the house. Everybody in the end gains something, and when her or she is gone a little bit of love has been subtracted.”

It’s when talk of rights gives way to talk of liberation that Scully gets his hackles up. Though he “admires those who bother to take the matter of animal liberation seriously,” he finds it annoying, for instance, that some people don’t want him to use the word pet to describe his dog:

“‘Companion animal’, the suggested alternative, has a slightly false ring, as if our dogs and cats, if the relationship wasn’t working out, could go out into the world and set up for themselves somewhere else.”

This is where, in my opinion, he starts to lose the plot. I don’t think it’s fair to say that the animal liberation crowd is aiming at literal equality between man and dog. I get the sense that those folks think of granting rights less as a way to put animals on the same plane as humans and more as a way to guarantee them the basic, decent treatment that Scully argues for throughout the book.

In theory, Scully should fully support an organization like the Nonhuman Rights Project, which brings lawsuits on behalf of creatures like great apes and elephants. Their goal is to change the law so that mammals of such immense intellect are recognized as people. Not people in the sense that they could get a driver’s license and run for office, but so that they can gain the right to live at a sanctuary instead of a barren cell in the zoo. If a corporation can be a legal person, why not Happy the Elephant? Scully, perhaps already feeling way out on a limb in a book where he admits that he almost didn’t talk about farmed animals for fear of alienating potential readers, never satisfactorily answers that question.

To his credit, he does think that lawmakers have a super important role to play, and he’s a big champion of making legal changes to protect animals. He just stubbornly wants the impulse toward change to be driven not by a desire to liberate, but by feelings of mercy, love, and responsibility.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Scully, let’s recall, was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush. Perhaps it is from having climbed so high in the conservative ranks that he gained the status and security necessary to feel comfortable absolutely roasting his fellow right-wingers.

He is particularly galled by what he sees as blatant hypocrisy. Conservatives are the first to complain about “man the perpetual victim, man the whiny special pleader, man the all-conquering consumer facing the universe with limitless entitlements and appetites to be met no matter what the costs.” Then these same conservatives turn around and do stuff like:

  • Say on the one hand that all hunting is okay because it’s the natural state of things, and a core part of being human, while also claiming that humans are rational and scientifically minded beings who have good reasons for the actions they take.

  • Proclaim that “the worst crime against nature is waste, not to use resources” as a defense of ‘harvesting’ any animal at any time, but ignore the enormous amount of waste generated by activities like industrial scale fishing, or the waste that flows into our rivers from factory farms.

  • Demonize animal rights activists for being too sentimental and emotional, then fall back on arguments about tradition to justify things like clubbing seals or eating foie gras.

  • Condemn those who raise cats and dogs for food in other countries while having no problem with the farming of cows and chickens in America. (I imagine Scully gets a kick out of what the folks at Elwood Organic Dog Meat are doing.)

  • Call people who want to ban fur coats fascists.

Above all else, his biggest critique of the early 2000’s American conservatives is that they have let capitalism run amok. When he looks at how we are commodifying living, feeling creatures, it sickens him. When he sees how sentient beings are bought, sold, stuffed, trapped, shot, and persecuted, with very limited checks on what even the most barbaric human can do to the most majestic, he recoils.

To Scully, being a conservative means more than just being a free market absolutist, it means being a “fundamentally moral and not just economic actor, a creature accountable to reason and conscience and not driven by whim or appetite.” Laissez faire policies can be great, but they can lead to some dark places when applied to animal well-being and left unchecked. The Safari Club, an influential organization of wealthy, mostly conservative hunters, is exhibit A.

Scully spends 40+ pages decrying the excesses and absurdities he sees while attending the annual Safari Club convention in Reno, Nevada. He leaves wondering “if there is a wild creature left on the good earth that is not for sale in someone’s brochure, a single plain or forest or depth of sea that is not today being turned to profit.” It’s the type of place where visitors are encouraged to spend $35,000 on a White Rhino hunt before they get put on an endangered species list. Where proprietors can offer packages that guarantee a lion “trophy” because the animals are fenced in and, if needed, drugged. Where a popular DVD for sale is called With Deadly Intent. The climax of that film features hunters unloading their military grade rifles on an Elephant who is trying to protect its babies, felling it with “four dramatic brain shots.”

In March of 2023, the Humane Society released a scathing undercover report after attending a Safari Club convention. It documented potential violations of state law as well as numerous heinous acts that violate both common decency and, apparently, hunting ethics. All I could think when I saw it was how impressive it was that Scully beat them to this scoop by almost a quarter century, and how sad it was that nothing has changed.

Far worse than hunting in terms of scale and cultural penetration is what is happening on our large factory farms. Only a small minority of people hunt for sport, but most people eat meat. And the vast majority of that meat comes from animals raised in abhorrent conditions so as to keep costs as low as possible.

Scully goes to a hog farm in North Carolina owned by one of the world’s largest pork producers, Smithfield Foods, to see for himself what we lose when we treat animals like literal production machines. He uses his conservative credentials to slide under their radar. He’s given a full tour of the farm, access that other animal activists can only achieve by breaking in under cover of night.

What follows is the best and most haunting account I’ve read of what life is like for a factory farmed pig. The whole book is worth getting just to read this chapter about farming if, like me, you have some sort of compulsion to fully immerse yourself in the grisly, horrible nature of it all. Just a brief glimpse of what life is is enough to get the picture.

In the farrowing barn for pregnant sows, we find 500 pound pregnant pigs stuffed into crates that are seven feet long and about 22 inches wide. They can barely lie down, and they can’t turn around. They are covered in sores and tumors, and many have broken legs. One pig “is lying there covered in feces and dried blood, yanking maniacally on chains that have torn her mouth raw, as foraging animals will do when caged and denied straw or other roughage to chew.” When Scully remarks that the pig is hurting herself, his tour guide gives a nonplussed, “Oh, that’s normal.” Vets come by only to keep the sows just barely alive. Vet care is expensive, and these pigs are destined to die soon anyway.

After his visit, Scully sits down for an interview with a corporate executive from Smithfield and self-described conservative, Jerry Godwin. The reader is left to wonder whether Scully finds it amusing that this ultimate bad guy boss, this affront to all he holds dear, has the last name “God win.”

Scully asks him to comment on the frankly disturbing living conditions, only to have Godwin reject the premise. He thinks that the pigs like where they live. He says it’s good for them. They eat all they want, there are no predators, it’s warm, it’s monitored by PhD’s, and there’s nothing he would do differently. He also gives a curious concession to the fact that the pigs are not actually unfeeling robots:

“Pigs get bored…you need to give them something to play with. So what do you do? You take a piece of chain, and you put it in front of ‘em so they can reach up, play with it, and that’s about the extent of occupying their time. I mean, it sounds crude to you and me, but I think the people that seem to know more about it, and have studied the issue, say that is a proper way of getting rid of the boredom and keeping them busy.”

How thoughtful. Scully’s line of questioning finally raises suspicion, and it dawns on Godwin that this is not a friendly interview with a conservative chum after all. Scully is denied the final phase of his tour, which was supposed to be a slaughter facility. He’s able to get one last jab in, telling Godwin, “If I ran a place like that, I wouldn’t let people in either.”

When Scully reflects on all that he’s witnessed, he is dismayed at the bastardization of conservatism that can justify what he saw at the Safari Club convention and on the Smithfield pork farm:

“I find nothing in the conservative moral tradition remotely resembling this sacrifice of every creature in sight before the almighty dollar. It is a different spirit entirely. It isn’t rooted in conservatism, or Christianity, or Judaism, or classic capitalism, or any other tradition with honorable origin. It is much closer to what, in conservative big-think circles, they call ‘the modern spirit.’ Friedrich Nietzsche, despite a personal abhorrence to animal cruelty, would today fit right in at one of our libertarian think tanks with his notions of human morality: ‘Life is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering what is alien and weaker, suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms…exploitation.’”

It’s all enough to get him to reject the ‘logic of the larder’ arguments in favor of keeping the farming system as it is. That line of thinking says that it’s better these creatures get to live at all, rather than having never been born. Wouldn’t you prefer at least a little bit of life, however brief? No, says Scully. Absolutely not. He has seen a version of the repugnant conclusion as applied to pigs, and it’s a lot worse than muzak and potatoes.

May all beings one day receive puppy love

Despite what is implied by the preponderance of vegan restaurants in my mid-sized midwestern city, animals on the whole are doing just as bad in 2024 as they were in 2002, when Dominion was published. By the numbers, more animals are suffering under factory farming conditions than at any point in human history. We’re even starting to farm the intelligent and sensitive Octopus, a depressing notion if there ever was one. As of this writing, an avian flu epidemic is decimating farmed chicken populations and has even spread to cows.

That said, there are flowers of hope that spring through the cracks. There was the passage of Prop 12 in California, where voters opted to give more space to farmed animals. The appeals went all the way to the Supreme Court, and the law was upheld. Scully spends the last part of the book imploring us to change the laws so that more animals are protected, so I’m sure he smiled at that one.

There have also been great strides made in corporate campaigns to get companies to move to cage free eggs. And a group of activists broke into a Smithfield pork farm, rescued sick piglets, and got acquitted on all burglary and theft charges. That happened in a red county in Utah, of all places.

But there’s one particular story from 2024 that shows how, despite those wins, not much has truly changed in our attitude towards animals. It has to do with the evangelical governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem.

In a recently released autobiography, Noem proudly admits to killing her 14 month old puppy. She said that the dog wasn’t a good hunter, wasn’t a good listener, and that it attacked some of her neighbor’s chickens. So, naturally, she took it out back and shot it in the head. Isn’t that the tough love this country needs? Doesn’t that show good leadership instincts and an ability to make hard choices?

The public did not think so. When the story made the news, there was considerable outrage from the right and left alike. Rarely does a story so cleanly unite people on both sides of the political aisle. Once a longshot GOP vice presidential candidate, Noem’s political star has dimmed. Bragging about carrying out a mafia-style killing of your own puppy will have that effect.

The average person viewed the act as one of those unequivocal evils that Scully talks about, a moment “when you do not need doctrines, when even rights become irrelevant, when life demands some basic response of fellow-feeling and mercy and love.” What a fine kumbaya moment for humanity. Look at us all, recognizing that it’s just not right to treat our fellow creatures with such disdain.

Except if you read beyond the headlines, you find out that she decided to kill one of her goats right after the dog. And it was the goat who didn’t die with one shot. He had to lay on the ground in agony while Noem went back to her car to get another bullet.

The dog was named Cricket. The goat had no name. It was just another machine on the farm.