I feel a little odd writing about a piece I’ve writing I haven’t 100% read, but there’s not a lot I can do about it. The topic is so hard for me to read that, without having someone redact the bits that would push me over the edge, I had to read until I though I was heading for dangerous territory. I picked up reading again some skipping and skimming later.
The text is by the ever-eloquent Anna Krien, whose award-winning book, Into The Woods, I’ve gushed about previously. This time she’s tackling the even more fraught (if that’s possible) topic of animal cruelty. Well, that specifically and our relationship with animals generally.
The Quarterly Essay opens with Krien travelling home with sinister drunks and encountering a gentle, accompanying dog that walks her to the gate. It then traverses a range of animal relationship areas, including the one that’s at the front of everyone’s minds: slaughterhouse cruelty. You know, the ones that were lobbed back onto our television screens courtesy of a brilliant, if harrowing, Animals Australia expose.
Krien travelled to Indonesia to investigate and witness the slaughtering techniques firsthand. This is, suffice to say, the section that I first had to skip and skim pages on. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be read—it absolutely should. It’s that I already know and am disturbed by the information contained within those sections—I’m vegetarian; I’m wholly against animal cruelty; I am beyond squeamish; I have a vivid imagination; I already know this information and it informs my lifestyle choices and daily food decisions; I don’t need to re-know what I know. But others who don’t know, do (if you’re still with me).
Krien’s essay embeds this complex, timely issue into a wider issue of our relationship with animals. She does so with the same lightness of touch and objectivity as she did in Into The Woods. That is, she highlights the issue without judgement and in a non-threatening, left-of-field way that completely turns them on its head. At the same time, she acknowledges her own complex, sometimes complicit, relationship with the issue.
The result is a thought-provoking exploration of the issue that allows her to both examine the issue with the objectivity of a scientist while also acknowledging that no one can truly be objective and that no issue is as clearly cut as black and white. The result is something between haunting and profoundly insightful.
The Quarterly Essay isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing of journals—design is basic (not to be confused with minimalist) and is likely an afterthought. I wouldn’t have picked it up if you’d paid me except that Krien’s name and choice of subject matter compelled me to do so.
Clunky design aside, I wasn’t disappointed in Krien’s writing, which incorporates so much information so subtly that it evoked simultaneous inspiration and despair. How much time she spent researching this piece I don’t know, but it seems many hours (and the many were put to good use).
Among her examples, Krien incorporated the too-close-to-home issue of use chimps in scientific research. It’s a section that I read for the most part, but one that I read in horror. Having just finished The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, this glimpse at chimps’ lab lives was extra, stomach-churningly raw.
My swiss-cheese reading of Krien’s essay may not make me the most able to recommend it, but I’ve read enough of this essay and of her previous writing to recommend it regardless. In fact, I think the question isn’t so much whether it should be recommended or whether you should read it. It’s more what you’ll do with the issues and the information once you have. As Krien herself stated:
I am not weighing up whether our treatment of animals is just, because it isn’t. That age-old debate is a face—deep down we all know it. The real question is, just how much of this injustice are we prepared to live with?