Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 12, 2012

Us and Them, On the Importance of Animals (2012), by Anna Krien (Quarterly Essay #45)

us-and-them-quarterly-essayAnna Krien is nothing if not a courageous author: the March edition of Quarterly Essay entitled Us and Them, On the Importance of Animals is a brave essay which is likely to provoke hostility from an assortment of vested interests who profit from the use of animals.

She is unapologetic about her position:

 ‘I am not weighing up whether our treatment of animals is just, because it isn’t. That age-old debate is a farce – deep down we all know it. The real question is, just how much of this injustice are we prepared to live with?’

Sparing the reader little in the way of gruesome detail, Krien explores best and worst practice in the live cattle trade which was so recently a furore here in Australia, an unedifying debate most notable for the way public opinion swung within a fortnight from outraged revulsion about the cruelty to our cattle in Indonesian abbatoirs and demands for an end to the trade, to panic-stricken calls for its resumption lest cattle-farmers be plunged into penury and the economy of the entire state of Queensland and Northern Territory collapse.  (Needless to say, what was happening to the animals remained constant throughout).  Krien recounts some of the arguments that swirl around the debate:

  • Shouldn’t we be more, or, at least, as concerned about cruelty to women?  And similarly, what about the way we treat asylum seekers, isn’t that a matter more worthy of moral outrage?
  • Shouldn’t Australia participate in the trade because that enables us to prosecute improvements in animal welfare in countries where we trade? And similarly,  don’t we have a responsibility to persist with the trade and improve it, because we created the market in places like Indonesia?
  • Can we trust the industry and trade regulators to safeguard the animals’ interests?
  • Do our own abattoirs conform to animal welfare standards?
  • How can Australia justify moralistic posturing when the processing of bobby calves here is demonstrably cruel? (Bobby calves, for those that don’t know, are male calves that are useless for the trade so they are packed into trucks before they can even walk properly and killed at two weeks old.

And so on.   In the end of course, none of this matters because the Federal Government was so intimidated by the rural backlash that the trade was restored in no time.

Next, Krien tackles vivisection, one of the most vexed uses of animals that there is.  This chapter was even more distressing to read, especially when it revealed that despite the tighter regulation of this field, there are now more animals tested than ever before and some of the things done to them in the name of medical research and breeding them for human spare parts are truly horrible.  Krien points out the paradox that all the moral outrage over the use of embryonic stem cells for research never once recognised the incongruity that animals – sentient beings – continue to be used without question.

The chapter about hunting was interesting because it introduced me to the concept of apex-predators.  Put simply, if – perhaps by hunting the dingo to extinction in the name of protecting sheep or other livestock – the top predator is eliminated, then others, which predate on small animals move in, a further round of extinctions takes place and the whole ecology is changed.  Australia has the worst record of mammal extinction in the world, and the dingo may well be next because it’s politically expedient to win rural seats by allowing open slather for hunters.  And it’s not as if there aren’t alternatives: there are dogs called Maremmas which can be trained as guardians for sheep, and the evidence is in that in places where they are used, predation by dingoes has virtually ceased. (The only reason I’m not adding a picture of these gorgeous dogs as a pin-up is that I am trying not to anthropomorphise them, but of course you all know that I am soppy about dogs anyway, eh?)

It’s a good essay.  I like the way Krien has focussed with clear eyes on the choices we humans make and the impact these choices have.  When Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty in 1877 her purpose was to highlight the need for animal welfare, and the book was instrumental in achieving significant reforms.  Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals were formed and most of us contribute to these without question.  And yet somehow since then we seem to have lost our way: we have learned to turn a blind eye to factory farming, to trade in live animals, to mulesing, to puppy farms and to the extension of vivisection, even to the inclusion of breeding pigs for human spare parts.  We humans are at the top of the food chain now and we can do what we like, but at what cost to our humanity?

I hope this book provokes not just a lively debate, but action too.

Author: Anna Krien
Title: Us and Them, On the Importance of Animals
Publisher: Black Inc (Quarterly Essay, Issue 45, 2012)
ISBN: 9781863955607
Source: Review copy courtesy of Black Inc.

Fishpond:Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals (Quarterly Essay)
or direct from Black Inc (print, eBook or audio book)


  1. Oh good Lisa, I’m looking forward to reading this – it’s my next read. I’m interested to read her approach to the issue. (I just have to review River of smoke first.)


    • I love Quarterly Essay, I don’t always review it, but it’s always interesting reading.


      • Yes … I feel the same … but unfortunately I don’t always get to read them. I have a couple now in my pile.


  2. This sounds like a great read. I’ve become mostly vegetarian after reading John Robbins book ‘Food Revolution’ late last year. I find people love to challenge me about my choices and it will be great to have some more ammunition to add to the debate. It will help me to maintain my resolve when i get tempted too!


  3. Thanks for letting me know about this Lisa – I love a truly thoughtful article on the subject. Unlike the government’s kneejerk response to the TV item on the live export trade, which showed no thought at all. Will especially look forward to her thoughts on apex predators and Maremmas – unfortunately they sound good in theory but don’t work well in practice in all cases. We have firsthand experience of them and feel it comes down to the humans managing them, as it usually does.


    • Hi Sally, what you say about the Maremmas is consistent with what I read on the web. I looked up a couple of websites that were run by breeders, and yes, they stressed that the training was crucial if it were to work. It’s no good if the dogs bond with humans, for instance. From what I could see, training them was as complex as training any other kind of sheep or cattle dog.
      But these days the training of staff who handle animals for sale is much more complex than it used to be anyway. Scientists can measure the stress levels of animals via their cortisol levels in the blood, and there is no doubt that stressed animals are less acceptable for sale (and sell for a lower price. The stress levels can’t be detected until after butchering, but the meat will be tough and stringy if the animals have been badly treated in transit). That is why there are so many regulations about how they are to be managed when being transported, because the regulations are all based on best practice as determined by scientific research. So all staff who work with these animals need to be properly trained, no matter what role they play.


    • I’ve nearly finished the essay … but have my JA meeting tomorrow for which I have to read P&P. Very exciting, I can barely contain myself … who WILL Lizzie marry! (LOL).

      I’m in the Hunting section now and found the maremmas interesting. We’ve seen alpacas used quite a bit around our area – Yass, Goulburn, Wagga Wagga. I would imagine they wouldn’t need the same level of training? Which made me wonder about using the dogs rather than alpacas. Of course they need to be shorn, and maybe they don’t work well in some environments/climates. An article I read said that alpacas can be effective for 15 years! I don’t imagine dogs can?


      • I don’t know much about alpacas – except that they produce beautiful yarns. I have a couple of lovely scarves from an alpaca shop in Beechworth, and The Spouse has a wonderful light-but-warm jumper that we bought on our Tasmanian trip. They seem such gentle creatures, I can’t imagine them intimidating a dingo!


        • They do apparently … try googling guardian alpacas. Apparently they are really gentle but they’ll defend their flock against dogs and foxes whom they apparently don’t like. I remember hearing about them a few years ago on RN, and then we saw them on a couple of farms. Their wool is lovely too as you say so that seems a double reason for using them, eh?


          • It would be really great if there were an effective humane way to protect sheep from predation bby dingoes. Until I read this essay I really had no idea that certain types of dingoes were endangered – and I had no idea about the concept of apex-predators and how important they are to the entire ecology of a place.


            • Agree … I did know, though, a bit about apex predators from the Yellowstone wolf experience but I thought she wrote it up and described it really well. She’s good at explaining concept I think.


              • Serves me right for forgetting to watch all those *yawn* nature programs on TV!


                • Or for not visiting Yellowstone, perhaps?!


            • *Sally, I’ve put your three commments together (in time order) so that they flow through, here they are : Lisa*
              True Lisa, I like it when the science catches up with practice – we handlers, who eat our meat, know a stressed animal doesn’t taste as nice, and isn’t worth as much.
              Back to the maremmas (and there are plenty of other guardian dogs from Italy and parts of Europe) – very unfortunately, too many people here don’t neuter their dogs, and they are now breeding with wild dogs to produce a super killer. We in local government are wrestling with ways to ensure spaying/castrating happens – carrot or stick?

              Alpacas are like camels – they spit and stomp! And are not easy to shear – they need to be tied and mouths closed – shearers ask for double the money. Probably the best of the guardian animals are donkeys – they aren’t affected by 1080 (maremmas are), they don’t need shearing, and they eat grass like the animals they’re protecting. Only drawback is that they are very hard to get hold of, despite there being lots in the desert.

              I’ve ordered the essay and can’t wait to read it myself. We talk a lot about apex predators, which is all well and good when they are endemic in an area, but wild dogs (DNA shows there are virtually no pure dingoes in this part of the world) are now being seen in areas they’ve never been. Our national parks are even coming on board with control measures to take care of their quolls, yellow-footed rock wallabies and bridled nailtail wallabies, to counter the huge amounts of predation they are seeing.


  4. Yellowstone? I’d have to go outside for that, wouldn’t I? I don’t do Outside…


    • That’s true you would .. you should try it one day. (Anyhow, I happen to know you do go Outside – with your dogs. Just extend that a bit!)


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