A line in the sand: a review of On Their Own Terms

On Their Own Terms, by Lee Hall, was sent to me by the Friends of Animals crew to review. How fancy, no? It took me half a year or so, but here’s the review! Mele Kalikimaka!

I never read animal rights books (apparently, I only read them when people kindly send them to me.). In high school most of my extra-curricular reading was in the John Robbins/Peter Singer vein—hardcore a/r theory and practice. Disturbing photos, terrifying stories, an exploration of the philosophical underpinnings of the vegan lifestyle. It was a heavy load, and by college I decided that vegans didn’t really need to read a/r books. I never wanted to look at those pictures again.

On the surface, On Their Own Terms is exactly the sort of book I told myself I didn’t need to read—I’m going about my vegan life, running a vegan business, why would I need to read about why we should be vegan? I don’t want to be yelled at. Preaching-to-the-choir books are never fun, and there are too many out there.

But OTOT doesn’t really (well, doesn’t only) argue you should become vegan, like most simplistic animal-rightsey handbooks do—it’s a call to arms for fundamental change within the animal-rights movement. That I can get on board with.

As you might have noticed, the a/r movement drives me fucking INSANE. Between PETA idiots and Skinny Bitches, it’s pretty much a bunch of one-dimensional campaigns aimed at idiots, carried out by robots, masterminded by publicity whores using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.

Not. My. Scene.

But Friends of Animals, and Lee Hall and this fantastic book, are different. It pulls no punches, makes no compromises, and lays out a truly radical vision of what the animal-rights movement could and should be. If others have said that it’s a bit pie-in-the-sky idealistic, that’s fine with me. I’ll always prefer reasoned optimism and innovation to the watered-down, mainstream-friendly tactics of so many other groups out there.

Here’s the deal. I’m not a professional writer, so I’m not going to pretend to write a professional book review. Instead I’m going to give you some bulleted quotes and talking points from this mandatory new guidebook for all animal activists—even if your activism consists of making chocolate truffles.

  • Page 14: Throughout, Lee refuses to stray from her key point: the heart of animal rights is refusing “to be consumers of animal commodities.” When you start with a commitment to that ideal, you begin to see that this fundamental lack of adherence of basic a/r ethics is what has facilitated the capitulation of so many animal rights groups. It’s the slipperiest of slopes—just the other night, during a prolonged bout of exhaustion with the myriad problems facing animals today, I was lazily telling someone on Facebook that of all the issues the a/r movement could take up, did we really want to take up the issue of backyard chickens? Half my friends have them and though the idea does make me sick, at least they’re not eating factory farmed eggs. Lee weighed in with typical swift intellect: “Too bad about all the dead males and the dead birds that don’t make it to the addresses and the clueless buyers who don’t know any signs of illness and just think they are so cool and so green and so hip and locavorous with their poor disoriented birds running down their expensive driveways.” Yep. We must look at animal-rights from a deeper perspective in order to succeed.
  • The title of the book comes charmingly from a Catharine MacKinnon essay I’ve long loved. Lee points out that the essay “called for an entirely new way of understanding animal advocacy, observing that the primary model of animal rights to date ‘misses animals on their own terms.'” My two passions, so neatly combined! It set the stage for me to love the book.
  • The primary point of the book is that the a/r movement needs to keep as its paramount goal letting animals remain animals—letting them remain free: free from humans. With all these zoo-like sanctuaries and “humane approved” meat, our movement has lost sight of this goal. From page 30: “Are we taking a good hard look at how our good instinct to help and care has turned into a custom that forces other beings to look to us for care, and to be trapped inside this reliance?” Lee points out that the a/r movement has become about caring, when it should be about being fair to what animals themselves need—which is, largely, to be left alone. This is a complicated issue: “Fairness challenges us to intervene in the cycle of breeding dependent animals, and to stop sending domesticated cats, tropical birds, school-raised ducklings and other displaced animals into the world to fend for themselves in a biocommunity that’s often ill-equipped to sustain or cope with them.”
  • Page 40: An interesting disquisition on the dangers of focusing only on the evils of factory farming—if we are truly to get to the root of the problem, we need to teach that even the sweetest-looking farm “violates other beings’ most basic personal interests. And such farms still use resources that could feel hungry humans…”
  • There is a great discussion of the differences between animal rights activists and animal welfare advocates—and the traps an animal activist can enter into thinking she has to pick a “side” in this false dichotomy—on page 42. In summary: “Activists need to know that genuine animal-welfare work supports the movement and should be supported in return.”
  • Lee presents some good reaction to Peter Singer’s work beginning around page 59. Animal Liberation, along with Diet for a New America, made me a vegan, but I appreciate the nuanced view of his philosophy Lee presents.
  • Lee also has a good take-down of the idea that is so prevalent in my little middle-class enclave of hippie farmy Upstate NY: eat lots of veggies from local farms, and allow yourself the treat of an egg from your own chickens or “humanely-raised” local grass-fed beef now and then. As Lee points out, “that scene involves an industry catering to the wealthy few–encouraging the problematic association of wealth with animal products. Enabling animals to graze freely is simply out of the financial reach of many farmers…Land would be used up as far as industry could take it—farmers can tell us that letting calves amble and graze in a field will quickly make the ground bare—putting free-living animals’ essential needs behind people’s desire…to eat animals.” (emphasis mine.)
  • {I am writing this on Christmas Eve, since I am a godless Jew heathen and spent the entire day at the beach and now feel like I should do a little work to be productive in some way. A friend just posted a Facebook status update about her kid putting out carrots for Santa’s reindeer and cookies and milk for Santa. Animal exploitation—the reindeer, the cookies, the milk—is so deeply ingrained in our culture, it’s even in our most comforting myths and fairy tales. I want to believe Lee’s book offers us hope, but when otherwise well-meaning people are so deeply invested in animal torture, it’s pretty distressing. Man, I sort of want to go back into my little box of not getting re-riled up about animal rights stuff again. It’s easy for me and my sweetheart and my mom to be vegan, and to pretend I live in a vegan world and to just tune people out when they bring up obviously non-vegan things—it’s painful to be re-reminded of the disgustingly not vegan place the real world is. Sigh. Onward.}
  • So yes, to get to the heart of the problem with eating animals, we cannot be sated with reforms to their captive state—we must do the much deeper work of somehow making other humans understand that it is unacceptable for animals to be eaten and used at all.
  • {Do you think some annoying vegan [The only thing I love more than making fun of non-vegans is making fun of vegans!] is going to write a comment like “uh, you keep saying ‘animals,’ but you mean ‘non-human animals.'”? I believe in elegant language above all! You know what I mean when I say “animals,” don’t make me get all clunky, womyn.}
  • Page 96: The best definition of animal-rights I’ve ever read: “Other animals should be able to experience their lives without being human property.” Done.
  • Page 105: the excellent point that “As a purpose-bred calf will always be under the control of another party, there can be no rights…for such a being.”  Thus we can pay lip service to the idea of treating animals better while we are owning and controlling them (and the argument could be made that some should work for better lives of these animals as we’re not likely to see a vegan revolution come about overnight [I’ve personally be working/waiting for one for almost 20 years.]), but let’s not pretend that the animal-rights movement has anything to do with it.
  • About that: “let’s be clear: It’s not wrong to want to minimize suffering caused by the use of chickens, ducks, and the other animals people own. Most of the general population will agree. So will animal agribusinesses and the people who buy what they sell. The question is whether we can build a movement around that, and the rational answer is no.” (Page 116)
  • Lee makes the point about how people transitioning to veganism need support, and how useful it can be for longtime vegans to hold the hand of those who are changing their diets and lives—I need to get back into this. I need to get out of my vegan bubble and hold some hands. Want me to hold yours? Write a comment with all your burning questions about veganism, no one will laugh at you—I’ll channel my memories of when a 14-year-old me thought bread wasn’t vegan.
  • Moving on. The importance of the optimism of teaching people that veganism can be easy, instead of the pessimism of the idea that using some animal products are OK: “People can and do make a commitment to become vegan overnight [My friend Susan did—she read Diet for a New America and never ate another animal product after she put the book down. It took me six or so months of weaning myself off deviled eggs and Snickers.], and they’re more likely to attempt the project when surrounded by daring optimism and positive messages.” (Page 127)
  • Chapter Five: Objections to Veganism, and Practical Responses, is just that: a perfect stand-alone reader all new vegans should carry around with them.
  • “Today we can find ‘vegan horse riding boots’ advertised. Is the material the big question here?” Page 149: rueful head-shaking laugh.
  • Petkeeping is discussed in Chapter Seven: Barking Up The Wrong Tree. It’s a hot-button issue in deep a/r circles, and though I have my own beliefs on it (1: SQUEE KITTEHS! 2: It’s horrible that we started it, but my job now is to provide a healthy home for a couple of animals who otherwise would be in worse shape, while working to advocate for ending the practice of breeding and slowly returning companion animals to a more wild state. 3: People who buy instead of adopt pets must be euthanized.) Lee’s beliefs square with mine pretty well (she never advocates for human euthanasia though, being much more sane and sensible than I am.): “In a vegan culture, we’d have no selectively bred birds, pigs, or calves, happy or not” … “we do not mitigate our dominion over other animals by extending them some level of comfort. Arguably, no domination is more complete than that which appears to be exerted without pain, without force.” (Page. 180).
  • One of the most interesting chapters was Chapter Nine: Victims in Pictures. Lee questions one of the a/r movement’s favorite tactics: the disturbing photo. Lee points out that not only does this set up a system whereby only the most egregious animal abuses are given attention, it shows that egregious abuse is all that’s wrong, whereas “According to the rights view, egregious abuse is not the fundamental wrong; it is the use of the animals, and not the abuse, that is the basic wrong. Where domination is acceptable, atrocities are always possible; challenging domination itself is the way to true, lasting change.” (Page 218, emphasis mine.)
  • Lots of good stuff in this chapter, my oh my. I just wrote little stars all up and down page 219, where Lee discusses how heartbreaking photos of animal abuse “may evoke outrage, but the outrage is often directed at rogue employees who flout the established handling practices. What if the activity could arguably be carried out in a bloodless or less painful way?” We need to always stay focused on the root of the problem.
  • Lee argues that the a/r world would better serve its target audience if our iconography was more focused on “free-living animals, those who could benefit from our recognition of their right to be left alone.” I really loved this thoughtful point. In a certain way, that’s what I do with my business: I attempt to show people what vegan can mean—not what it leaves out but what it leaves in. Beauty and decadence and all that.
  • On this point: “Shocking photos of carriage horses in accidents have prompted calls for the tourist industry…to be more carefully restricted, but it’s the powerful image of a horse running free, juxtaposed against a harnessed horse, that can inspire people to think about who the horses are without our driving or riding them.” (Page 225)
  • And my favorite quote from the book: on page 227: “It takes no special power to be vegan. Vegans are just regular people who decline to participate in violence.” (emphasis mine.)
  • AND! Page 237 brings us a great discussion of the sexual politics of meat within the a/r movement: “It would be nearly impossible to research the animal-advocacy movement and avoid imagery of barely clad television celebrities. Many times, we’ve been reassured that sex sells. But genuine social change is not about perfecting a sales formula; it’s a transformed way of being.” YEAH!
  • And from page 241: “Using someone as an object and a lure when the very point of one’s movement is to get beyond treating beings as objects must be wrong. ‘Sexy’ demonstrations in animal advocacy usually objectify one class of humans for the entertainment of another—and the press.” Right on.

Lee Hall presents a new path for the animal-rights movement, one we’ve moved mightily far away from: integrity and ethical consistency. Let’s go.

Race you to the finish line!

19 Responses to “A line in the sand: a review of On Their Own Terms”

  1. Dustin Rhodes

    What a thoughtful, and thought-provoking, review, Lagusta. And for the record: the review itself–void of snoozefest academic speak–is a breath of fresh air. Thank you.

  2. thatbettina

    I need vegan handholding. I’ve been a vegetarian for over 10 years–cold-turkey, overnight, but haven’t stayed vegan for longer than a month. I’d like to eat more vegan and support could be helpful.

    I don’t have any burning questions about veganism; I know mostly what is what. The ingredients I don’t know, I have google as a back-up.

    I know some of my weak points. And they sound lame to me. I know that if I were really committed, I could just say no and make the time and effort. But I’m trying to support my transition as compassionately as I can, and I hope you do too.

    My weak points are:

    + I need to cook fast and easy and hearty but without relying on processed soy. Marinated tempeh takes time. Lentils get old. And living through a harsh winter, I have to go beyond soups and salads, as much as I love them.

    + going out to eat. The frugal grandma in me refuses to pay good money for a leafy salad that is nothing special. Anything special seems to have cheese in it or else in vegan restaurants be some sort of gluten / soy concoction. I guess I should just have potlucks ? But what about the social / people element?

    + My live-in partner LOVES cheese. Before moving in, I’d buy one wedge of cheese once every 10 days or so. He buys 3 different cheeses for one week! I don’t want to change him. But temptation is there every day. Plus, he cooks more than I do. He’s understanding–he makes a pizza and leaves the cheese off of half of it. But there is still the half with the cheese on it…

    If there were an AA group for vegan-to-be, like someone to be my vegan mentor, just to support me, that would be awesome.

    • Dustin Rhodes


      I can more or less relate to many (if not all) of those issues. Trust me, it took me quite a long time to make a vegan commitment considering how many years I thought about it beforehand.

      I can’t overemphasize the importance of learning to cook, and learning to cook well. And, of course, I understand the practicality of needing/wanting to prepare meals that are fast. My best advice is to do a lot of experimenting, and find things you are absolutely in love with; those dishes almost always become completely effortless.

      I definitely could recommend some cookbooks to you–all of which provide outstanding recipes that are easy and delicious:

      Dining with Friends: The Art of North American Vegan Cuisine (yes, this is Friends of Animals’ first vegan cookbook, and yes I work there–but it’s chock full of great recipes, and they’re all vegan versions of classic recipes. I especially recommend the pasta section, as the sauces are all fabulous–especially the Linguine with Cauliflower and Onions; truly one of my favorite meals of all time. I never get sick of it).

      Robin Robertson’s 30 Minute Vegetarian Meals: I’ve made about 1/2 the dishes from this cookbook, and they’re all great. Surprisingly, they are all as quick as promised to prepare.

      Robin Roberston’s Vegan on the Cheap: these recipes are all simple, quick and delicious. What I really like about this cookbook is that most of the recipes have variations, too–which makes them interesting.

      Vegan with a Vengeance–Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s original vegan cookbook. Truly excellent recipes. I have owned this cookbook since it came out, and some of the recipes are among my very favorite. They meet your criteria as well.

      The restaurant thing is tricky, and I get plenty frustrated with this also (case in point: a popular restaurant here in DC just started an all-vegan menu, and it’s TWICE as expensive as the “regular” menu–and it’s 100% processed, crappy frankenfood; I can’t tell you how often this is the case…but you already know).

      Alas, I’d love to help you by being your AA-style vegan support buddy. My e-mail is dustin@friendsofanimals.org :-)


  3. lagusta

    I don’t think your weak points are lame at all. I think they’re totally human.

    Here are some ideas in addition to Dustin’s typical awesomeness:

    -Not to be dumb and tout my own stuff, but a while ago I put together a list of 101 super quick meals that might help with the meal planning thing? Maybe not, but here it is anyway: I *really* need to fix the formatting. Apologies for that: http://lagustasluscious.com/quickmeals.html

    -I SO agree with the going out to eat thing. It’s just really hard, unless you live in a place like NYC where there are good options everywhere. It’s sort of cliched, but my solution is to find a few good trusted “ethnic” restaurants–Mexican or Ethiopian or Thai places that you have vetted for crap ingredients and who make tasty, *cheap,* authentic food, and just go to those places over and over. Your support of their vegan options might mean they increase their menu options, too! Much better than paying $15 for a stupid veggie burger at a stupid veggie restaurant.

    -This is sort of awful, but when I loved cheese (and Snickers bars. I really adored Snickers bars), this is the only way I could get off it: imagining dairy cows in factory farms. It instantly turns your stomach. Always works. Not very pleasant though.

    Let us know how it goes!!

  4. thatbettina

    Hi Lagusta and Dustin,

    thanks for your help and suggestions!

    I love cooking! But–

    1. I live in Germany where we don’t have such a wide variety of ingredients. Things like arborio and basmati rice are ‘specialty’ items and are not available at the corner grocery store. Black beans? They only have black soybeans, and in the dried form at the health food store. Even chard I only see at the health food store. Sometimes there is spinach, but never baby spinach. I’ve never seen kale, collard greens, rainbow chard, etc. here.

    I have one of Isa Chandra’s book, but it was a little bit hard to get some of the ingredients without making it a big deal–like planning to go to the health food store before they close early, etc. etc. That’s fine for once in a while but hard on a daily commitment.

    So cooking in a country where the ingredients are all different…and the vegans here LOVE these fake meats…like vegan sausages.

    2. The same goes for ethnic restaurants. There isn’t so much choice. And after having lived in New York, the Indian food here all tastes the same. But I could make more an effort. In fact, perhaps I’ll make a list right now–then it’s all ready for me when the next friend suggests a dinner together.

    3. Living with partner since Aug: my German guy loves his fake sausages and potatoes. The partner likes hearty food–and with negative degree weather for weeks and no sunlight, I agree sometimes!

    4. The gross factor by thinking about the suffering of animals: yes yes yes I need some motivation…

    Dustin, I don’t know about bothering you via email. I think Twitter might be a better forum for intermittent bitchiness and cries for help. We should start a vegan twitter hashtag, so I could gripe about the milk in my office. There might already be one there! I’ll take a look…

    • Berlinyogi

      sorry it took me so long, I was sick last week and am now catching up on the internets. I’m @berlinyogi See you on twitter.

      • Qala

        for hair and skin, J/A/S/O/N doesn’t test on animals, nehteir do Tom’s of Maine (they do things like toothpaste, mouthwash, deoderant) Simply Basics does lotion, body wash and body scrub, Body and Earth Spa does body scrubfor makeup E.L.F doesn’t test on animals has a lot of vegan makeup, which does not use animal testingGood Luck =) well done with avoiding animal tested products!!

      • lagusta

        I feel like this is a spam…but I’m going to leave it anyway.

  5. Dan

    As long as questions about vegan praxis are in play, I’ll offer up my own hardly original petit dilemme.
    I’ve been wondering for a while if it is worth it to stay involved with a protracted effort to get my campus dining service provider to switch to “humane certified meat.” This is a feasible goal, though it will require more effort. It doesn’t help that such certifications don’t really mean much anyway or that many co-actors are the use-locavore-identity-to-resist-more-transformative-questions (ie.who you eatin’?)-types who frequently, and deservedly, get lambasted around here. So it’s the classic reform meat consumption while tacitly legitimizing it vs holding a harder line. Or maybe push for the “improvement” while maintaining that it alone is not an adequate solution?
    L/Dustin/wise vegans, thoughts?

  6. Dustin Rhodes

    Hi Dan.

    There are so many people who’ve brilliantly asked/pondered/answered this question, and I am going to defer to them. But in the mean-time, I’d personally answer the question like this: if your motivation is a real concern for animals, I don’t think there is any good reason to be involved in a campaign that simply solidifies their property status and/or perpetuates their commodification. I think it adds to the problem, rather than subtracting from.

    But here’s what all the brilliant people have to say:




    I especially urge you to read that last link. It’s an interview with a farmer turned vegan—Harold Brown.

  7. lagusta

    I agree with Dustin. : (
    Not sad that I agree with Dustin, just, you know, it’s sad that in the end those seemingly-helpful steps don’t really, in my view, help that much. humanemyth.org is a site I seem to be constantly referring people to. Good luck, Dan!

  8. Jordan

    When I first went vegan many moons ago, I loved fake meats and thought wow this tastes just like chicken the things that can be done with Soy and Wheat etc… That lasted about 7 years. The last few years I have enjoyed seasonal food In the winter I replace tomatos for beets and radishes in salads And have learned about winter fruits etc… Bloodroot cook books have really taught me how to eat and prepare food. Instead of going to Ethnic or trendy markets looking for the best fake “tastes just like animals” but vegan foods, I now make meals that are far better with sometimes just beans grains and veggies tofu once in awhile. Poor peoples food is so tasty. For years a farm animal sanctuary I work with would throw a big day in the park making fake food. This year we made Lagustas Koshori and People couldnt get enough of it! And our fundraiser really paid off instead of paying for fake food that was so spendy we spent pennys for rice and lentils and made enough money to get us our summer hay. Veganism is very cheap and tasty. Sorry to chime in so late.

  9. KD

    Thank you for your review! I really needed to hear this -> ‘I’ll always prefer reasoned optimism and innovation to watered-down, mainstream-friendly tactics…’ I needed to hear it (particularly) today and I’m glad I’m not alone. Let’s go indeed!


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