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Q & A with David Brooks, author of Animal Dreams

David Brooks is a poet, novelist, short fiction writer and essayist. He has taught literature at various Australian universities and is honorary associate professor of Australian literature at the University of Sydney. In Animal Dreams, Brooks examines how animals have featured in Australian and international literature and culture. (Photo of David and Henry from the author's archives).

A man with bearded face standing on the left is touching a face of a sheep. Both are visible through an open green door.

You mention in the book the idea of an ‘Animal Turn’. What was the genesis of your interest in animals?

It’s almost too far back to remember. And I can only think of it as a matter of stages. As a boy scout in the 1960s, hiking in the Brindabellas, coming home with the skull of a ram, the discarded skin of a snake. Animals, but only the relics of them, on the periphery of consciousness. And as a high school student, for a year in the US, our biology teacher taking us to see a bald eagle’s nest, high in a tree, deep in a national park. Or in the early 1980s when, back from years studying in Canada, I developed a fascination with Australian birds. But all of that, for decades, subordinated to other impulses. Then, in the early 2000s, late, past the middle of my life, I seemed to wake up somehow, almost snapped awake. As I write about in The Grass Library. If there was a turn then it was then. I became vegetarian, then vegan, began to think about non-human animals, realise their awful predicament in the face and the mind of humans. I remember one magical afternoon not long afterward when my wife and I visited Edgar’s Mission, a farm animal sanctuary in Victoria, the happiness and curiosity of those animals, the intensity of their being, and little laminated quotations someone had put up around the place, from authors I admire, about animals, like messages: Get going. You are wasting your life …

The essays in Animal Dreams explore the various ways in which humans have thought, dreamt and written about animals. Can you identify a specific trend in the way this thinking has shifted in recent years? Or are we as a species still wildly inconsistent in the way we think about other animals? 

Short answer: yes, we are still wildly inconsistent in the way we think about other animals. The book explores some of that inconsistency. But I should approach this differently.

First and foremost, I think, these essays are about the deep tangle of the human mind and how non-human animals are trapped in it: how this tangle sustains – how it has evolved and exists to sustain – a belief that humans are superior to other animals, that humans themselves are not animals, and that animals are here for human use, entertainment and disposal. The essays pick at that tangle, that prison. They try on the one hand to establish just how tangled it is – how that prison of thought works – and the depth and extent of the predicament of the non-humans caught in it. They argue that this tangle – the denial of our animal being and the rupture in our relations with other animals – is a deep wound in our psyche. Some of them explore that wound, and try to suggest ways we might reduce that tangle, or at least understand better and start to reduce our role in it.

As to trends, I don’t know. I can only speak for myself, and the roots of this thinking are almost lost in time: the ‘liberation’ movements of the sixties and early seventies – the black power movement, my early reading of Richard Wright, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, etc., Paul Ehrlich on the environment, Herbert Marcuse on repressive tolerance, and my later engagements with women’s liberation and attempts to track the deep and insidious roots of patriarchy in my own psyche and the culture it extends. I think these movements and ways of thinking, and the way, a bit later, structuralism and deconstruction served as catalysts in our thinking about such things and their ‘others’, have ultimately provided a platform for thinking about animals, allowed that thinking to begin to claw its way out of that tangle. But I say begin. I don’t think we’ve got all that far as yet.

There were people advocating for animals through all of that. Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation came out in 1975 and there were already people on that track before him. But they struggled a long time in the wilderness. Their time was a long while arriving. In the last twenty years or so – quite rapidly in the last few – there’s been an increasing consciousness of non-human animals, and the suffering of non-human animals, as if a critical mass has been reached. That’s very encouraging, but in the field of public policy the war against animals goes on regardless. We’re making some small dents in the juggernaut, but it remains a juggernaut.

In one of your essays, you highlight the dissonance between loving horses and loving horseracing. Some would argue that the people working in the racing industry love and care for horses more than anyone else. Do you think this is naïve? And do you see the racing industry continuing to thrive in Australia for decades to come?

The Melbourne Cup is called ‘the race that stops the nation’. I’d love to think of us as the Nation that Stops the Race, but yes, I do think that’ll be a long while coming. Meanwhile every time it runs I wait for the announcement that such and such a horse has been injured on the track and been put down.

Horseracing is a pretty lethal pursuit, and the races themselves are only a part of it. Not every horse gets to be a racehorse. A great many are bred but few are chosen. A huge number of horses are killed in Australia – in most countries – every year because they don’t have what it takes to be a racehorse. One could say that ‘behind’ every horse that gets to be a racehorse there are the ghosts of several who have not got there. And not every horse that races will be successful. While some of the unsuccessful ones go on to have afterlives, a significant percentage is, again, put down.

I don’t dispute that a great many racehorse owners love their horses. I’m sure they do. But that ‘love’ is a very complicated and compromised thing. If we treated our children like we treat our racehorses we’d find ourselves in prison very quickly. And isn’t there, wherever money, winnings, gambling are at stake, something fundamentally transactional about the relationship? Is it the horse or the money he/she might bring us that we love? Is it entirely possible to separate the two? Lovers of horses will tell us that their horses love them back. Again, I don’t necessarily dispute that, but how can we know? And what choice do they have? Without going into the matter of abused children and how they, too, often ‘love’, for a time, the person who abuses them, isn’t there a matter of power relation here? Stockholm syndrome? And even this – these things – are part of larger and even more complicated issues.

Horses – and those who truly love horses, and care for their wellbeing – are in a real predicament. We humans – very dangerous creatures – have come to dominate the environment so much. Allowed to roam in the open, live their horse lives in the open – in as much as there are ‘opens’ – horses would be very much at risk. But paddocked, stabled, as it seems they have to be, their lives are more like half-lives, significantly deprived of physical and intellectual stimulus. If they were given the option of a working life, albeit a life working for humans, one can imagine they might take it. Some might even enjoy racing, were they given any choice about it. But horseracing as we know it? I don’t know. There are wild horses of course – our brumbies, for example – and that might be as close as horses can now come to fulfilment of their horse potential, but here in New South Wales the government – yet another of its broken promises – has just determined to slaughter most of them.

But enough. I’ve already written an essay about ‘The Man from Snowy River’ from the horses’ point of view. A lot of this is implicit there.

While veganism is becoming more accepted, it still cops plenty of cynicism (and sniggers) from many circles. How do you think vegans should – for lack of a better word – market veganism better so that the wider public recognises it for its benefits instead of some kind of hippie subculture?

I don’t think vegans need to worry about this quite as much as they did even three or four years ago. One has to be cautious about these matters but I wonder whether, in ‘developed’ countries (a vaguer and vaguer notion these days), we might, in this regard also, be reaching a sort of critical mass. Vegan restaurants are multiplying almost exponentially in major cities, popping up in more and more country towns. McDonald’s and Burger King feature vegan burgers. Bill Gates has announced that plant-based ‘meats’ are the future. Five years ago, I would have said this kind of thing was still decades away, yet here it is. I don’t think we can entirely dismiss the possibility that in a few decades’ time the ‘hippies’ might be those who are still, weirdly, anachronistically eating meat.

But that’s not quite what you’ve asked. The marketing of veganism is a huge topic. I’ll just make a couple of notes. When I became vegan I was rather zealous about it. I actually think a gentler approach is more effective. Lead by example, not from the pulpit. For me, the most astonishing and persuasive thing about being vegan is that, just by not doing something – not eating animal products – you’re saving lives. But people don’t seem to be much persuaded by such arguments. Perhaps, now that they’re beginning to panic (as well they might) about climate change, it won’t be too long before they accept the simple truth that one of the most powerful things they can do for the climate is to choose what they will not put on their plates.

There are a multitude of tensions that you examine in Animal Dreams, one of the most interesting being the tension between conservationists who advocate culling and animal rights advocates who believe that each animal’s life is precious. How can these two groups meet in the middle? Should they? 

I think both sides – those who practise conservation killing, and those, many of them, who advocate more compassionate processes – would agree that we must somehow reduce the numbers of the feral creatures who are wreaking havoc on our native fauna and flora. But must we kill to do so? Is wholesale slaughter our only option? At the heart of conservation killing, for example, there’s a very troublesome contradiction. The most devastating animal on the planet, to itself, to other animals, and to the planet, is the human animal, homo omnicidens, killer of everything, and yet it would be a very, very brave soul who’d advocate culling ourselves. Humans, the greatest danger to the environment, are once again out of the question, off the table. And once again, it seems, non-humans are the scapegoats, made to die for the sins, blunders and greed of humans. 

Am I advocating the culling of humans? Hardly. I’m against the culling of animals, full stop. There are other ways of reducing populations than wholesale slaughter. But they require four things: first and foremost, the most careful interrogation of the reasons those populations are determined to be excessive in the first place (an inconvenience to humans? not good enough!), and then, should their reduction be found to be desirable, will, intelligent application, and money. We are the creatures who just put an exploratory landing vehicle on Mars. We are the creatures who, in record time, just devised a whole range of vaccines against a deadly disease. What we want to do, it seems, we have a pretty good record of doing. Give us a problem we want to solve and we’ll throw billions at it. But – amongst other things, and there are other things – we choose to ‘manage’ feral animals, and ‘manage’ our wildlife, only by the cheapest and nastiest of means, which is to say poison or the bullet. This is lazy science, if it can be called science at all. And although we have, apparently, the world’s highest extinction rate, and although (say) our slaughter of kangaroos is purportedly the world’s largest annual slaughter of wildlife, I am not writing here only of Australia. This problem is pretty much worldwide. We mouth good will and good intentions toward animals – look at all the promises made by our governments after the mind-boggling loss of non-human animals in the 2019–20 fires (and think of how many have already been broken or deferred) – but it seems we will not put our money where our mouths are. We could have a more compassionate form of conservation but we would have to pay for it, and it seems we won’t. The greatest violence toward animals is budgetary.

What is it about essay writing that you most enjoy as opposed to poetry and fiction?

There’s no ‘as opposed’. I’ve loved poetry for much of my life. I once might have said – did say – that poetry was my life (whatever I meant by that), and I certainly won’t say no to a good poem if it comes along and says ‘write me’. The writing of stories and longer fictions, too, gives me great pleasure. I have a few such things lined up and am waiting for a chance to work on them. But non-human animals are suffering, all the time; their case is urgent. It seems a little indulgent to be prioritising my own creative pleasure while there is advocacy work to do. So at this point in time it gets priority and that’s that. And it seems the arguing and advocacy that have to be done have to be done in prose, and largely in essay form, because, as I see it, the essay form forces me to think more clearly, and explain more clearly, and there is, as far as animals are concerned, so much thinking and explaining to be done. I should also say that it’s a field in which I seem always to be learning, and that I enjoy that and think it’s important.