Jeffrey Masson Reviews The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale

By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns
Published by Lantern Books, 2005

The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities

Bird-Brains No More!

Karen Davis has written a profound book and I challenge you to read it without being transformed. It stems from a famous comment by the Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer that when it comes to animals “all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.” Karen Davis, who has a reputation among those interested in animals for a ferocious and unyielding intellect, applies it here with ruthless efficiency. She tells us how in the 1960s she was preoccupied with reports of the concentration camps, with the Civil Rights Movement, and a “radical extension of those perceptions to include the largest class of innocent victims on earth.” Animals raised for food, and especially chickens, are slaughtered or otherwise exploited (for their eggs) to the tune of 10 billion a year in the U.S. alone.

Are you offended by the comparison with the holocaust? You shouldn’t be, and if you read this book, I promise you will see her point (and she makes many original, daring, and profound comparisons, e.g., the forced labor of camp inmates with the forced labor of farm animals), and realize that most of us have engaged in “an arbitrary delimiting of moral boundaries.” Why? Because we have been “socialized not to perceive animals, especially ‘food’ animals, as individuals with feelings.”

Read chapter three of this book, the life of a single battery hen, in which she demonstrates with deep insight that “there is nothing in the natural evolution of hens to prepare them for this situation.” Your eyes will be opened, for that situation is hell on earth for chickens. When you realize she is telling the unvarnished truth, a truth rarely written about, there is no way around the sudden awareness that these sensitive animals are in a kind of concentration camp. She quotes a powerful comment by C. David Coats, in his book Old MacDonald’s Factory Farm: “The analogy is plain and undeniable; for both groups are held at the mercy of unfeeling keepers, deprived of freedom, crowded into small spaces, mutilated, tattooed, branded, and permanently marked, subjected to genetic experimentation – and ultimately murdered.”

The colonization of animals, this appropriation of their very souls, is really no different than any other colonial assault on native human inhabitants of the African and American continents. Suffering is suffering, whether it happens to us, to our friends, our enemies or to animals. To claim an exclusive right to suffering is pure prejudice and a very parochial prejudice at that.

Is this extension of the insights of mass murder to animals an extreme case of anthropomorphism (another topic on which the author has a different and interesting take)? Not if you believe scientists like Ian Duncan (no animal rights activist, but a professor of poultry science at the University of Guelph), who has written about the suffering of chickens who develop respiratory infections such as airsacculitis from constantly inhaling harmful bacteria in the crowded conditions in which they are kept. You think the eggs you eat come from a different kind of chicken? Unlikely. Joy Mench of the University of California at Davis points out that 99 percent of US laying hens are in cages, “averaging eight hens per cage where they develop osteoporosis because they get no exercise and because their limited calcium is mobilized for constant eggshell formation instead of bones.”

Is this natural? Is this what hens evolved to do? Of course not. They have perfectly natural behavior which they are never allowed to express. They should be in a forest, sunbathing, dustbathing, raising their young, flying in groups, not waiting to be slaughtered in a silent, dark warehouse. What deep hypocrisy (and cynicism) to use the term “happy hens.” They may experience pain, but surely they don’t suffer, you think? Then why do scientists, again no animal rights sympathizers, say that hens in transport trucks have been shown “to experience a level of fear comparable to that induced by exposure to a high-intensity electric shock”?
Bird-brains? That term has just been given a death-sentence by the Avian Brain Nomenclature Consortium, an international group of scientists who have recently demonstrated in Nature Neuroscience Reviews (February 2005) that there is “now overwhelming evidence that the bulk of a bird’s brain is not, as scientists once thought, mere ‘basal ganglia’ . . . rather an intricately wired mass that processes information in much the same way as the vaunted human cerebral cortex.”

The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale is an important work, and an exciting read. There is not a dull sentence in the whole book. Spend a few hours with it and I guarantee you will emerge a changed person.

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson is the author of many bestselling books dealing with the emotions of animals, including Dogs Never Lie About Love, When Elephants Weep, The Pig Who Sang to the Moon and the just released Raising the Peaceable Kingdom: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Social Origins of Tolerance and Friendship.

To order The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale by credit card, simply go to Or send check or money order to United Poultry Concerns, PO Box 150, Machipongo, VA 23405. $20 includes shipping.