Compassion towards others is a concept well known to humankind; dictated through various religious doctrines, or simply taught as standards of good living by our parental figures. But how much of this compassion do we apply to our non-human companions? This question is something that photojournalist JoAnne McArthur’s book We Animals explores in striking amounts of depth.
Spanning well over 200 pages, this book, formatted in a photo-essay, details the lives of many animals that McArthur has met. But this book doesn’t tread lightly; it isn’t out to deliver a heartwarming set of stories that are best left for the silver screen, but rather a visual journey into the abuse that our animal companions endure for our sake.
What you get from the get-go is the story of the Jade Headed Buffalo Beetle found at the Insectarium right here in Montreal. McArthur chose this peculiar topic to start her book because, “when we think about our connection to nonhuman animals, most of us bring to mind mammals, birds and perhaps fish rather than insects.”
The beetle is described as being alone in its little tank, endlessly circling, feeling its way around hoping for a way out of its solitary confinement. To the right, a picture of the beetle, gazing out of its glassy prison greets the readers.
This sad-but-true approach to a seemingly undermined non-human species sets the bar for where the remainder of the book is set to take readers. Heavy-handed with pro-animal messages and heartbreaking stories of careless treatment of our non-human counterparts, the book is thorough in showing us exactly how much suffering they go through in order to maintain our human quality of life and comfort.
Although We Animals isn’t a book you easily flip through, it does raise important points and boldly displays images of animal cruelty and slaughter to accentuate the processes that they are shuffled through. Each page greets you with a few paragraphs of text and a large high resolution picture. These pictures can be seemingly normal situations (like a polar bear at the Toronto zoo), to downright shocking (like a dumpster full of dead piglets at a slaughterhouse). No stones are left unturned, even the smallest of minks, trapped in rusty cages in a Swedish fur farm are given their space in this compilation.
Although McArthur’s photography and writing is meticulous in its detail and accuracy it remains difficult to recommend such a heavy-handed read to those looking for something to put them through a weekend or two. It’s hard to disagree with the truth, but even harder still to go through page after page of sad stories without needing a break along the way.
And this break, never quite comes. Even when you’ve reached the end of the book itself, you’re faced with a handful of field notes from McArthur’s time spent on the field, and these notes are no less depressing than the rest of the book.
Despite the criticism, We Animals does its job well, and McArthur creates direct channels of empathy. But be warned that your sensibilities will get overwhelmed — the pages dealing with slaughterhouses, in particular, were hard to read and the pictures especially difficult to look at. Don’t be surprised if you give up meat for a little while after your time with this charged collection.