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In his 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan told how he worked on a family farm for a week, bought a young steer and followed him to an industrial feedlot in Kansas, killed a wild pig, and gathered chanterelle mushrooms. In addition to these entertaining stories, the book contains many insights about different sources of food. Unfortunately, there is just one chapter about the ethics of eating animals and it’s quite limited.

The following articles consider food-related ethical issues in greater depth, addressing questions like:

  • Is it OK to take a young, healthy farmed animal’s life if the slaughter is quick and painless?
  • Can someone eat meat and still be a genuine environmentalist?
  • Or a true feminist or humanitarian?
  • Are fish farms any better than other industrial farms? and
  • Is the production of eggs and dairy products free of the bloodshed that taints meat production?


Let’s begin.


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In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan told how he became a vegetarian for a month or so. He stopped eating meat because he didn’t want to be complicit in the great suffering factory farm operators inflict on the animals they raise. In the shadow of factory farms, he wrote, it didn’t seem far-fetched to think that history will judge those who eat meat from these farms as harshly as it judges the Germans who went about their lives in the shadow of Treblinka.[1]

He returned to eating meat, though, after seeing pigs and hens on a small farm enjoying their lives, the hens foraging in a pasture and the pigs rooting around in a barn looking for kernels of corn in a cake of compost. As he put it:

“In the same way we can probably recognize animal suffering when we see it, animal happiness is unmistakable, too, and during my week on the farm I saw it in abundance.”[2]

In the end, he decided it was OK to eat meat from a “good farm” like the one he worked on if the animals didn’t suffer and their deaths were quick and painless.

The happiness Pollan saw on that farm, though, is the reason why it’s wrong to consume products from “good farms,” too. Most people think that if the staff at an animal shelter put a young, healthy dog or cat to death to make room for another homeless animal ‒  even if the animal suffers no pain ‒ that raises moral concerns. Animals raised for food on farms are sentient, too,[3] and taking the lives of young, healthy farmed animals raises similar concerns because it deprives the animals of experiences and relationships they might have enjoyed in the future.

Farmers who raise their animals less intensively ‒ like those on the farm Pollan described ‒ may allow the animals they raise to live a better life than operators of factory farms. Even on family farms, though, economic pressures lead farmers to slaughter the animals when they’re young because that’s when the animal’s flesh is worth the most. The heritage chickens raised for meat on some family farms, for instance, are allowed to live much longer than chickens on intensive farms but are still slaughtered in their youth, when only about twelve weeks old.[4] The same is true for heritage turkeys, who are usually slaughtered when about seven months old.[5] Pigs on less intensive farms may live to be about a year old before they are slaughtered and cattle raised for beef may be eighteen months old, but these are still just a fraction of their natural life span.[6]

In the end, family farmers often give animals a better life than industrial producers, but they still take the best part of the animals’ lives from them. That’s true even if they raise the animals according to the strictest humane standards. Pollan was right when he said that it mattered when people caused a sentient animal to suffer without justification. He was wrong, though, when he said it didn’t matter when they took a young, healthy animal’s life.



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As a 2006 report from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization put it, animal agriculture casts a “long shadow.”[7] Raising large numbers of animals produces enormous amounts of waste that can leach from farmland and escape from lagoons and holding ponds. In the United States alone, wastes from hog, chicken, and cattle operations have polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and contaminated groundwater in more than a dozen states, according to a 1998 report from the United States Environmental Protection Agency.[8] Animal agriculture also contributes significantly to the creation of “dead zones” in coastal waters. In their 2006 report, environmental scientists from the Food and Agriculture Organization concluded that livestock production probably caused more water pollution than any other type of human activity.[9]

Wastes from livestock operations can volatilize and pollute the air, too. Animal agriculture contributes significantly to acid rain and the acidification of ecosystems by producing almost two-thirds of the ammonia generated by human activity.[10]

livestockIn addition to polluting the air and water, animal agriculture uses enormous quantities of water, an increasingly scarce resource. Producing a kilogram of animal protein uses about 100 times more water than producing a kilogram of protein from grain.[11] Compounding this depletion of water resources, livestock also reduce the replenishment of freshwater by compacting soil, reducing infiltration, degrading the banks of watercourses, drying up floodplains, and lowering water tables.[12]

Besides polluting and depleting our planet’s finite natural resources, animal agriculture causes severe damage to its ecosystems. It may be the leading cause of our planet’s accelerating loss of biodiversity by driving land degradation, pollution, the sedimentation of coastal waters, and climate change.[13]

Of all the environmental harms animal agriculture causes, its disproportionate contribution to climate change will likely be the most severe over the long term. This is because meat, eggs, and dairy products generate far more greenhouse gas emissions per serving than producing vegetables or grain. (See Figure 1 below).[14]




In 2006, livestock operations were responsible for 9% of the carbon dioxide produced by human activities,[15] 35-40% of human-induced methane[16] (a gas with 23 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide),[17] and 65% of nitrous oxide[18] (the most potent greenhouse gas, with 296 times carbon dioxide’s global warming potential).[19] According to the United Nations, global warming from climate change “is the most serious challenge facing the human race” and livestock agriculture is responsible for 18% of the greenhouse gas emissions from all human activity, as measured in carbon dioxide equivalents.[20] This share will likely become even greater if, as predicted, global demand for meat more than doubles between 2000 and 2050 and milk output almost doubles.[21], [22]

No matter how they are produced, meat, eggs, and dairy products have a larger carbon footprint per serving than vegetables or grain (see Figure 1) because much of the energy plants store is lost when animals eat the plants and are eaten themselves by others animals. Even grass-fed beef[23] and farmed animals raised according to organic standards[24] have a larger carbon footprint than vegetables or grain.

bestdietBecause of the severe, global, long-term environmental harms caused by animal agriculture, following a plant-based diet is one of the most effective things a person can do to protect our planet and all who live here. According to the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition,  omnivores who adopt a vegetarian diet reduce their dietary contribution to global warming by almost two-thirds.[25] Unlike some other steps someone can take to have a smaller environmental footprint, such as buying carbon offsets, adopting a vegetarian diet doesn’t require any investment. In fact, because vegetarian diets are usually less expensive than meat-based ones, it would likely save money that people can use for other environmentally-friendly expenses like buying more energy-efficient appliances.

Even reducing the amount of meat you eat will reduce the environmental harm from your diet. An omnivore who follows a vegetarian diet five days a week has about half the dietary carbon footprint of a full-time omnivore and saves more than 15,000 gallons of water a week.[26] Another option is to follow a diet with no animal products for two out of three meals each day. A 2018 study found that in most countries such a “two-thirds vegan” diet would have an even smaller carbon footprint than a full-time vegetarian diet.[27]

In the end, it turns out that you can be an omnivore or a genuine environmentalist. You can’t be both.


* * * * *




Women have been dominated and exploited throughout history. Female farmed animals have been, too. And still are.

Factory-farmed turkeys, for instance, have been bred to have such an oversized breast they can’t mate naturally, so producers have them artificially inseminated. Here’s a description of how that’s done:

“In the hen house, our job was to ‘break’ the hens. You grab a hen by the legs, trying to cross both ‘ankles’ in order to hold her feet and legs with one hand. The hens weigh 20 to 30 pounds and are terrified, beating their wings and struggling in panic. . . . Once you have grabbed her with one hand, you flop her down chest first on the edge of a pit with the tail end sticking up. You put your free hand over the vent and tail and pull the rump and tail feathers upward. At the same time, you pull the hand holding the feet downward, thus ‘breaking’ the hen so that her rear is straight up and her vent open.”[28]

Then another worker inseminates the hen pneumatically with semen from a straw.

On intensive hog farms, sows are usually restrained and artificially inseminated, too. Cows on intensive dairy farms are often artificially inseminated while restrained in a steel frame some critics call a “rape rack.”

alienOnce they’ve given birth, the mothers’ maternal instincts to nurture and protect their young are usually violated, too. On most dairy farms, calves are taken from their mothers shortly after they’re born.[29] Producers make more money this way because the milk calves would nurse from their mother is worth more than the milk replacer and dry feed they provide to the calf. Males not kept for breeding are sold for beef or veal.

Shortly after they’re born, the young are also taken from sows and from hens used to produce meat. In large-scale egg production, male chicks not kept for breeding are taken and killed right away.

The same foundation links the oppression of women and animals: those from one group exploit members of a less powerful group.No one has to eat eggs or dairy products. Each of us can decide whether we want to participate in a system tainted by such domination and oppression.


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          Intensive animal agriculture proponents claim that its efficiencies allow it to produce food from animals so inexpensively that hungry people can afford to buy them.[30] These efficiencies, they say, enable factory farms to feed the world.

Actually, animal agriculture is not efficient; it’s enormously wasteful. To produce a kilogram of high-quality animal protein, livestock are fed about six kilograms of plant protein that people could have used to nourish themselves.[31] A 2018 study by researchers at Oxford University found that 83% of farmland worldwide is used to produce meat, eggs, and dairy products but these farms only produce 18% of the calories people get from food and 37% of the protein.[32] So, as Jonathan Safran Foer commented, factory farming doesn’t feed the world, it starves it.[33]

When we think about food waste, we need to think beyond food that has spoiled or half-eaten meals to the waste caused by the inefficient way it’s produced.[34] About 40% of the world’s grain harvest is fed to animals. Half of this grain would be more than enough to feed all the hungry people in the world.[35] The grain fed to animals is not only unavailable for people to eat, it drives up the price of the grain that is available. Impoverished people suffer the most from this because they can’t afford the higher prices.[36]

To generate much-needed revenue, some countries export grain to wealthier countries that they could use to feed hungry people in their own country. India is an excellent example. Although it ranked 94th among 107 countries in the Global Hunger Index, in 2019 it exported animal feed worth $232 million to other countries[37] while 14% of its population was undernourished and chronic malnutrition had stunted the growth of 37.4% of its children under five.[38]

Global warming will make the situation even more dire for people living in poverty. The adverse impact of climate change will fall disproportionately on them because they’re more likely to depend on climate-sensitive sectors of the economy for income and will be more strongly affected by the increase in food prices caused by disruptions in food production.[39]

Compounding the harm from its disruption of food production, global warming will reduce many staple foods’ nutritional value. As a result, the number of people whose diets are protein-deficient is expected to grow from 662 million to 884 million by the middle of the century. Thirty-eight million of those people will be from India.[40]

Every time people buy meat, they participate in a system in which people living in stronger countries often take what they want from those in less powerful ones, whether those living there need it or not. Each of us can decide if we’re going to participate in a system tainted by this agricultural colonialism.


* * * * *




          It may seem like it’s more ethical to eat fish than animals raised on farms because at least the fish are free until they’re caught. By now, though, more than half of the fish people eat never swim free.[41] They’re raised on aquatic fish farms and confined all their life before being slaughtered.

Some have called these farms “floating hog farms.”[42] In many ways, aquaculture operations are like factory farms. Industry standards are guided by economics. The stress and suffering the fish endure are only considered when they affect profitability. As in factory farms, the animals are confined so densely, they can’t escape from other animals who bully or cannibalize them.

In some ways, fish raised on these farms have it worse than pigs or chickens or turkeys on factory farms. On those farms, at least the animals are usually protected from predators. Those on a fish farm, though, fall prey to birds, seals, and other carnivores. Some operators even stock their farms with predator fish to reduce the stocking density that can lead to stunted growth. Disease, parasites, predation, and aggression produce high death rates on fish farms. Mortality of 10 to 30 percent is considered acceptable, [43] death rates that wouldn’t be accepted on a terrestrial factory farm.

When they’re slaughtered, farmed fish are frequently killed in brutal ways that would be illegal or shocking if used on cows or pigs. Sometimes, they’re just taken out of the water and allowed to asphyxiate in the air or on ice, a death spiral that can take 15 minutes or so.[44] One biologist compared this to killing chickens by throwing them in a tank of water and waiting for them to drown.[45] Other times, workers cut their gills and allow them to slowly bleed to death.

Fish farm operators are working to develop less brutal methods of slaughter. Even if they succeed in developing a technique that inflicts no pain or suffering on the fish, however, the inhumane methods used to capture and kill wild fish (described next) taint farmed fish, too, as they’re fed fishmeal and fish oil from wild-caught ones. In 2020, for instance, about a quarter of a kilogram of wild-caught fishes was consumed by fishes in the aquaculture industry for every kilogram of fish produced.[46]

The suffering wild-caught fishes endure depends on the way they’re caught and slaughtered. In longline fishing, the pain begins when live fishes are impaled on hooks attached to lines that are set in the water. When other fishes take the bait, they become impaled themselves and languish there for hours, even days, until the lines are hauled in. All the while, they may be attacked by sharks and other predators.[47] Then, as the lines are drawn in toward the boat, marlin, tuna, salmon, and other large fishes may be stabbed with a sharp hook on a pole and lifted aboard.

When trawlers are used, fishes are squeezed together at the tail end of a bag-shaped net dragged behind the boat. Many suffocate in the crush when their gill covers are pressed against the netting or other fishes and they can’t breathe. Others die when the compression disrupts their blood flow. One study found that 29 percent of the fishes were dead when brought aboard a trawler after a two-hour trawl and 61 percent after a four-hour trawl.[48] Many fishes suffer a similar fate when a school is encircled by a seine net hauled behind a boat and they’re crushed at the end of the net as it is drawn together and hauled to the surface.[49]

Fishes suffer a different type of injury when netting designed to capture those of a certain size is dropped in the sea. When fishes of that size swim into a gill net, they get trapped. They’re only able to get their heads through openings in the net and become ensnared as they try to back out. As they struggle to escape, filaments of the net cut through their skin.[50] Like in longline fishing, they remain trapped there, perhaps for days, until a ship returns and the net is hauled in.

In short, every method of capture inflicts great suffering on wild-caught fish.

The same is true of the ways they’re slaughtered. In 2011, the most common way commercial fishermen slaughtered fishes was to take them out of the water and let them suffocate.[51] They often killed salmon, tuna, and other large fishes by exsanguination. After the fishes are caught, fishermen cut their gills and leave them to bleed to death, which takes several minutes.[52] Evisceration is widely practiced on commercial fishing boats, too. Depending on the species, the fishes are cut open and some organs or parts of organs are removed. It takes twenty minutes or more for a fish to die that way.[53]

While the amount of suffering varies, depending on whether fish are caught in the wild or raised on a farm, one thing remains constant: they all suffer. As Jonathan Safran Foer put it, “You never have to wonder if the fish on your plate had to suffer. It did.”[54]


* * * * *




          It may seem that it’s more ethical to consume eggs and dairy products than meat because at least they can be produced from animals without bloodshed. Michael Pollan believed that ar first, writing in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that “. . . eggs and milk can be coaxed from animals without hurting or killing them ‒‒ or so at least I thought.”[55] In the book, Pollan told how, when he looked into it, he found that hens used for egg production in America were

“. . . piled together with a half-dozen other hens in a wire cage the floor of which four pages of this book could carpet wall to wall. Every natural instinct of this hen is thwarted, leading to a range of behavioral ‘vices’ that can include cannibalizing her cage mates and rubbing her breast against the wire mesh until it is completely bald and bleeding.”

. . . what you see when you look is the cruelty ‒ and the blindness to cruelty ‒ required to produce eggs that can be sold for seventy-nine cents a dozen.[56]

There’s bloodshed in egg production, too. Every year, millions of male chicks born to laying hens are killed shortly after they emerge from their shells because they don’t produce eggs or have the build of a breed that provides the most meat.

In time, the bloodshed reaches the hens themselves. After laying an egg a day for a year or two, many hens are emaciated and poorly feathered.[57] Then, they’re of little economic value anymore and farmers often just kill them and dispose of their bodies, referring to them, with brutal realism, as “spent.”[58]

Some producers don’t pile their hens into small cages or even keep their hens in cages at all. Like those kept in cages, though, most “free-range” or “cage-free” laying hens have parts of their beak amputated, are drugged, and are cruelly slaughtered when “spent.”

There’s blood in the milk from dairy operations, too. Males born to dairy cows are sold for meat unless kept for breeding.

Modern milk production systems place extreme metabolic demands on the cows, partly due to the high yield for which most commercial breeds have been selected. As Old Major warned in Animal Farm, cows used on dairy farms are worked to the last atom of their strength. As a result, often they are worked so hard they break down. If they haven’t broken down yet, they’re often sent to slaughter when they’ve stopped being as productive as younger cows.

Not only do most dairy cows have their lives taken from them when they’re young, adding insult to injury, they’re killed after having been repeatedly bred and having had their calves taken from them. Economics drives this practice too. The milk that a calf would nurse from his or her mother is worth more to the producer than the cost of milk replacer and dry feed provided to the calf. Calves not kept for breeding are sold for beef or veal. As Jonathan Balcombe commented: “If we heard of an alien civilization that takes babies away from mothers, eats the babies, and also consumes the mother’s milk, we would probably not want to meet them.”[59]

When you look closely, it turns out that dairy and egg production operations are just as inhumane as those used to produce meat. Sometimes they’re even more inhumane. And people are complicit in that inhumanity when they consume these products.

[1] Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 319.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See The Supremacist Syndrome at pages 188-194.

[4] Mara Miele, “The Taste of Happiness: Free Range Chicken,” Environment and Planning A 43 (2011), 2079.

[5] Livestock Conservancy, “Definition of a Heritage Turkey” accessed June 11, 2021 at https://www.livestockconservancy.org/index.php/resources/internal/heritage-turkey

[6] Farm Transparency Project, “Age of Animals Slaughtered,” accessed June 11, 2021 at https://www.farmtransparency.org/kb/48-age-animals-slaughtered

[7] Henning Steinfeld et al., Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2006).

[8] Daniel Imhoff, “Myth: Industrial Food Benefits the Environment and Wildlife” in THE CAFO  Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories, edited by Daniel Imhoff(Berkeley, California, Watershed Media, 2010), 79.

[9] Steinfeld et al., Livestock’s Long Shadow, xxii.

[10] Ibid., 114.

[11] David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, “Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78 (supp.) (2003),662S.

[12] Steinfeld et al., Livestock’s Long Shadow, xxii.

[13] Ibid., xxiii.

[14] Data source: Carbon Footprint Factsheet: Center for Sustainable Systems, accessed on March 12, 2021, http://css.umich.edu/factsheets/carbon-footprint-factsheet

[15] Ibid., xxi.

[16] Ibid., 112.

[17] Ibid., xxi.

[18] Ibid., 114.

[19] Ibid., xxi.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., xxi

[22] The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization later reduced this estimate to 14.5%. Gerber et al., Tackling Climate Change through Livestock: a Global Assessment of Emissions and Mitigation Opportunities, (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013), xii. On the other hand, researchers at the World Bank estimated that livestock operations were responsible for 51% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, “Livestock and Climate Change,” World Watch 22 (November, 2009), 13.

[23] Nathan Pelletier, Rich Pirog, and Rebecca Rasmussen, “Comparative life-cycle and environmental impacts of three beef production strategies in the Upper Midwestern United States,” Agricultural Systems 103 (2010), 386.

[24] Sean Clark, “Organic Farming and Climate Change: The Need for Innovation,” Sustainability 2020 (12) (2020), 7012.

[25] Luca Fernando Ruini et al, “Working toward healthy and sustainable diets: the ‘Double Pyramid Model’ developed by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition to raise awareness about the environmental and nutritional impact of foods,” Frontiers in Nutrition, 2: 9 (May, 2015), 3.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Brent F. Kim et al, “Country-specific dietary shifts to mitigate climate and water crises,” Global Environmental Change 62 (2020) 101926:10.

[28] Peter Singer and Jim Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter (New York: Rodale, 2007), 28.

[29] Calves are often allowed to suckle at first before being taken away so they get the colostrum in first milk  to strengthen their immune and digestive systems..

[30] Wesley J. Smith, A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement, (New York: Encounter Books, 2010), 207.

[31] David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, “Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78 (supp.) (2003), 662S.

[32] J. Poore and T. Nemecek, “Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers, Science 360 (6392) (May 31, 2018), 990.

[33] Jonathan Safran Foer, We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019), 166.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Claus Leitzman, “Nutrition ecology:the contribution of vegetarian diets,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78 (supp.) (2003), 658S.

[36] Tina HT Chin and Chin-Lon Lin, “Ethical management of food systems: plant-based diet as a holistic approach,” Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition 18 (4) (2009), 649.

[37] Accessed on March 15, 2021, worldstopexports.com/animal-feeds-exporters-by-country/

[38] Accessed on March 10, 2021, nationalheraldindia,com/india/global-hunger-index-2020-india-ranks-94-among-107-countries

[39] Sonja J. Vermuelen, Bruce M. Campbell, and John S. I. Ingram, “Climate Change and Food Systems, Annual Review of Environment and Resources 37 (2012), 195-222.

[40] Matthew R. Smith and Samuel Myers, “Impact of anthrogenic CO2 emissions on global nutrition,” Nature Climate Change 8 (September, 2019), 834-835.

[41] The State of the World’s Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020: Sustainability in Action (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2020), 2.

[42][42] Ken Stier and Emmett Hopkins, “Floating Hog Farms,” in The CAFO Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories  (Berkeley, California: Watershed Media, 2010), 147.

[43] Jonathan Balcombe, What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016), 216.

[44] Peter Singer and Jim Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, (Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2006), 129.

[45] Victoria Braithwaite, Do Fish Feel Pain?, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 18.

[46] Björn Kok et al., “Fish as Feed: Using Economic Allocation to Quantify the Fish In: Fish Out Ratio of Major Fed Aquaculture Species,” Aquaculture 528 (2020), 8.

[47] Balcombe, What a Fish Knows, 219.

[48] Neville G. Gregory, Animal Welfare and Meat Science (Wallingford, Oxfordshire, CABI Publishing, 1998), 198.

[49] Balcombe, What a Fish Knows, 219.

[50] Gregory, Animal Welfare and Meat Science, 199.

[51] B. K. Diggles et al., “Ecology and Welfare of Aquatic Animals in Wild Capture Fisheries.” Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 21 (2011), 753.

[52] D. H. F. Robb and S. C. Kestin, “Methods to Kill Fish: Field Observations and Literature Reviewed,” Animal Welfare 11 (2002), 272.

[53] Ibid., 274.

[54] Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals (New York: Back Bay Books, 2009), 193.

[55] Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 313.

[56] Ibid., 317-318.

[57] Neville G. Gregory, Animal Welfare and Meat Production (Wallingford, Oxfordshire: CABI Publishing, 2007), 122.

[58] John Webster, Animal Welfare: A Cool Eye Towards Eden (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1994), 157.

[59] Jonathan Balcombe, Second Nature:The Inner Lives of Animals (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 203.