Save the Cows!

The downside of rescuing livestock on Animal Planet.

Animal control in action

In a scene from Animal Cops: Houston, a new reality show on Animal Planet, a rescue worker looks up with his haunted, cavernous eyes and says of the cruelly neglected young goat lying prone on the ground, “A lot of it is up to her, whether she still has the will or not to live.” I’m right there with him, anxious about her prospects and seething that someone could treat a helpless animal this way. But all this pathos releases its grip on me suddenly when I realize—in the way you realize something you already know—that he’s talking about the will to live, and I’m on the edge of my seat, and it’s, like, a goat.

Animal Cops, like the network that runs it, often provokes this kind of realization—a nettling awareness that, wait, it’s a goat—that runs as a parallel mental track to your normal involvement in the drama (which on Animal Cops is a combination of emergency room nail-biter, police procedural, and Franciscan lament).

This awareness can take several forms, one of which is cultural. Seeing how people treat animals in poor countries—I once watched a motorcyclist in Vietnam blithely bounce a puppy into a gutter with his front tire, in front of a dozen or so onlookers so unmoved that they didn’t bother to actually look on—you can’t help feeling that the heroic rescues and emergency surgeries you see on Animal Planet are culturally and historically rare, if not, in their own noble way, bizarre. In the aftermath of Sept. 11 a common liberal musing was “Why do they hate us?” Watching Animal Planet, you start to wonder if the more trenchant question might be “What do they think of the fact that, in America, you can get a sonogram for an iguana?”

But there’s a more significant and discomfiting contradiction than the external one between rich and poor countries. That is the internal contradiction in rich countries between intense retail sympathy for imperiled beasts and wholesale indifference to other, even more imperiled animals, often of the same species. If you’ve ever caught yourself rooting for a frightened cow in a rain-swollen stream on Amazing Animal Videos while also munching on a hamburger, you know what I’m talking about.

Like other traditional zones of moral inconsistency, this purposeful not-noticing has for a long time been a private affair, which is what makes it sustainable. As such it resembles the network of functional hypocrisies that Jonathan Rauch has called the “hidden law.” It is good and necessary that we have high ideals and sturdy moral principles, Rauch argues, but it destroys both social bonds and the ideals themselves to insist that we always live up to them.

It’s hard to deny that in rich, pet-crazy countries like America and Britain, the relationship between humans and animals rests on such a foundation of useful and private hypocrisy. We treat some domesticated animals like people, but with a modesty rooted in the recognition that, beyond a certain point, that stuff—the monogrammed sweaters and the birthday parties—emits a noticeable whiff of crazy. And we avert our eyes from the vast industry in which, after hideous lives of tight confinement and biochemical alteration, other domesticated animals are slaughtered, skinned, and carved up so that we might eat their flesh.

Of the many shows on Animal Planet that work against this arrangement, Animal Cops: Houston is the most unnerving. It is the third Animal Planet series featuring animal-cruelty police, after Animal Precinct (set in New York City) and Animal Cops: Detroit. A surprising pattern emerges when these shows are set against each other. You might think the plight of domestic animals would be worst in the most densely populated places, but the opposite seems to be the case. Notwithstanding last week’s Harlem tiger rescue, the New York cops deal mainly with neglected mutts and abused pit bulls, with the occasional lady with 100 cats thrown in. Moving stuff, to be sure, especially if, like me, you find pit bull faces eerily soulful and human. 

But it does not compare to the Byzantine predicaments that people living on the physical and economic margins of Houston create for themselves, their families, and their ostriches. Perhaps it is a function of population density—more room to live means more space for human folly. Or maybe it is a Texas thing, where even the poor people occasionally go in for wildcat entrepreneurial gambits, like raising hogs on half an acre or taking up bear farming. Whichever it is, they leave the animal cops a helluva mess to clean up when they die, or flee the country, or leave a starving horse lying close enough to the road for the neighbors to see.

This means the exertions of the Houston animal cops are more time- and resource-consuming, and more dangerous, than those of their New York or Detroit counterparts. (In New York, a tiger rescue is a once-in-a-lifetime news story. In Texas—where tiger-owning is legal and where the tiger population, at somewhere between the high hundreds and the low thousands, might rival India’s—it’s something you plan for.)

But the weird travails of Houston’s animal cops also mean something else. According to the narrator of Animal Cops: Houston, 40 percent of the calls these cops take involve livestock: neglected or abused horses, cows, chickens, and yes, goats (and ostriches). Thus, they find themselves rescuing animals whose cousins and nephews, probably not too far away, are undergoing the final unpleasant rigors of livestock life, without any hope of rescue from animal cops.

The discomfort that arises from these unwelcome thoughts is provoked from a different direction on another new Animal Planet show. Beverly Hills Vet features an Australian veterinarian and animal behaviorist with the marquee name of Katrina Warren, who takes on the wacky pet problems of Los Angeles. Dr. Katrina is alarmingly well cast. She’s pretty and emaciated, with the protruding collarbones and drained cheeks (and suspiciously assertive breasts) favored by today’s Hollywood starlets, but with the goofy posture—the flexile pelvis and lolling bird-neck—of a science nerd.

The show’s setup, sending a level-headed Aussie vet into the homes of pet-owning SoCal loonies, sounds promising. But Katrina spends less time plying her insights as an animal behaviorist, or rolling her eyes at New Age pet-worshippers, than she does acting as a kind of human Yellow Pages. Pet owners describe their dilemmas, and she declares that she knows someone who can help, gets on her cell phone, and calls the expert. She thus spends a lot of time arranging meetings, putting this person in contact with that person, which makes her look less like a vet and more like an agent.

Still, the show does provide some of the L.A antics we’re tuning in for, which in turn inspires the thoughts we’re trying to avoid. There’s a wedding ceremony, described as “the joining of two souls,” held for a pair of macaws. And there’s the owner of a neurotic cat, who, applying “an energetic modality” called “body talk,” discovers a “consciousness of anger in the liver” (which our vet sensibly translates as the cat needs a scratching post).

The show’s official attitude toward the angry-liver diagnosis is one of derision, but it doesn’t matter. The reality-TV format publicizes the extreme solicitude toward individual animals entailed in even nonloony pet ownership. But the arrangement we have with animals, in which they feed our spirits with their quasi-human companionship and our stomachs with their tender thigh meat, requires this to remain private. Otherwise we might be moved to ask, if that guy’s lovely blue macaws have souls, what about Frank Perdue’s more homely chickens?

Realizing this question lacks a satisfying answer doesn’t put the mind at ease. The only thing that does is not asking it in the first place.