Maverick for Mercy

Matthew Scully extends compassionate conservatism to animals

He’s the least likely animal advocate you’ll ever meet. Matthew Scully cuts a tall but unimposing figure, and speaks with the reserved humility of his Catholic upbringing in Casper, Wyoming. When asked his opinions, he pauses and contemplates, as if afraid to misspeak on even the slightest of questions. But when he speaks, his words have force.

For eight years now, he’s been writing speeches at the core of the modern conservative movement—first as a senior advisor to President Bush and most recently for Senator McCain. Two months ago, he made headlines as the author of Governor Palin’s well-received nomination speech at the Republican National Convention. In some sense, Scully was a natural choice to write the speech: A former literary editor at National Review, he has long been an eloquent advocate of pro-life, faith-based conservatism.

Yet as bloggers were quick to note, there was also a certain irony to his selection. For Scully holds one view that Governor Palin’s record supporting the aerial gunning of Alaskan wolves suggests she may not—a deep concern for the welfare and protection of animals.

In 2005, Scully penned a piece entitled “Fear Factories: The Case for Compassionate Conservatism—for Animals.” It ran as the cover story of Pat Buchanan’s magazine The American Conservative—an unusual place to find an essay assailing trophy hunters and factory farmers for their indifference to animal suffering.

But then Scully is an unusual conservative. A vegetarian from age 17, he adopts shelter dogs on the last legs of their lives—he told me that he doesn’t accept “euthanasia” for humans or animals as inevitable. And he sees in animal cruelty the same enemies that conservatives confront in all spheres of society: moral relativism, a devaluing of life, and self-centered materialism posing as a code of ethics.

Why, then, asks Scully, are conservatives, normally so willing to view issues in moral terms and to legislate accordingly, silent in the face of institutionalized animal abuse?

Partly conservative skepticism towards animal rights is reflexive. When PETA staged a 2004 “love in, fur out” protest in Harvard Square—six near naked protesters on a giant mattress, protesting fur—the Harvard Salient expressed predictable outrage. And when secular philosophers cite Darwin’s findings on human-animal similarities as a basis for more equal rights between species, pious conservatives cringe.

Yet, as Scully argues, the animal movement is broader than this caricature. Modern animal advocacy began as the cause of 19th century Christian reformers combating slavery and child abuse. Indeed, William Wilberforce, the famous abolitionist and co-founder of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, is a hero in modern Christian conservative circles.

The moral convictions of such men did not require abstract theories of rights for support. Nor do Scully’s. “We are called to treat [animals] with kindness,” he writes, “not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t; because they all stand unequal and powerless before us.”

But, if this moral basis sounds simple, its implications are radical. The New York Times called Scully’s book, “Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy,” “horrible, wonderful, [and] important” and, reading his descriptions of factory farming, it’s easy to see why. A journalist by training, Scully traveled to a typical industrial hog farm in North Carolina—owned by the nation’s largest pork producer—and documented what he saw:

“The creatures are encased row after row, 400 to 500 pound mammals trapped without relief inside iron crates seven feet long and 22 inches wide. They chew maniacally on bars and chains, as foraging animals will do when denied straw, or engage in stereotypical nest-building with the straw that isn’t there, or else just lie there like broken beings. The spirit of the place would be familiar to police who raided [a puppy mill] only instead of 350 tortured animals, [there are] millions—and the law prohibits none of it.”

Ultimately, Scully argues, such abject cruelty ceases to be a partisan issue. Few people can rationally justify such conditions, and yet the majority of us implicitly support them by buying products from factory farms—which today produce the vast majority of America’s pork, chicken, and eggs.

The easiest way to end such practices, Scully argues, is for each of us to boycott the products of factory farms—in our purchases and in the dining hall food we put on our plate. A sacrifice certainly, but a small one compared to the suffering it could ease.

As Scully writes: “It doesn’t seem like much to us, the creatures’ little lives of grazing and capering and raising their young and fleeing natural predators. Yet it is the life given them, not by breeder but by Creator. It is all they have. It is their part of the story, a beautiful part beyond the understanding of man, and who is anyone to treat it lightly?”

A powerful thought to consider this Thanksgiving, perhaps with a copy of “Dominion” in hand.


Lewis E. Bollard ’09 is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.