Watching the American Kennel Club/Eukanuba National Championship on TV two nights ago, my husband and I marveled at the beautiful dogs striding and sleeking around the stadium. "Look how happy that guy looks," my husband said of the Siberian husky. "He looks like he's laughing."
The standard poodle looked snooty. The Irish setter looked proud. But were they, really? Were what looked like smiles and smirks just functions of each species' particular anatomy -- or were we actually discerning the dogs' emotions in their eyes?
Not long ago, I interviewed Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson about animal emotions. He used to own dogs. But not anymore. And never again, he said.
In the late '90s, this noted ex-psychoanalyst, Sanskrit professor and author of nearly two dozen books adopted three mixed-breeds. He ran with them, took them on vacations, and wrote about them in his book Dogs Never Lie About Love. But in the years since, Masson -- whose 1981 dismissal from the directorship of the Freud Archives sparked volcanic intellectual debate -- has come to view dog ownership as a form of animal cruelty.
"I still love dogs," Masson told me. "I think they're amazing."
But we aren't fit to be their companions, because "I don't believe we can give them the ideal life. Living with us, they're not living the life they were meant to live, which among other things would mean our spending the whole day with them." Dogs are too social, too loyal, too energetic, too eager for physical attention and bonding to be confined in solitude for as long as we typically leave them while pursuing our own human priorities. Masson looks just as harshly at keeping cats indoors -- or, as he put it, "confined."
"To argue that a cat in an apartment is leading a happy life is to restrict our sense of the word 'happy.'"
Allowing that cats and dogs have emotions is one thing. Masson's 2003 book The Pig Who Sang to the Moon goes one step farther, examining farm animals' feelings --- and exposing possibilities that a mostly carnivorous public would rather not see.
While researching that book, Masson stopped eating eggs. Eventually, he became a vegan. This led to his 2009 book The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food. He told me that upon hearing that Masson wanted to write a mainstream book on meatless diets, his publisher initially wanted him to interview celebrity vegans: "And I would have been perfectly happy to talk to Paul McCartney." But psychology and philosophy ultimately, as always, proved a much stronger lure.
"One of the things I took away from psychoanalysis is how much humans use denial to ward off stuff that we don't want to deal with," he declared. "And when people don't want to deal with what they're eating, they're in massive denial. ... My main concern is the deeper issue of how we fool ourselves into believing that animals want to die or want to be cooked or eaten. It's an old cliché of the mind that animals are happy to give their lives to us, that we've made a pact with domestic animals, that in exchange for giving them a good life and a quick death they will give themselves to us."
He scorns the idea of so-called "happy cows" and the notion that free-range hens and creatures destined to become grass-fed meat lead "better lives."