In British slang, a beast is an extremely talented and tenacious individual. Now, I don’t know Keggie Carew but I would wager a bet (if I gambled) that she’s a beast. Not physically, of course, but in temperament. Her book, Beastly, weighing in at 368 pages, is written with great style and a keen sense of justice. From its subtitle, ‘A New History of Animals and Us’, you know that as you read the pages you’re on a roller coaster ride of shock and awe. This poetic sense of interspecies history is more interesting and disturbing than reading an account written by a scientist or an academic. (Not that there is anything wrong with them.) I appreciated Keggie’s interjections with her opinions and, as I read, keenly looked forward to the next. Her back flap bio describes her as having had a career in contemporary art and is now an award-winning author who looks after, with her husband, a small nature reserve in England.
Here she describes her reaction to watching a film when men in a boat off the coast of Mexico in the Sea of Cortez come across a humpback whale strangling in a nylon gill net. Most likely you, too, have seen this film online. Men dive into the water to cut the net away from the whale. ‘After an hour they think they have enough net on board to make the final cut.’ The whale disappears. ‘The camera pans out across the sea. Like a great torpedo exploding out of the water, she breaches. We hear whooping and hollering from the boat, we see the crew’s mouths open with disbelief.’ They watch in awe for an hour as the whale repeatedly breaches the water more than forty times.
I can watch this film again and again; it never loses its ecstatic wonder. It is not sentimental anthropomorphic imagination. It is sensitive creaturely imagination. The real emotional connection of concern for another being. [p. 53]
That’s some of the awe Keggie writes in Beastly. It’s time for a shock. Toward the end of a paragraph listing the 34 million insects and arachnids held by the Natural History Museum in London. There are 9 million moths and butterflies. ‘The museum’s bird-skin collection numbers 750,000 specimens over 8,000 species,’ she writes. ‘That averages nearly a hundred of each.’ she snorts and concludes
I stomp across the stone flags and think of the community of death in this great mausoleum replicated across the world. Of the multitudes, how many were taken for science with positive outcome? How many for pure excess? [p.148]
Couldn’t agree with you more, Keggie.
It is an ambitious claim to say your book is a ‘new history of animals and us.’ It’s certainly that but the non-scientific and non-academic approach means that in reading Beastly you’re looking through the author’s frame. It’s certainly encyclopedic. But it lacks an overarching philosophy or understanding. Philosophy and ethics are present but not fully explored or used as tools to bring meaning to understanding interspecies history. Need more about the ‘creaturely imagination’ she mentions in response to watching the whale film. Beastly is a challenging read as it’s a never-ending catalogue of descriptions of humans abusing animals. But, come to think of it, that’s what the history of animals and us is all about.
Any reservation on my part is outweighed by the benefits of reading this insightful assessment of human and animal relations. The lack of a thesis about the relationship is disappointing. Nonetheless, the extensive evidence gathered and the skill with which Carew Keggie guides the reader more than justifies reading this important and insightful book.