Like many people who’ve been involved in social justice causes over several decades, I often wish that at the outset I’d possessed the strategic knowhow, the ability to communicate effectively, and other persuasive skills that I think I have now. Growl is the book I would have loved to have owned when I was a young man and I discovered how widespread was the cruelty we inflict on other animals.

The simple truth is that I couldn’t have written it until now. I had to accrue from a lifetime of working for animals a deeper understanding of what caring profoundly about them truly meant. I needed to learn that, although we humans are capable of unimaginable malice towards other living beings, we can also be astonishingly kind. It was necessary to gain a comprehension of animal rights—and through that wisdom discover not only the transformative potential of kindness towards animals but how we need to apply that kindness to ourselves—to realise that although animal rights is, of course, about our relationship with nonhuman creatures, it’s also about locating meaning in our lives and finding out who we truly are.

For almost four decades, I’ve worked at some of the world’s foremost animal rights organisations in the United Kingdom and the United States. I’ve been intimately involved in the advance of the animal advocacy movement from the fringes of society to the mainstream. Growl is at once my first-hand account of that change, a reflection on the important lessons I’ve learnt, and an elucidation of the values I’ve come to believe must be at the centre of any effort towards implementing social justice—whether for human or nonhuman animals.

Growl is the story of an ordinary individual, very much a work-in-progress, who didn’t undergo an immediate personal conversion when he discovered the horrors inflicted on animals. It’s also about how I thought I had all of the answers to all of the questions about what was wrong with the world, yet I ignored vital issues about myself. In fact, my life seems more like a series of muddled chapters, missed as well as seized opportunities, slow realisations, and, of course, errors and misjudgements. Growl is, therefore, not so much a recollection in tranquillity of wisdom earned and lessons learnt but a report from a fellow soldier on the front lines of our common struggle for lives that matter—not for ourselves alone, but for those, regardless of species, whom we may never meet.

In grappling with challenges over the course of my life, I’ve come to believe that a commitment to animal rights requires an honest examination of our motivations in a never-ending process of engagement with others and a disciplining and opening up of our hearts to our frustrations and joys. Animals suffered when I set out to save them forty years ago, and they continue to do so today. A vegan is not completely innocent of animal exploitation; nor does he automatically become ‘a good person’, simply because he shuns all animal products. Veganism is not a destination so much as a journey: one that perhaps only highlights how confused and complex our relations with other animals are; one that aims to offer instead of rape, murder, war, cruelty, and environmental devastation, a little kindness, gentleness, and self-sacrifice en route.

I also believe that our commitment to animal rights must be animated by four key values:

  • Compassion: our motivation for helping animals
  • Truth: our ethical relations with animals
  • Nonviolence: our value in the relations we have with animals
  • Justice: our commitment to all animals

Not only are these principles more powerful in combination than singularly, but they’re ones that most of us have already accepted for other members of our species (although perhaps only recently, and still only partially). These values, therefore, possess a certain strategic value, since they form a quartet that people who may not share our dedication to reducing animal suffering can understand. Growl explores these values in detail.

Before we continue, it’s worth defining what I mean when I talk about ‘animal suffering’ or ‘animal cruelty’. It should go without saying that all animal existence, of whatever species we belong to, involves pain and discomfort in the natural course of our lives. We’re all going to die, and disease affects us all. Some animals are predators and some are prey, and I for one am not ready to deny the lion his right to hunt a gazelle, even though I may stop a domestic cat from trying to kill the birds in my garden.

In Understanding Animal Abuse: A Sociological Analysis, Clifton P. Flynn quotes sociologist Frank R. Ascione who defines animal cruelty as ‘socially unacceptable behavior that intentionally causes unnecessary pain, suffering, or distress to and/or death of an animal.’ Flynn notes that this definition excludes ‘legal, socially acceptable behaviors (which are often deemed “necessary”) that cause the most harm to animals—for example, factory farming, hunting, or animal experimentation’. He goes on to consider a definition of cruelty to companion animals written by Hannelie Vermeulen and Johannes S. J. Odendaal that describes more clearly what animal cruelty and exploitation could encompass. I’ve adapted their definition slightly so that it encompasses my understanding of all areas of animal use: ‘[Animal abuse] is the intentional, malicious, or irresponsible, as well as unintentional or ignorant, infliction of physiological and/or psychological pain, suffering, deprivation, and the death of animals by humans’ (96–97). This is what I mean when I talk about ‘animal cruelty’ or ‘animal exploitation’.

I’ve spent most of my life growling about and against animal exploitation—thus the title of this book. Nonetheless, biographical elements aside, Growl doesn’t focus on animal exploitation in factory farms, nor highlight individual acts of cruelty. The book doesn’t contain graphic descriptions of the torture of animals. Instead, my goal is to explore how a deeper understanding of animal rights can lead us to discover what it means to be genuinely humane—by which I mean not merely kind to members of our own species, but caring towards other animals as well, in a compassionate, honest, peaceful, and just world. As the definition of ‘animal cruelty’ above suggests, I’m most interested in our attitudes—whether we’re conscious of them or not—that cause us to harm others, and in presenting a way of being in the world that doesn’t involve exploitation or abuse.

For some, the aspirations laid out in this book may seem pie-in-the-sky day-dreaming, the kind of optimism that no one can deny is a wonderful goal because no one believes it’s achievable. Yet every engagement we make in the world draws on social, cultural, political, and economic norms that function individually and institutionally to guide our action and attitude. As adults, we’re responsible for our behaviour and have a certain duty as informed citizens to understand how we impact the lives of others. In that regard, social transformation may be as simple, and as complex, as becoming conscious of one’s world and one’s behaviour in it.

Furthermore, to ignore the utopian vision altogether is to condemn ourselves to despair. Even though the aspiration to live with compassion, honesty, peace, and justice may seem impossibly idealistic, imagine what it would be like to inhabit a world entirely defined by their opposites: indifference, lies, violence, and injustice! This book argues that there is—indeed, has to be—another way to engage with the nonhuman world. No matter what others may say about what we do, we are answerable to no one else but ourselves. We may not be able to save the world. But we can save the world that is ours.