GROWL: Life Lessons, Hard Truths, and Bold Strategies from an Animal Advocate, By Kim Stallwood.

2014, Lantern Books, New York. 9781590563960.

They say that when the student is ready, the teacher appears.  Nice thought, but can you count on it?  This much, anyway, can be maintained: sometimes you get the right book at the right time.

I went along to this year’s London Vegan Festival in a real funk, dispirited and frustrated over the prospects for real change for animals and the indifference I seemed to meet with daily.  In the preceding months I’d become aware of an increasing tetchiness and proneness to argument in myself.  Knowing full well that moaning about ‘the struggle’ and getting angry with persons who hold a different view was completely counter-productive, I still wasn’t having much luck controlling my feelings and getting back to a more positive place.  I was satisfied that I was becoming more active and outspoken on behalf of animals, but was I forgetting about peace in the process?

A stroke of good fortune for me, then, that I left the festival with a copy of Growl under my arm.

Kim Stallwood started training as a chef at age sixteen and found his first jobs in the kitchen of a posh Piccadilly restaurant and, during one summer holiday, wrapping freshly-slaughtered chickens in a Hampshire abattoir. Not a typical start for a life-long animal advocate, but in their way these early experiences took him through the stages of denial and mental-emotional compartmentalisation that we mostly all undergo, and it wasn’t long before the scales fell.  Peter Roberts of Compassion in World Farming took him on as a campaign officer in 1977 and over the course of the next twenty years (see full cv at he worked with what would become some of the most prominent organisations in the animal welfare/liberation movements, including the BUAV – where he was a modernising and energising influence – and PETA, whom he helped take national and then international.  This was a period of great change, a vitally important time for animal rights, and Kim Stallwood was front and centre nearly throughout and on both sides of the Atlantic to boot.  His experience has left him with a fund of insights such as few could lay claim to.  But Growl isn’t about the minutiae of organisational evolution – it’s concerned with the big picture: what’s it all been about; why are we doing this; how can we do it better?

Many animal defenders, perhaps even all of them, are born animal lovers, but Stallwood had long since made animal advocacy his choice of a life’s work before he discovered that he was, after all, an animal lover, too, and not just a clear-thinking, hard-nosed ethicist and campaigner.  I got the sense reading Growl that this late recognition – the full account of which is one of the book’s chief delights – has played a major part in giving him a perspective on just how complex and contradictory we all are, and how important it is to embrace that fruitful complexity.  This is notion is expressed movingly in his meditation on a driven and marginal figure who shocked him into a new awareness when, as a young lad, as he witnessed her carting her motley band of rescue dogs down the high street of his hometown.  This was ‘Camberley Kate’ Ward, and it’s her spirit that presides over, even haunts, the book.  Camberley Kate was

..a woman who outspokenly preferred the company of animals to humans, and yet (without telling anyone) gave what little money she had to help the human poor and sick: Did she confirm or overturn the stereotype of the animal lover as misanthrope? Was she the crazy and sad dog lady who compensated for a lack of human companionship by taking in these animals, or was she the useful salve for the guilty consciences of those who couldn’t be bothered to be inconvenienced by the dogs they’d acquired– a woman who knew fully the joys and responsibilities of many relationships? Was she the example of a failure of society to look after the displaced, disposable, and undesirable, or did she epitomise the self-abnegation we’re all capable of in giving our lives over to the discarded and unwanted?  Would she have been considered less saintly and more eccentric if she’d decided to look after animals we consume as opposed to ‘man’s best friend’? And if she had, what would that have said about how ‘correctly’ or otherwise we apportion our concern among the different species? Is it appropriate to praise her for her conforming to the Christian notion of sanctity in that her charity was selfless, but to ignore her non-politicised stance over society’s continual abuse and discarding of billions of domesticated and farmed animals? (13-14)

So the contradictions, extremes and hypocrisies of the animal-centred person are not theirs alone, but are mirrored by, even determined by, the paradoxes and irrationalities of ‘normal’ persons and normative society.  To say it’s a two-way street would still be to over simplify; the important thing to note is that there just is no pure and unconflicted position for any of us.

This theme returns in another form later in the book, where Ghandi’s contention that there is no practical abstention from himsa (violence; harm), only a kind of tragic resolve toward ahimsa, is seen to open a way for us, gifting us humility.  Ahimsa is a journey, not a destination (this is exactly the definition that the author gives for veganism (2)), and the impossibility of ahimsa’s being a destination ensures that none of us can arrogate for his or herself the position – the violent position – of the one who has completed the journey.  How wonderful and reassuring, how companionable, that we are all still journeying together:

Thus, to be a genuine vegan is to recognise the fact that one can never be vegan; to commit to nonviolence is to recognise how steeped in anger, disappointment, frustration, and simple pique we are as human beings – and continue to pursue nonviolence nonetheless. (168)

One can never be vegan: what a thing to call mind the next time someone asks me why I’m vegan (or a pacifist; or maybe even a Christian).  An inoculation, I’d say, against responding with either annoyance or self-satisfaction.  I’ll have to try it out some time!

A truly mature animal rights movement will be able to purge itself of itself of its excesses of naivete and violence only when it recognises the springs of these excesses for what they are, forgives them and embraces them as natural and good, turning us at last from puritanism toward a compassionate realism.  Only then will it deliver for animals what the animals have been waiting for so long: for us to get down to the business of improving their lot in every way we can, without letting our understandable impatience – the fact that we cannot dispel speciesism and its attendant horrors in one righteous fell swoop – hamstring us.  The same holds for the individual animal rights advocate. Unfinished as we are, we can find a mature level where we accept our own imperfections and even our complicity and accept that others are unfinished to.  In fact, it’s only because we are ‘unfinished’ that we are able to do so.

Personally, I don’t think that that message would have hit home with me in quite the way that it did but for the description Kim Stallwood gives of what he calls ‘the misanthropic bunker’.  This is the despairing state of mind that I’m sure most of us will be familiar with and have at times felt terribly guilty about succumbing to.  It’s not a Quakerly place, after all.  The bunker is where we go to lick our wounds, to wallow in pity and self-pity, to burn with anger and even outright loathing.  Sounds horrible, but it’s not: it is useful and even necessary.  The danger comes when we don’t know when to re-emerge from it or how to use it skilfully, mistaking it for a place of genuine self-examination (61) or a substitute for the discernment Friends can help us with; or when despise ourselves for going ‘there’ or when we seek to draw others into it or remain in ignorance of its potentially infectious qualities.  I’d never before heard this place ‘named’ explicitly (perhaps this naming primarily serves to externalise the emotional state) and described as accurately as it is in Growl or with the same degree of empathy, and it’s the latter that was really the key and it’s why I said that this was truly the right book at the right time for me.  I felt understood when I read this, and being understood rarely fails to accomplish some kind of healing.

Those wishing to know more about the history of the animal welfare/rights movement will find Growl an enlightening read, but those looking for the best ways of advancing the short and long term goals of that movement may well find it an indispensable one.  In the book’s final chapters, Kim Stallwood brilliantly assesses the maturity of the movement as a whole and concludes that the time is ripe to move resolutely from public education into public policy.  It’s up to us to realise that challenge.

Review by Thom Bonneville.