Bob Torres

"Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage FEB 7, 2008)

"The centrality of classifying animals as property should not be underestimated when it comes to considering the depths of animal exploitation woven into our society and economy. Having animals categorized as property gives us the ability to exploit them as a resource for even minor wants."

Making a Killing by Bob Torres

I don’t know how you feel about the subjects of eating meat and the rights of animals, but there have been many things that have troubled me for some time when it comes to these issues. Several incidents have been simmering away in my brain, and although I did not come to any overall conclusion, I was bothered enough to find my mind returning to the inconsistency with which we treat animals.

A recent episode of Survivor included a "challenge" in which the contestants ate baby soft-shelled turtles, and I found myself wondering why CBS thought it was acceptable to air this on national television. Then when I was walking my dogs one evening, one of my neighbours, a new addition to the area, stopped me and asked me about my dogs. Silly me, I thought she admired them, but then she added, “we eat dog in my country.” I hurried away wondering if she was salivating. Both of these incidents brought the idea of perceived culturally acceptable items for the menu to the surface. In China, Walmart serves up slices of turtle to its customers, but they wouldn’t dream of pulling that stunt in America. (I should add here that you can find turtle on the menu in San Francisco’s Chinatown). In France, you can order up a horse steak; try pulling that in California. It’s simply not culturally acceptable to eat these animals here, and that’s a damn good thing too, but other countries, other cultures find the consumption of these animals perfectly morally acceptable. Why? Why, for example, are some animals protected by society’s attitudes towards cruel and inhumane treatment while others are not? Why do we think it’s ok to eat some animals while we bristle at the idea of eating others?

Still mulling over our cultural attitudes towards animals, I came across Here, Kitty, Kitty, a 2007 documentary film from Prolefeed Studios that explores what happened in Wisconsin when an initiative to legalize the shooting of cats appeared on the 2005 ballot. The emotional debate brought a range of opinions to the fore. There were those Wisconsin residents who decided cats were fair game, and others who were prepared to protect free-roaming cats who are—it’s argued—decimating the bird population.

With these issues already in my mind, but not really causing any loss of sleep, I picked up Bob Torres’s wonderful book, Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights. Torres, a professor of Sociology at St. Lawrence University takes a fresh new look at the way in which we humans view and use animals. Taking an anti-species approach, Torres addresses the inconsistencies with which we humans treat animals, noting that while we ultimately award some consideration towards some species, we accept that others are acceptable for the dinner table. Humans have, Torres states, “deep moral confusion” about animals, and this he argues is clearly exhibited in the inconsistencies with which we treat them:

The problem is that we have constructed a society in which we are rarely forced to think about where what we consume comes from, and this extends to the animals reared for our consumption. While we pamper one set of animals, another set becomes our food.

Well, at this point, Torres had my attention. His arguments addressed the very inconsistencies that troubled me. I had chalked up my recent experiences to cultural differences, and yes, to an extent the incidents I noted were culturally motivated. However, that designation did not quite solve the puzzle—why for example did some Americans start loading their shotguns in anticipation at the thought that it would soon be legal to shoot cats while others saw the potential new law as barbaric? After all, both proponents and opponents of the Wisconsin law were all Americans.

In the book’s five chapters, the author--whose dual major at Penn State was philosophy and agricultural science--examines the way in which we view animals, beginning with the animal agriculture business, the use of animals in vivisection and ending with a blistering critique of so-called animal welfare groups, including PETA.

Examining the role of agricultural animals “within the larger dynamics of capitalist exploitation,” Torres applies Marxist economic theory to his critique of the animal industry. One of the fundamental problems Torres identifies is that animals are seen as mere property and as such are mere units of production; given the “cheapest possible inputs” with the goal to “squeeze every last bit of production out of them.” But more than this:

We see the bodies of the animals changed to fit the needs of productivity and profit, with little concern for the viability of the
animals beyond their ability to produce rapid profit for the investor or producer.

Torres includes details to back his argument: optimal stocking density, debeaking, and forced molt. One highly detailed section of the book examines “the commodity form” of an egg, and just how that egg comes to the table with the “certified husbandry guidelines.”

Now, at this point, I want to be perfectly clear, this book in the hands of another, less-skilled author could so easily sink into guilt-ridden diatribe. There are no photos in the book (thank goodness), and the ugly reality—the so-called husbandry behind how agricultural animals are treated (the square inches, for example, per hen) is delivered very matter-of-factly, with no excessive, emotional adjectives. This book did not make me nauseous. It did not make me feel guilty, but it did make me feel angry. When it comes to how I’ve viewed animal agriculture, I’ve been tripped up by my own gray moral thinking, and I’ll frankly admit that by about the halfway point, I recognized some of my own slippery moral justification on the subject of meat eating.

Apart from the author’s clear, coherent analysis of the animal agriculture industry, he also takes a good hard look at some of the institutions gathered around the perimeters—the good conscience meat industry, for instance. We’ve all seen the adverts: Amish chickens—animals that we imagine lead bucolic, chipper lives all the way to the slaughterhouse. These chic marketing ploys appeal to and divert our consciences, when in reality it all comes down to the same thing: “violent domination” over animals while we are “constantly subjugating them to our whims.” A fair portion of the book is spent on peeling away these rather comfortable and convenient blinders, these little marketing tricks that allow us, as consumers to “wall off our conscience” and completely disconnect ourselves from the reality of our behaviours and our purchases.

But Torres doesn’t stop there. He also details the number of animals used in vivisection, and this is a subject matter that remains largely ignored. But according to Torres, a “conservative” figure places the number of animals killed for scientific and medical research at around 20 million per year in the U.S. Some basic info on vivisection is included: the LD (lethal dose)-50 test which “determines how much of a substance is necessary to kill fifty percent of a population.” And if you think that means that fifty percent of the animals will survive, then I’ve got bad news. The survivors are force fed with the compound over the next two weeks, and if any of them survive, then they are killed and dissected.

In case you thought that PETA, the radical watchdog of animal welfare is out there to protect all the warm and fuzzy interests of animals, well Torres tells us to think again. He points out that PETA, an organization viewed as “radical” by many people in this society, in some instances actually works to support the animal agriculture industry. Torres cites an instance in which PETA gave the “Visionary” award to Temple Grandin, a “slaughter house systems designer” for her “so-called humane food production.” Torres states that for PETA—the largest animal rights group in the world--to give an award to someone for slaughterhouse innovations simply “defies rational comprehension” and is “at the very least contradictory.” This is, Torres argues, just one example of the many “Faustian bargains” mainstream organizations make with the animal agriculture industry in order to maintain “bureaucratic concerns.” 

Despite the book’s dire message, it manages to end on a very optimistic note. Torres urges us to abandon violent domination over animals, accept veganism as a baseline, and to become activists who actually DO something more than just whip out a checkbook once a year. Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights made my best book of the year list. That may not mean a great deal to the people who read this, but it means a great deal to me. Above all else, Torres made me think, and in this day and age, I appreciate that.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Making a Killing at author's website

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About the Author:

Bob TorresBob Torres was born and raised in Philadelphia, PA. He received his BA in Philosophy and his BS in Agricultural Science from the Pennslyvania State University, University Park and his MS and PhD in Development Sociology from Cornell University.

Torres works as a professor of sociology at a small liberal arts university in upstate New York, St. Lawrence University, where he teaches classes on political economy, international development, the sociology of food and agriculture, and research methods. His writings have appeared in Critical Sociology, The Journal of Latinos and Education, International and Evironmental Health and Satya magazine.

Bob lives in the northern foothills of the Adirondacks in Upstate NY with his partner Jenna, two dogs who love to run, and a fat old cat. Bob is an avid vegan cook, a runner and cyclist, and a general computer geek. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014