Barbara J. King, Personalities on the Plate: The Lives & Minds of Animals We Eat


BarbaraJKingBarbara J. King is emerita professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and now is a full-time freelance science writer.

Barbara has written or edited many books on anthropology and animal behavior. Her latest, just published in March, is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. Her How Animals Grieve from 2013 has been translated into Japanese, Portuguese, French (winning a book prize), and Hebrew.

King’s essay on animal mourning in Scientific American was chosen for inclusion in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014. She blogs each week for National Public Radio’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog,and writes regularly about books for the TLS. Barbara is active on twitter @bjkingape.

Since 2009, It’s All About Food, has been bringing you the best in up-to-date news regarding food and our food system. Hosted by Caryn Hartglass, a vegan since 1988, the program includes in-depth interviews with medical doctors; nutritionists; dieticians; cook book authors; athletes; environmental, animals and health activists; farmers; food manufacturers; lawyers; food scientists and more. Learn about how we can solve many of the world’s problems today and do it deliciously, here on It’s All About Food.


Caryn Hartglass: Hey everybody, I’m Caryn Hartglass and thank you for joining me today on It’s All About Food, so I’m just juggling here because my Wi-Fi just went out. How is that? Thankfully I have many different methods of technology here. Oh, the little green light is flashing. Anyway I have my phone. My phone works, it’s all good. Lots to be thankful for like phones and Wi-Fi and options. Thank you for joining me today on It’s All About Food. You may know that just a few days ago was Earth day; April 22 and my birthday and I’m grateful to all of you who sent me some very nice wishes. I want to direct you if you have the opportunity to my website to my daily blog What Vegan’s Eat. I did a special one and on my birthday; day 802. Hope you check that out. Yes, now let’s go. I want to bring on my first guest Barbara J. King. She is emerita professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia and now is a full-time freelance science writer. Barbara has written or edited many books in Anthropology and animal behavior. Her latest just published in March is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals we Eat. Her How Animals Grieve from 2013 has been translated into Japanese, Portuguese, French winning a book prize and Hebrew. King’s essay on “Animal Mourning” in Scientific American was chosen for inclusion in the best American Science and Nature Writing 2014, she blogs each week for National Public Radio’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog. Welcome to It’s All About Food Barbara!

Barbara J. King: Hi! Caryn I have been so looking forward to talking with you.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes and so have I and I’m just trying to stay calm right now as I’m juggling with my technical challenges here. Fortunately I hear you, you hear me; everybody hears everybody? Yes? Are you there?

Barbara J. King:  Yes I can hear clicking noises but I can still hear you.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay good. All right, well as I try and bring my computer back to life, let’s just move forward, so I really enjoyed reading your book Personalities on the Plate and the thing that I find so important as I like to think we are evolving as humans is that we are able to view other species of life in a different way then perhaps we have perceived them all this time. I know as a performing artist for example an actor we always try to empathize with the role that we’re in, the character we are playing and that’s difficult enough but to try and understand what other species are experiencing and feeling is, I don’t even know if we can do that. But your stories in your book are helping us have a much better understanding. So one of the things is the patience I imagine that’s required in observing so that you can write about other species. Is that true?

Barbara J. King: Oh yes! I think that watching animals carefully does take time and focus but what a joy to do as we look at animals in the wild and anywhere from the oceans to national parks to our backyards and my work combines some observations that I’ve done in the past on our closest living relatives like monkeys and apes with reliance on what a lot of other people have experienced and I’m always saying that I’m not of course trying to figure out what other animals are thinking but that they’re giving us lots of clues through their behavior to how smart they are and the fact they’re leading in many cases profoundly emotional lives and if we get to know animals and really watch them as closely as we can in their natural context. I think it becomes an amazingly wonderful experience to see how much intelligence and how much emotion we really do share with other animals.

Caryn Hartglass: Well that’s such a telling point because how is it that rather than seeing all of these other species as somewhat similar to us because we share so much in common we’ve decided that they’re so different.

Barbara J. King: Well, that is really the question and what I say in my new writing is that I think we have trained ourselves to…and I mean “we” in a qualified way; you will understand that. Many of us have trained ourselves to be fascinated by elephant cognition and how smart dogs are and how chimpanzees feel but when it comes to farmed animals the wall goes up, the distance goes up and we don’t want to know and of course I’m excluding your audience from this. I’m talking about most people. Most people don’t want to grapple with the fact that animals that many people eat are living their lives with true reflection in many cases. The ability to think things through certainly a strong desire to want to live and strong bonds of love and grief so it’s generally a question of why don’t we want to see animals in a certain way but even more specifically it’s the animals we do choose to engage with in that way and those we don’t.

Caryn Hartglass: It is indeed complicated so let’s jump to the first topic you cover in your book; insects and arachnids and I definitely get the “ick” factor when thinking about eating insects and you talk throughout the book about what different cultures accept as food and what others may find is not appealing as food. It has a lot to do with how we’ve been brought up but I knew this but it became more apparent when I was reading your book about the quantity insects we consume without even realizing it.

Barbara J. King:  Yes, that’s right and I think there are these fascinating equations published. Eat a jar of peanut butter, eat a chocolate bar and you’re consuming so many insects and perhaps that’s just inevitable in our current food system but of course entomophagy is something very different. The purposeful eating of insects and this I think raises a number of really fascinating ethical questions; is it the case that eating insects might in fact save some mammals from being consumed and produced and agriculture being consumed or do we really want to and I think the latter is the case. Also, start thinking about the ethics of consuming these living creatures as well. If we think for how long the world was convinced that fish don’t feel pain and now of course we know they do. We don’t want to take it at face value that insects don’t feel pain.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes.

Barbara J. King: I want to walk that line. I don’t want to dismiss entomophagy by any means in terms of an ethical system but at the same time I don’t want to repeat mistakes of the past where you hear very frequently, “well insects don’t need a lot of space; we can easily and humanely kill them.” Well what does that remind you of; what conversation does that remind you of? The whole question of humane meat and humane killing and what we should take as face value so there are a lot of sides to entomophagy to consider.

Caryn Hartglass: Well this concept of saying certain beings don’t feel pain as you just mentioned, I even think about when we talk about circumcision of a human baby boy. There were many who said that the baby didn’t feel pain and now there are more people who believe circumcision is necessary some will do it with anesthesia. We know those babies feel pain. There are so many things that we just choose not to want to think about or not to want to see. I have to believe that with insects. Ok, they’re small but so are microchips and we continue to figure out how to squeeze so much more complicated information into a smaller space on a chip. What makes us think that these tiny insects don’t have some complicated thought processes going on, maybe not the same as ours but they certainly do some incredible things, I’m sure you’ve seen those pictures of the ant farm art. Have you seen those pictures of the guy that does the sculptures in anthills?

Barbara J. King: I did, I haven’t spent time with them but I do know what you’re referring to.

Caryn Hartglass: They’re horrifying! To begin with in order to make that art the artist had to destroy so many ants because he poured all this, whatever the material he was using into the anthill. But then we get to see what’s really going on underground and it’s just fascinating how they know how to construct their home.

Barbara J. King: Yes and quite recently there was a very fascinating study if you knew from my book certainly to show that bees are capable of very thoughtful imitation in ways that have been long thought to just be something birds or maybe monkeys and apes do. So if you ask bees to roll a ball, something that they obviously would never do naturally to a target in order to receive sugar water, which is a reward for them. They can learn to do this but what is more exciting is that they learn more efficiently if they watch a demonstrator bee; that’s social imitation and that shows all kinds of levels of sophistication about how you would want to copy something that someone’s doing and how and all kinds of other things. There are all kinds of stuff coming out about fruit flies making decisions and crickets learning all the time that I think do bear on this conversation and just the way that you suggested; packing a lot into a small brain.

Caryn Hartglass: Now I’m jumping around because you talked about this social imitation and I was reading later in your book, I’m trying to remember, was it with pigs? How they were easily trained when a human trained them but they didn’t learn from each other for some of the social things that they were trying to be taught.

Barbara J. King:  Oh I think you might be thinking about goats possibly.

Caryn Hartglass: Oh! It was goats. Yes.

Barbara J. King: Yes goats are very smart. This is sort of the time period where there’s a goat meme, a goat flare up, a goat troupe going on in our country where everybody wants now little cute goats. You know how that goes.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes.

Barbara J. King: People get very interested in having pets for a while and then it doesn’t become so interesting anymore. But what I wanted to do is really look at the science and the book of course is based in science of goat cognition and it’s quite surprising. As you know I’m sure goat is an extremely popular meat globally.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes.

Barbara J. King: And again it’s one of those things where it’s easy to fall into a trap for some people of going along with the stereotype of goats. This sort of satanic of dopey or over-sexed; pick whatever stereotype and in fact when I was learning and reading about them I was very moved by what they’re able to do in terms of reflection and in terms of learning how to open let’s say very complicated fruit boxes. This was carried out at Buttercup Sanctuary in Kent, England. A complicated set of steps that they could remember how to do after 311 days which is a quite prodigious memory. In fact they did not very much pay attention to each other. They didn’t pay attention in terms of social learning as I just described for the bees but that’s just their species’ specific way of learning so it doesn’t make them any less smart it’s just the way they go about things.

Caryn Hartglass: It doesn’t make them any less smart and every species has their own special skills and knowledge and understanding but I was just kind of fascinated that the bees which we would think not necessarily correctly or smartly or so far less intelligent then we are would be able to do something that a goat didn’t do.

Barbara J. King: Yes and I’m glad that you said that a goat didn’t do because I think that these experiments tap into some of the social organizations and natural evolved tendencies of these animals. As a person who studies monkeys and apes for a long time I can tell you that a lot of primates that don’t use tools in the wild will do so under certain circumstances experimentally, in other words they have the capacity even when they don’t necessarily show the behavior. So I would be interested in knowing under what circumstances goats might do that and that I don’t know has been done. But you’re right the part of the joy of writing this book was delving into animals that I had had an inadequate understanding of. The octopus is another; an invertebrate. An off the charts smart invertebrate. So when this group of scientist got together in 2014 and devised the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness; urging us to think about how many animals in our world are conscious and reflective. They included the octopus which is now the poster animal for invertebrates because they use tools, they reflect on what they are doing, they can solve problems in ways that so many of us just dismissed for so long because an octopus you look at it and it’s hard to necessarily see what we can see in a mammal that we are used to be looking at or a bird. But an octopus, whatever he or she does is clearly based in a lot of sophistication.

Caryn Hartglass: There are many wonderful stories in here some of them are just stories from animals that end up in sanctuaries and are protected, some of them become companion animals and then some are raised in results from different scientific studies that have gone on and they are all fascinating. I imagine that setting up a scientific study to be able to determine whether a species is doing something or is aware of something; I imagine that’s an incredibly complicated task.

Barbara J. King: Well, I think back to the book that I did about grieving that you mentioned in your introduction; “How Animals Grieve.” People would push back which is a good thing. We want to have a dialog that’s how science proceeds and ask me perhaps I was anthropomorphically projecting what I wanted to see in other animals because clearly I’m an animal lover. I want to see animals as smart and intelligent but my answer to that is; right we don’t know what an animal is thinking but if we look very carefully say an animal has lost a partner, a friend, a relative and we know something about that animal in its normal behavior before this loss and then we compare the before to the after. Again the animal itself is telling us something that I believe can be translated into a statement about its expression of emotions and this of course goes way back to Charles Darwin. Charles Darwin wrote fascinatingly about the prodigious emotional expression of animals so it’s possible to do this. I believe scientifically, carefully, and conservatively. So elephants of course are the touchstone in breeding because we know. We can see it so clearly when an elephant matriarch dies and others, come stand vigil or rock in a distressed way over the body or socially withdraw and don’t eat and that for elephants clearly seems to be grief. It would be hard-pressed to call it anything different. Then you get to know other animals and look at what their behaviors are after a death. Of course in some cases there is indifference. There’s complete neglect of the body and indifference so animals differ from one another just like we do but I truly think that the clues are there to look at.

Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely! You covered in addition to insects and pigs and fish, chickens and cows and chimpanzees. You mentioned about chickens. I’ve heard numerous chicken stories just how wonderful and loving they can be. Karen Davis has shared many through her organization. But you also included that one chicken in particular who had been bullied. When her aggressor became blind the chicken was able to take out her anger back on her bully.

Barbara J. King: Yes I did this for a very specific reason and that is I don’t think it does any of us any good to romanticize animals. I live with what feels like an astonishing number of rescued cats and sometimes we have cats that act meanly to each other. They’re good animals but they sometimes are in a bad mood or just feel like being obnoxious and that’s the way that some animals can sometimes be even when they’re basically very loving. There’s also the different personality and sometimes you get a chicken that is just not a very nice chicken. And what I think that does is it further reinforces the fact that these animals do have personalities, that they do have their own lives that they get up every day, they want to live, and they want to have a good day right? They don’t want a bad day and sometimes they have bad days so there are lots of stories in the book of compassion and kindness but there is other end of the spectrum too on occasion and that’s being alive right? That’s what it means to a complicated individual or a set of individuals.

Caryn Hartglass: Well when we see other species that isn’t always very nice to their own. Does that make it ok that we are not nice to our own sometimes?

Barbara J. King: Oh well I thought you were going to ask me does it make it ok that we’re not nice to other animals? One question that I frequently get is; why isn’t it ok for me to eat a chicken when of course animals kill and eat each other all the time. Well, I would say in 2 parts; I’m not instructing anyone what to eat or not to eat. I don’t eat chickens and I will never eat a chicken ok but to me that’s a very false equivalence because we never evolved specifically to eat meat. We did eat meat in our evolutionary past but part of the result of eating meat in our evolutionary past is that we have an abundantly complicated brain that allows us to take into account ethics and compassion in ways that I don’t think other animals do. So I think the answer is no, it’s not ok to treat each other badly, it’s not ok to treat other animals badly and let’s take the fact that evolution has gifted us these brains and use them in some ways that make sense. We don’t say that we all want to live in the way that we evolved as human beings thousand and millions of years ago. We don’t wish to recreate the society that we came from. So in the same sense we need to be on a different trajectory and think differently about the who that we are eating rather than the what.

Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely the who that we are eating. I’m glad that science is moving along. It’s starting to open up and change perceptions of other species but I’m just thinking some of the things we already talked about in terms of humanity. We all have a wide vast range of skill sets depending on who we are, where we’ve grown up, what time period we’ve grown up in and what part the world we’re in and some of us adapt very naturally to some things where others of us don’t and when we talked about those particular goats that didn’t learn socially very well and the bees did. Maybe if we conducted similar experiments on humans we’d see that some were able to do things that other’s weren’t, that makes it really complicated I imagine.

Barbara J. King: Well I think as an anthropologist, I would want to underscore in a population level we don’t expect to find differences in learning and intelligence because of course that gets into the battle of colonial past. So there is a common human capacity for learning and intelligence. What of course changes the trajectory are different individual life experiences and choices and resources and opportunities and I think that probably plays into this question in a large way.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes, well there is so much we will not know for a very long time about all of those other species but we’re starting to dig. So let’s take a moment, I want to talk about chicken potpie. You mentioned that there are some foods that you still miss and you haven’t been able to find a good chicken pot pie that’s made with a plant chicken.

Barbara J. King: Oh do you have a good recommendation for me?

Caryn Hartglass: I probably could make it for you but I’m just wondering what is it about the chicken potpie in your memory that hasn’t been satisfied?

Barbara J. King: Yes, well I think it is probably far more than just the taste and the texture but a very cultural experience and of course as I said I don’t eat chicken anymore and I just think of this as a comfort food if you will.

Caryn Hartglass: Sure.

Barbara J. King: A food that made me feel secure I would eat with family or loved ones. It just was for a number of years my go to food when I needed to feel secure, safe and loved and now I have different go to foods that don’t involve chicken but I think part of the reason I brought that up is because change; I’m certainly not telling you something that you don’t know. I’m learning a lot on this question from animal activist and vegan activist is how hard it can be to get people to think differently. Whenever I write or PR my books or elsewhere about here’s an intelligent chicken or here look at what this pig did and this is so cool. The jokes come back inevitably about bacon and barbeque and it just sort of never ends and I really want to try to understand what is that impulse when one person is feeling deeply about an animal for someone else to do that or to say that. What is it about the way that food has taken on meaning for them that causes that and it’s something that I still struggle with.

Caryn Hartglass: You are not alone on that one. That’s the million-dollar question or the billion-dollar question. What makes each one of us tick and some people who appear so sensitive and compassionate still cannot connect the dots when it comes to the treatment of animals especially for food.

Barbara J. King: I have been describing myself as experimental. I experiment with new vegan cheeses and vegan milks and I eat almost all vegan and vegetarian meals now and this has been a change in recent years and so I do try to remember that some years ago I was in a very different position myself which I suppose it’s helpful to think about.

Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely, well I’ve been a vegan for almost 30 years and I’ve always found that the best way to get people interested in eating this way is to put delicious food in their mouth and that’s been part of my journey just creating wonderful delicious food that is vegan so people don’t feel like they are going to be deprived as their minds are opening up to the truth of what’s really going on. I was just curious about the potpie. I have wonderful memories of pot pie but mine were always made by Swanson and I’m imaging that the kind that I make today are such higher quality and better even without the chicken just because I’m making them by scratch.

Barbara J. King: Oh I have no doubt.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes, anyway I love talking about food. Great Barbara thank you so much for joining me today on It’s All About Food. Sorry for the technical difficulties at the beginning of the program. This is a great book “Personalities on the Play,” thanks for writing it.

Barbara J. King: Thank you so much Caryn! Bye Bye.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, take care. That was Barbara J. King the author of Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. This is an excellent read for anyone, those who are vegan, vegetarian or omnivores. It’s written from a very open and safe point of view, non-judgmental and some really wonderful stories. Lovely!


Transcribed byM. Eng 5/19/2017

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