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Cruel, but not unusual

July 1st, 2011

BY TERRY ROSS

In the May 18 issue of The Wall Street Journal, I read an article — on the editorial page — that in its way was perfectly innocuous. Still, it made me angry.

P. Michael Conn, a professor of medicine at the Oregon Health and Science University’s National Primate Center, and James Parker, an ethicist also based in Portland, Ore., wrote a short piece on the fancifully named Daniel Andreas San Diego, one of nine men left on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted Terrorist List” after the death of Osama bin Laden, and the only one who’s an animal rights activist rather than a Muslim extremist. Messrs. Conn and Parker seem to find it disturbing that public opinion polls give Mr. San Diego a fifty-percent approval rating, as compared to the almost infinitesimal support shown for guys who aid al Qaeda, hijack airplanes, or attack American ships. Conn and Parker think the animal-rights “terrorist” belongs on the list.


San Diego is accused of helping bomb two corporations: Chiron, a pharmaceutical outfit that makes vaccines, and Shaklee, which makes vitamins and shampoo. According to the FBI, he targeted these companies because of their ties to the notorious British-based research firm, Huntingdon Life Sciences, which performs laboratory testing on animals. Huntingdon has been under attack, almost entirely non-criminal, since 1999. To San Diego and his ilk, according to Conn and Parker, who wrote a book in 2008 called The Animal Research War, “the so-called rights of animals are more important than the health and well-being of humans.”

I don’t know if it’s true that Mr. San Diego feels that animal rights are more important than human rights — in fact, I doubt it. I do think, though, that he may very well consider animal rights as important as human rights. Whether he’s right or wrong in that belief, I certainly don’t condone Mr. San Diego’s bombings, directed against humans, or the animal rights activitists who throw rocks through animal researchers’ windows or threaten their families.

But the fact remains that animal rights activists have a point. Animals are routinely mistreated, in a thousand ways. Sometimes they’re tortured, as when “researchers” pour caustic chemicals into rats’ and dogs’ eyes to measure the effect on their mucous membranes, presumably so they can accurately state the nature of the products they’re testing. Sometimes they’re strapped down, sedated or not, while researchers perform vivisections to examine the effects of various drugs. And all lab animals are inevitably mistreated in the name of science: separated from others of their kind, operated on to make them less troublesome (as when test beagles routinely have their vocal cords clipped so their barking won’t disturb the lab technicians), deliberately starved or overfed, deprived of pain medications, and so forth. Further, beyond these torturous practices, the creatures are confined in cages indoors, in windowless, fluorescent-lit rooms.

This business of caging animals is so widely accepted that we overlook the effects of incarceration on domestic, and wild, animals. We lock up our fellow humans when they transgress, not only to separate them from the rest of us, but to punish them. We know that incarceration hurts. Yet people keep gerbils and mice and rats and snakes and iguanas and countless species of birds in cages in their homes without beginning to ask themselves if they are causing harm to these pets. We lock up animals in zoos and countless research facilities, ignoring the question of whether we’re doing them harm. It is incontestable that we are, without exception. Mere imprisonment is harm.

Some wild animals — not many, but some — appear to do well in captivity, occasionally outliving their unincarcerated brothers and sisters. But are they really doing well? Does it really not matter to them, to their mental states, that they are locked up? How many of them would choose to remain in captivity if their cages were opened? Damned few.

Even those rare scientists and researchers who acknowledge that the animals in their care are suffering, as all creatures suffer from incarceration, excuse their practices by arguing that the ends justify the means. Animals suffer so that their fellow animals (in some cases) or human beings (far more often) may benefit from the knowledge gained. Would we have vaccines, they ask, if we were not allowed to do research on animals? Would the countless drugs used to relieve pain, stop infections, slow the spread of disease, or even cure diseases, be available without animal testing? What about organ transplants, prostheses, and other common medical procedures? Would we be where we are now if we had been forbidden to try things out on animals before we tried them out on humans?

Other researchers insist that they are only following the law: a host of regulations surrounding the manufacture of drugs and household products make animal testing mandatory. We’re only doing the job society wants us to do, these researchers insist.

True. But this begs the question of whether the law ought to make such research necessary. And here is where the animal rights activists come in. Whether they are blowing up research facilities or simply peacefully signing petitions, whether they’re picketing perfume companies that pour their products down animals' throats to see what will happen or trying to pass laws making the sale of certain animals impossible, these people are above all trying to draw the public’s attention to the unconscionable casualness that humans exhibit toward the treatment of animals.

Besides, is animal research really the only way medical science can advance, or is it simply the path of least resistance? Do we have to kill untold numbers of animals to find a cure for cancer? AIDS? Parkinsonism? Alzheimer’s? Or are other, more humane, methods open to us?

For that matter, in our rush to prolong life, should we subject countless fellow creatures to extended punishment so that an eighty-year-old man can get a new kidney or fight off the effects of aging, or so that a person with terminal cancer can have a few extra months to live?

As for the pet industry, or, more precisely, the incarcerated animal industry, how can we possibly justify treating animals as sources of entertainment? What are we doing locking up parrots and cheetahs and prairie dogs? Why are we making elephants dance for us, dolphins leap, polar bears swim in glass pools, seals honk horns, monkeys ride bicycles?

Of course some valuable research goes on in zoos, research that can help preserve wild species, and this research should continue. But ought we not admit that our gawking at wild animals in captivity is unseemly, if not plain wrong, and confine our incarcerations to actual research?

I would suggest that the animals rights activists, whose opinions on these issues range over a wide spectrum, are united in their primary goal: to make us think about how we treat our fellow creatures. I would also suggest that we might make a good start on lessening the careless pain we inflict — whether by outright torture for the sake of “science” or by mere incarceration — by recognizing that domesticated animals, whether pets or dairy cows or horses, are different from other creatures, in that their wildness has been bred out of them over millennia. They rely on us for food, shelter, and even companionship. We cherish them and try very hard not to harm them in any way. Wild animals, on the other hand, animals that would escape their cages, and us, if they could and never come back, ought to be respected for their very “other-ness,” their undomestication. We should try equally hard not to harm them.

I don’t know Mr. Conn, the research scientist, or Mr. Parker, the ethicist (!), but I’m willing to bet they wouldn’t bring their own pets into their labs to be experimented on. To settle the question for yourself, visit an animal research lab. There you’ll find varying degrees of nonchalance toward the treatment of animals, ranging from outright obliviousness to nagging, persistent, doubts. Any number of researchers, for example, decline to use cats or dogs or horses; a great many more refuse to experiment on primates. While you’re at the lab, imagine your own pets in the rows of cages. Bring your small children, if you dare, and let them see the chimpanzees strapped down on operating tables, the little white mice covered with induced lesions, the disposal of lab animals by suffocation or exsanguination, and so forth. I guarantee that if you’re not made of stone you’ll come away profoundly shaken. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Ross | Link to this Entry

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