Friday, June 30, 2006

Animal Gulag

Let me note upfront that I am a meat-eater. I love barbecue season. Furthermore, I wear a leather jacket in the wintertime, I have been known to go fishing, and I recently dispatched four live lobsters by the time-honoured boiling-water method (although for the last time).

I have been dimly aware of the goings-on of
PETA (People for the Ethical Treament of Animals), and the Pamela Anderson connection. Some have taken exception to their in-your-face advertising tactics. Animal liberation hasn't really been, however, one of "my issues." Until I read this, now hidden behind a subscriber wall. Here are some highlights:

Mice can feel each other's pain, say Canadian researchers who have been injecting the rodents with acid to make them writhe while their cagemates look on.

The experiments, reported in the journal Science today along with another study that involved amputating ants' legs to see how they would walk, sound macabre. But the researchers say such unpleasantries are needed to understand the creatures' behaviour.

[T]he Montreal mouse experiments indicate mice are capable of empathy, long considered an attribute exclusive to higher primates, such as humans.

The McGill University teams injected weak acetic acid into the bellies of mice for the "writhing test," which makes them twist and squirm for half an hour. They also injected formalin into the rodent's paws to bring on temporary swelling and pain.

It sounds nasty, but Jeffrey Mogil, team leader and pain psychologist, says the tests have been used for years, inflict pain for no more than an hour and mice suffer no long-term harm.

"It hurts them a little bit," says Mr. Mogil. "You can't study pain without inflicting pain. But I guarantee you'd be greatly underwhelmed by the pain depth."

This article really speaks for itself. It reads like bad satire. If empathy up to now was thought to be an essentially human trait, someone obviously forgot to test Mr. Mogil and his team. Perhaps that wouldn't be a half-bad idea, if it were only legal. Take off your shirt and show me your hands, you son-of-a-bitch.

One can hear, Godwin aside, the voice of Dr. Mengele in the background as he performed his experiments on twins. This is science utterly detached from values and morality, the apotheosis, alas, of what science at its best has traditionally been considered to be. Moderate post-modernists like me have argued against the very possibility of value-free science, but this comes perilously close to proving us wrong.

Uncomfortable memories began to surface when I read the article. I did a course in bacteriology at McGill about a million years ago, and one experiment (which I missed) was to inject a guinea pig with tetanus and take note of its symptoms as it died. I Googled "cruelty to monkeys in labs," remembering reading about an experiment in which a female monkey's new babies were removed from her and kept behind glass in her sight for months, while scientists took notes about her frantic anxiety. I found too many citations (250,000) of gut-churning, grisly experiments to find that particular one. Google for yourself, if you have the stomach for it.

But now that it appears that even goldfish share "human" traits, some people are taking a second, if contradictory look. Whole Foods Market will no longer sell live lobsters or crabs, but frozen, pre-cooked crustaceans are still a go. Personally, having watched lobsters writhe as they are boiled alive, that's it for me. "Die instantly?" Uh-huh. But will I eat a cooked one someday? Probably.

Indeed, the contradictions are obvious, and those of us who get these stirrings of concern are clearly vulnerable to serious criticism, not to mention the florid rhetoric of Rex Murphy. In this binary culture, no half-way measures are permitted. You're either a vegan or a carnivore.

But there is middle ground, and I don't mean Peter Singer. Michael Pollan, in an excellent survey of the ethical questions in the New York Times Magazine, begins with a disturbing question:

[C]ould it be... that we will someday come to regard speciesism as an evil comparable to racism? Will history someday judge us as harshly as it judges the Germans who went about their ordinary lives in the shadow of Treblinka? Precisely that question was recently posed by J.M. Coetzee, the South African novelist, in a lecture delivered at Princeton; he answered it in the affirmative. If animal rightists are right, ''a crime of stupefying proportions'' (in Coetzee's words) is going on all around us every day, just beneath our notice.

Pollan shows, conclusively, I believe, that the inherent contradictions that riddle the notion of animal rights cannot be resolved. Indeed, anyone with an interest in ethics knows that purely "good vs. bad" choices are not often available in situations that call for ethical judgements to be made. The universe--including the moral one--is simply not built so conveniently.

Pollan believes that the deliberate infliction of suffering on animals is what is unconscionable, not the quick kill. He considers modern factory farms abominable, for example, but offers alternatives.
He concludes:

The industrialization -- and dehumanization -- of American animal farming is a relatively new, evitable and local phenomenon: no other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or as brutally as we do. Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to do it this way. Tail-docking and sow crates and beak-clipping would disappear overnight, and the days of slaughtering 400 head of cattle an hour would come to an end. For who could stand the sight? Yes, meat would get more expensive. We'd probably eat less of it, too, but maybe when we did eat animals, we'd eat them with the consciousness, ceremony and respect they deserve.

I've been discussing, so far, the issue of eating animals. But there are also the fields of science, not to mention cosmetology, to consider. Once again, suffering, not death, is the issue before us. But even that is not a clear-cut distinction: many might argue, for example, that some suffering might occasionally be inflicted on an animal to save the lives of humans. Let's set aside that discussion for now: surely we can agree in the meantime that the deliberate infliction of suffering on an animal simply to satisfy curiosity or vanity is way, way out of bounds.

Come to think of it, Margaret Somerville, the "ethicist" who has been in the news recently for her vocal opposition to same-sex marriage, hails from McGill. Not all of her work has centred on the human: she's already done a little thinking on the animal rights issue. So I have a suggestion, Margo: if you can stop publicly insulting gays and lesbians for a minute, why not take a short walk over to Mr. Mogil's research lab?

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