Animal welfare zealotry seems blind to terrorism

The Argument

Bitter irony amplifies the passions at play in the ceaseless controversy over the use of animals in medical research.

October 15, 2000|By Stephen Vicchio | Stephen Vicchio,Special to the Sun

There is ample evidence in American popular culture of a powerful conflict about the moral status of animals. Americans eat them and we keep them as pets. We save the whales and look down our noses at unenlightened women who wear fur while buying leather handbags, shoes and belts in record numbers. We applaud Hollywood personalities in their lobbying for more monies for AIDS research, while we watch some of the same celebrities reprimand scientists for using animals in the very research under way to find a cure for HIV infection. We fancy ourselves as Dr. Doolittles, while behaving more like the Grim Reaper.

Into the mix of this strange and confusing conflict come two new books: "The Scalpel and the Butterfly: The War Between Animal Research and Animal Protection" by Deborah Rudacille (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 379 pages, $25) and "Sacred Cows and Golden Geese: The Human Cost of Experimenting on Animals" by C. Ray Greek, an anesthesiologist and his veterinarian wife, Jean Swingle Greek (Continuum, 256 pages, $24.95).

In Rudacille's volume, she gives an account of Fran Trutt's conviction on charges of conspiracy to bomb a lab in Norwalk, Conn., that regularly used experimental animals. But she says nothing about the strange moral calculus employed by Ms. Trutt: save the lives of lab animals by shedding the blood of researchers, or even the innocent cleaning staff.

To her credit, Rudacille tries to be fair, but she too often shies away from the most morally vexing aspects of the conflict -- some members of the animal welfare movement see nothing wrong with terrorizing, sometimes in violent ways, those it sees as guilty of heinous crimes against the interests of animals.

Rudacille does a far better job of exposing the other side of the conflict, possessors of an equally troubling view: we use animals in research because they are perceived to be like us. Yet, in order to be comfortable with their killing, we must perceive them as being wholly other, and thus expendable.

The first of these fundamental dichotomies about the moral status of animals is displayed most effectively, though unintentionally, by Rudacille in her chapter on Peter Singer, the newly appointed professor of ethics at Princeton's Center for Values. She says little of that ethicist's astonishing claim that various forms of human infanticide are morally acceptable if performed within the first few weeks of life before these babies are "holders of interests."

For seven years, Rudacille worked as a research writer and editor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing. In "The Scalpel and the Butterfly," her tone is conversational and, for the most part, quite readable. The writing is crisp and thoughtful, though at times a little more omniscient than ought to be found in good historical writing.

In describing Mary Godwin Shelley's writing of "Frankenstein," for example, Rudacille informs us that "Candlelight flickers over the page as she dips her pen in the inkwell. ... Shadows wrestle on the uneven walls of the villa, and outside rising winds rustle through the leaves."

Two pages later, Rudacille has moved from the fairly innocuous practice of guessing what the shadows in Mary Shelley's room might have looked like to the more suspect habit of telling us what Shelly was thinking: "She called him Victor, the triumphant one. But the name by which he and his creation was to be remembered was his shadowy surname, heavy and Germanic. No doubt she whispered the name to herself as she wrote in the dim room...." (Can we have no doubts?)

This practice of reading the minds of various historical figures (Claude Bernard, Louis Pasteur, Anna Kingsford, Frances Powers Cobbe, Abraham Flexner and many others) continues unabated throughout the book. It is all the more annoying a habit in light of the fact that Rudacille leaves us completely in the dark about the intended organization of her book. Why has she chosen these figures to tell a history of the uneasy relationship of research science to animal welfare?

Except for their obvious chronological arrangement, how are these chapters to be understood as creating a whole? Although the book purports to be a history of the often contentious and paradoxical relationship of experimental scientists to the animals they have used (and overused) in their research, Rudacille rarely makes the kind of tough judgments one might expect from such a history.

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