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The Left Hand of Darkness

THE SCALPEL AND THE BUTTERFLY The War Between Animal Research and Animal Protection By Deborah Rudacille; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 320 pp., $25

ETHICS INTO ACTION Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement By Peter Singer; Rowman & Littlefield: 237 pp., $17.95 paper

THE QUICK AND THE DEAD By Joy Williams; Alfred A. Knopf: 352 pp., $25

November 12, 2000|CAROLINE FRASER | Caroline Fraser is the author of "God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church."

I

Ray, a teenage stroke victim, is one of the tortured adolescents preoccupied by the parallel universe of animals--and "animal sadness"--in Joy Williams' novel "The Quick and the Dead." In this case it's an imaginary monkey, and in his mind Ray can "feel the little monkey's heart beating wetly beneath its gray skin . . . wordlessly expressing its situation. It, too, was not lost. It had undergone unnecessary surgery, had painfully recovered from it, had been killed piece by piece and disposed of part by part, and this had been its orbit of eternal occurrence, suffered over and over again."

The pathos of this passage touches all the raw nerves routinely laid bare by animal rights rhetoric: the little wordless monkey, the unnecessary surgery, the suffering, the killing, the disposing. Every piece of direct mail from the Doris Day Animal League or the Humane Farming Assn. League or virtually any other animal rights group plays on our sympathies in such language, often accompanied by photos that could make a butcher wince. The emotionalism of these appeals gives rise to a host of basic questions: What are animal rights? Are they moral, legal or purely fanciful? Why should we care? Given that many societies in today's world have an infirm grasp of human rights, are we even remotely capable of considering the rights of what are generally considered to be commodities? Just try to answer these questions without resorting to emotion and see how far you get.

In 1980, the same year that Alex Pacheco met Ingrid Newkirk and began forming a group that would eventually be known as PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, I was a freshman at UCLA and by happenstance met my first laboratory animal. A friend I'll call Joe, majoring in premed, was working part-time as a laboratory assistant at the medical center and was responsible for caring for a dog that had already gone through one or more surgeries and was being given a course of drug therapy at intervals, one of which fell in the middle of the night.

When Joe asked me to go with him to see the dog, he led me through the long, empty, echoing, fluorescently lit corridors of the medical center--said to be second only to the Pentagon in its miles of hallways--past doors labeled with warning signs about radiation and other hazards, and I began to have the sense that we were entering some kind of terrifying, forbidden territory. As he unlocked the doors to the dog room, the smell and the noise were like a slap in the face. In a room with a cement floor that sloped to drains were ranks of featureless barred cages. Some were empty, but others held dogs that were either barking frenziedly or lying motionless, sick and dispirited. Joe's dog was one of the latter, and to see such a hopeless animal, hair shaved off its stomach, was unspeakably sad. Joe was an earnest and eager premed student--his father was a surgeon--but he was so troubled by the fate of this dog, who was to be killed at the end of the experiment, that he was talking about stealing him. That's why he'd asked me to go with him; he seemed to want me, an outsider--someone who didn't have anything to do with the biomedical world--to validate his feelings. I didn't know what to tell him then, and I still don't.

Since then, in the course of writing about the animal-rights movement, I've seen other animal labs, including some at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, that were spotlessly clean, although the bathroom for the humans on the first floor, by the admissions desk, was smeared with feces. I've been given, as a pet, what's called in the biomedical trade a "New Zealand White," a white laboratory rabbit--a control in an experiment--who was so terrified of people that, for the first year I had her, I had long, red scratches up and down my arms. Like many Americans, I'm uncomfortable with animal research. I'm reliant on medications that were tested on animals, in my case, asthma inhalers that were (according to the product insert) tested on rabbits, golden hamsters, pregnant rats, "small young rats," "mature rats," minipigs, mice and dogs. Experimentation on living animals--or vivisection--is one of the most confounding moral issues of our time. The only issues more contentious involve matters of life, death, and pain: abortion and the death penalty.

II

"Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil, as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?" asked Dr. Frankenstein in his gothic way. Thus Deborah Rudacille, formerly a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing, begins her brilliant analysis in "The Scalpel and the Butterfly" of the history of the antivivisection and animal rights movements by tracing our still potent, still visceral fear of those "horrors" back to the mad scientist, the archetypal figure who is both monstrously arrogant and impotent to control the inhuman forces he lets loose on the world.

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