An Odyssey with Animals

Usually, when I read a book for review, I come out firmly on one side or the other. Some pretty well suck, and don’t work well for the purpose they were written. Others, are just awesome, and appeal to a wide audience. Still more are awesome at appealing to exactly who they are supposed to appeal to.

And then there are some…like this one. It’s a good book. It’s a necessary book. But it left even Sci, someone who supports well-constructed and carefully performed animal research, very thoughtful. And this is a good thing.

“An Odyssey with Animals: A veterinarian’s reflections on the animal rights and welfare debate”
by Adrian R. Morrison.


This book is a necessary book. It is a book on the animal rights and welfare debate, from someone who has been on the receiving end of some rather interesting “attentions” from animal rights activists. For someone who has suffered so terribly at the hands of activists, Morrison delivers a surprisingly compassionate and balanced view of the motivations of activists, and for that alone you have to admire this book. He gives a concise and accurate account of the history of animal rights activities, what it is that animal researchers actually do, and some of his opinions on why what animal researchers do with animals is justified.
It is important to make a distinction between ‘animal rights’ and ‘animal welfare’. No scientist now is going to argue with the importance of animal welfare. And it’s true that the activities of rights activists have helped to make important steps in the improvement of animal welfare in biomedical research. But there is a difference between the activism that gets welfare improvements, and the activism that bombs cars and sets buildings on fire. Morrison is very careful to emphasize the importance of animal welfare, and how no scientist will agree to work under conditions where there are no welfare standards.
And this is largely the case. None of us LIKE hurting animals, and every one of us would rather work with something else, if that something else could give us the most accurate picture of the problem we are trying to fix. And animals are hard to work with. They require food, housing, and care for their welfare, all of which are expensive. There are personal and pragmatic reasons for wanting to work in other models, as soon as those models come available. Animal researchers are not heartless. They care greatly for their animals, ensuring that they are not in pain (except where necessary, as in pain studies), that they are clean and housed well, and that they get adequate food, treats, and social time. And many of us are not afraid to be guinea pigs ourselves. As a scientist, I consider it my duty to participate in studies on humans to bring us closer to an answer. Morrison does a great job here. In fact, he does a great job throughout the book. Where the book runs into issues is not the way the arguments are delivered, it’s the arguments themselves.
When it comes right down to it, there are only philosophical ideas as to whether animal research is right or wrong. Though we know that animals can suffer pain (and animal researchers do their best to alleviate the pain in every possible circumstance), how do we know that they can suffer in the same way a human can suffer? How can we KNOW that animals have an inner life as complex as a human’s? Obviously, these are things we can only assume, not know, as we cannot get inside the experience of an animal to find out.
It is hard to justify animal research on moral grounds. Yes, we know it is necessary. But is it RIGHT? The problem is, as with most ethical arguments, there are many points of view, and many shades of grey in a very complicated issue. Morisson covers them all, and though I’m not sure I agree with his own conclusions, I’m not so sure I could come up with something better.
One of the things I found most interesting about the history of animal rights is reason given for the time of its emergence. Animal rights concerns (though not animal welfare concerns) are relatively recent, occurring only in the 20th century. The philosopher Bulliet give one of the most compelling reasons for the emergence of animal rights activism in Western culture in his division of history into “predomestic”, “domestic”, and “postdomestic” eras. The predomestic era obviously refers to the time before agriculture, in which the relationship of humans and animals was on a bit more of an even footing, with predator and prey relationships. The domestic era, which brings us up pretty much around the 1950s, was an era in which humans and animals worked and lived together in domestic settings. You raised the cow that was your dinner, or at least you knew the person who did. You knew, at a visceral level, that the cows in the field and pigs in the barn were going to become dinner, and you knew, because you probably saw or did it yourself, how they were going to meet their ends.
And then there’s the postdomestic era. Welcome to now, when 10% of the population makes 90% of the food. When most children never see a real cow up close and personal unless it’s on a school field trip. And it’s in this era, when our connection to animals becomes tenuous at best, that people believe that we can do without them. It is only in the postdomestic era that vegetarianism has become popular (we’re talking in Western culture here, in a Judeo-Christian paradigm), only in the postdomestic era that people protest over whether or not their meat has a name.
Biomedical research has grown up into the postdomestic era. And biomedical researchers, like farmers, have intense, close contact with their animals. But most of the populace does not. Like agriculture, most of the population now doesn’t really understand what goes into animal research on a daily basis. From a lack of understanding comes fear and revulsion. Morrison has done a good job of trying to let readers know what does go into animal research. But it may not be enough.
Open access, not publishing, but research, is the only way to really educate people on what is going on. We need to show people what we are doing, what welfare steps we are taking. And we need to show people that we have hearts, that we don’t love to kill, and that, when it’s all over and we retire, we will be sorry to give up the search for knowledge and cures, but we will sigh with relief, because we will never have to hurt an animal again. What we do is necessary, it comes with the amazing highs of scientific discovery and the discovery of cures and treatments, but it comes with a price.
But with open access comes vulnerability. It is difficult to be open when there are people waiting to firebomb your car. It is difficult to share research methods when photos of your animals end up on the web, and when you end up labeled as a “vivisectionist”, and when information is released on where your kids go to school. When flyers are sent to your neighbors, telling horrible lies of how you torture your animals. When death threats appear in your email. For there to be open access, there must be trust. Demanding open access while vandalizing our work is NOT the way to foster trust.
I can tell that, for Morrison, this was a brave book to write. He has already suffered the attacks of animal rights activists, and the publication of a book that passionately defends animal research may end up drawing more fire. He’s a brave man, and his message is important. But it’s a difficult book. No matter what view you hold, Morrison may make you mad. But he will also make you think. A dangerous pastime, but an important one.

“An Odyssey with Animals: A veterinarian’s reflections on the animal rights and welfare debate”
by Adrian R. Morrison.
Ranking (out of 5): brain_icon.pngbrain_icon.pngbrain_icon.pngbrain_icon.png

7 Responses

  1. Awesome review. I’d love to read this book.

  2. I’ll definitely have to check this one out, though my reading list is getting rather long for someone who is managing to get less and less time to actually read anything not directly related to my classes…
    I really think that the breakdown of pre-domesticated, domesticated and post domesticated is an extremely important one. I have had the rare opportunity to live in a domesticated setting and have chosen to do everything I can to pass that experience to my eldest and will do the same for youngest when he is a little older.
    Both hunting and spending a great deal of time on a farm, around animals that I ended up eating has had a major impact on my views on animal welfare. Especially the latter. Because while going off in the woods and fields, killing an animal and field dressing them has a definite impact, living with the animals you’re going to eat is rather more profound. And ultimately it’s a very good thing, even though it makes for mixed feelings.
    I think that the last cow a close friend of mine raised was the most intense. He used to have a rotation of two cows, slaughtering one a year and quickly getting the next one. But when he decided that it was just too much and decided to stop, he was left with one cow that had no companionship for a year. And cows being very social creatures, do not like being alone like that.
    So I, among others, became that cow’s companionship. We became rather close to this cow, because she was an absolute sweetheart. She would come trotting right up, obviously very excited that someone was coming to visit with her. And while she definitely loved to have her treats, she didn’t care if you didn’t happen to bring any with you – she was just happy that you were there. Very much like a really friendly dog, it was virtually impossible not to love her…
    I wouldn’t say that it wasn’t emotional, that it wasn’t very different from say, killing one of the chickens. But she was raised to be eaten and I went into socializing with her knowing that – more importantly, I maintained that understanding every step of the way. So more than any other animal I have eaten, more than all the animals that I personally killed and dressed, she brought this cycle of life – death – food, into sharp relief for me. It’s impossible to eat a steak that was once a dear friend, without becoming intimately familiar and close to where what you eat comes from…
    And that experience, more than any other, is exactly why I could never be a vegetarian…

  3. The trouble is, while only 10% of the population grows the food, a great deal more than 10% of the population comes into contact with domesticated animals. Farming tends to facilitate a well-compartmentalized idea of “food animal” vs. “pet animal”. But most people’s experiences with animals will be in contexts where trying to protect animals is entirely appropriate (at least by cultural standards).

  4. From a moral perspective, no one has much right to criticize animal research unless they themselves are a vegetarian. Industrial farming creates far more animal misery than research does, and without as much potential for human improvement.
    Also, in the interest of accuracy, I’d like to point out that the percentage of people who farm in the US is closer to 1%. Though I could see the 10% figure being reasonable in other parts of the world.

  5. This really is a difficult issue. I agree with all of your arguments and points, but I do not work in research. The pictures that appear on the web are in fact disturbing. Bear in mind I live in a rural area and have spent my life being exposed to animals. I tend to think of what researchers do as being on similar terms to having to euthanize an animal. Something difficult but necessary.

  6. Reality Is Genes Is Organisms
    Cognition Is Virtual Reality
    Virtual Reality Includes Culture And Spirituality
    A. An Odyssey with Animals
    http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/56201/;jsessionid=F5D03E16D2ED82BC145994EDA77B197B
    In his new book, an animal researcher reflects on animal rights and what extremists get wrong
    B. Reality is genes is organisms, our cognition is virtual reality that includes culture and spirituality
    Reality is that life is genes is Earth’s biosphere, for temporary constraint of energy that would otherwise be fueling universal expansion. Natural reality is that within the biosphere genotypes survive naturally by ingesting each other, each other’s energy.
    Within the biosphere some organisms evolved cognition, evolved virtual reality realms, including thoughts about a purpose of human life, a purpose which is OURS to formulate and promote. It derives solely from our cognition. And it includes spiritual values, ethics and beliefs about life. It includes also cultural values that transcend the “spiritual aspects” of existence, in contrast with nature.
    So the prospects are dim that the issue of “separating the radical from the sensible” in regards to “animal rights” versus “human needs” will ever be settled, as dim as the prospects that other issues of reality versus virtual reality, comprising “radical” versus “sensible” aspects, will ever be settled…
    Dov Henis
    (Comments From The 22nd Century)
    Updated Physical Evolution Defintion
    http://www.the-scientist.com/community/posts/list/220/122.page#4368

  7. Just wanted to thank you for your insight on this very touchy subject. It would be nice to believe that all scientists actually feel this way. Unfortunately it’s not the scientist that actually are working with the test subject, it’s the tech’s. I’ve seen too many vets and vet techs get fired or lose their license due to animal cruelty. I really understand the necessity of this science, I just wish that all participants felt the way you described. The problem is really with the bad apple just like in the animal rights movement, the intent is good but there are some bad apples that give the whole movement a bad reputation. No one should should live in fear because of a difference of opinion.

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