When I was in the tenth grade, I had to do a research paper for my English class. I decided to do mine on animals in laboratory research. I have always identified with animals more than with people (I think it has something to do with having been raised by housecats, with my parents assisting), and I was fairly sure I was opposed to the practice of experimenting on animals…but at the same time my father had died of cancer and I truly would like to see scientific research on diseases such as cancer progress faster, rather than slower. It seemed a good thing for me to investigate, and I vowed to be objective.
I prowled through the literature on both sides of the fence. I read about the advances that have been made, that couldn’t have been made without animal research. I stumbled on enough pictures of factory farms to ensure that I would never eat another bite of non-free-range meat as long as I lived. I read about experiments that should never have been done…and I read about ones that even I had to concede were vital to our advancement as a species. I was doing o.k. in being non-biased, until I met and interviewed the head of animal research at UNC-Chapel Hill. After quite a few other questions, I finally came around to the one that bothered me most: How do you cope with the feeling that you are causing suffering to another living being, even if it is in the quest to ease suffering for others?
His answer was very simple: Oh, I don’t feel bad about it at all. They don’t feel pain like we do.
That one statement was enough to unseat all my attempted objectivity. The paper, when I was though, was anything but unbiased. I was furious, and had I been old enough I probably would have marched right out and joined some radical animal-rights group that broke into research labs and “rescued” all the animals, only to release them in the woods where they could quietly starve to death. I was 15, and mad as hell that this was the get-around used to justify causing pain to another living being. I just couldn’t understand it.
I spent years arguing with people, politely, that they were evil mindless barbarians for not recognizing the equal emotional capacity and, yes, the soul inherent in each living thing. I have rescued myriad animals from abusive or neglectful homes. I have almost gotten my @ss kicked multiple times for interfering where I was not wanted.
Fast forward 15 years. Today, I suddenly get it.
This morning, my darling cat (which one, I have no idea as I have five) brought me a treat, as they are prone to do. They left on my steps three baby birds. One of them was dead, the other two severely injured. I know what the right thing is to do in this situation. They were going to die, slowly, either from starvation or from their injuries. They were so tiny, with their eyes still closed and no feathers and their little beaks open in a plea for sustenance that was never going to come. So I picked them up, tenderly, their tiny warm bodies snuggling into my hand, and put them behind the rear tire of my car. And I hit reverse.
I am really not o.k., even though I know this was the right decision. My neighbors must think I am crazy, the way I stood in the driveway, staring at their smeared remains, sobbing uncontrollably. The cats looked at me curiously as I shooed them in the house to keep them from lapping up entrails. My dog is very concerned, as she lays across my feet while I write this. But now, suddenly, I get it. I felt the inclination to write off their tiny souls as insignificant. To discount any images of their parents searching helplessly in the nest when they return as humanizing an alien species. To view their searching beaks as the instinct it undoubtedly was, and in that light negate their suffering.
But my dog is licking my feet and looking, well, worried. And I know that I did what I did out of a belief in these tiny animals’ capacity for suffering, not the denial of it. I will not, in spite of the relief it would give me, give up a piece of my soul by denying it in others.
I will not ask forgiveness of Jesus or Allah or the evening star. I will not even ask forgiveness of the baby birds, as I believe a quick death is preferable to slow starvation. As I go out to the driveway to wash away the remains, I will ask forgiveness of myself. And I will remember the lesson I have learned today.