All Creatures Great and Small
by Walt Hearn
“My Wild Affair” was a 2014 PBS series documenting four different wild animal baby orphans raised by human families. Home movies recorded the families' efforts to get their “children” ready to return to the wild. The animals were an elephant and a rhinoceros in Africa and a harbor seal and an orangutan reared in the U.S. The orangutan learned to express himself to some extent in American Sign Language, but otherwise the stories were told entirely from an altruistic human point of view.
That series made me ponder my role among “fellow creatures.” For one thing, it brought home how wild “the wild” really is. Animals eat, reproduce, and are eaten. We fall into that category, too. Lions and hyenas may not get us today, but eventually maggots will. As a “civilized animal,” am I responsible to protect other species? How far do ethical obligations extend? If wild carnivores make a living off of other animals, is it acceptable for me to do the same? Humans seem to be the only animals who do scientific work. Is it O.K. to imprison, use, and destroy other animals in research, provided we treat them well? What does it mean to be humane―or even human?
Drawing a Line
The Bible makes it clear that humans share a common ancestry. Science has extended that idea to all living forms, not just other animals. Certain genes for metabolic processes, shared with lions, hyenas, and fly larvae are also possessed by plants. That makes it possible for all God's creatures to live by consuming one another. People with scruples against “taking life” have to draw a line somewhere. For me, cannibalism is out―but non-human species? More an opportunistic omnivore than a vegetarian, I try not to consume the flesh of fanged carnivores or meat offered to idols (see Romans 14). Others draw the line elsewhere, perhaps at other “sentient beings.” Buddhists who go out of their way not to step on ants seem to have no scruples about taking the life of cabbages.
My early hominid ancestors were evidently hunters and gatherers, like the animals they lived among, before becoming the tillers and herders of Bible times. I try to keep the “gathering” tradition alive but have never been much of a hunter. Like other teenage Texans, I cherished my .22 caliber rifle. I dispatched many bottles and tin cans in target practice but did little damage to wildlife. With another Boy Scout I hunted snakes in the woods along bayous, proudly protecting Houston citizens from venomous copperheads, coral snakes, pigmy rattlers, and an occasional water moccasin.
It didn't seem right to shoot squirrels, dubbed “tree rats” by my more bloodthirsty comrades. On a summer trip to New Mexico, assured that prairie-dog holes were a menace to horses and cattle, I plinked at some of the alert sentinels guarding them. Any prairie dogs I shot at dived or fell beyond reach into their holes. Most seemed to dive in alive between the click of my .22 and the bullet's arrival. One that I managed to daze, I brought back to Houston as a pet, glad I hadn't killed the furry little guy.
Helping in a round-up on that ranch, by the way, showed me the raw side of eating beef. In an old-style catch pen, mounted cowboys roped and dragged terrified calves to be hog-tied by cowboys on the ground. An open fire kept the branding irons hot. I was the “tar boy,” brushing antiseptic tar on bloody wounds from dehorning and castration. In a clean can I collected the “mountain oysters” from steers who had begun the day as bull calves. That part of the calf, I admit, tasted mighty good that evening after a hard day's work.
Millions of animals wouldn't have known life at all if they hadn't been raised for meat (or milk, leather, etc.). The same is true for animals bred for laboratory use. Is it possible to treat such animals the way we would want to be treated? Most people limit their eating habits by drawing a line. As scientists, can we draw the line humanely in our experimental protocols? To me, studying animal models even by making them sick or wounding them can be a morally acceptable way to prevent wider suffering in humans—or in other animals (if a veterinarian is doing the research). The technical term is “sacrificing” the experimental animal. True, it isn't a self-sacrifice. But it isn't slaughter, either.
Crossing a Line?
Googling “animal rights organizations” turns up dozens of active groups pursuing various agendas. I recall my mixed feelings as a young researcher when radical groups crossed the line and took direct action against labs where real or imagined cruelties were occurring. Right or wrong, breaking into labs and liberating animals did force many scientists to clean up their act―and increase laboratory security. The pressure is still on. This winter I saw that some members of Congress requested an internal investigation of an NIH psychology lab using macaque monkeys in an allegedly cruel way.
I for one am glad that new pharmaceuticals are tested for safety and efficacy in small mammals before becoming available to the general public. I'm glad that surgeons hone their skills on larger mammals before being licensed to practice on human beings. And I'd bet that many labs treat test animals as humanely as possible, to ensure their tranquility and uniformity, if for no other reason.
When I was in grad school at Illinois, W. C. Rose was still around, maintaining a large rat colony for nutritional research. He was the discoverer of threonine, last of the twenty or so amino acids essential to the human diet. He had followed isolation of the compound by adding various fractions of hydrolyzed casein to diets containing only the then-known essentials, and observing the growth of rats fed those diets. Making up the purified diets and waiting for results required extraordinary patience. At one stage it took months to figure out why results had become so inconsistent. It turned out that the night janitor who cleaned out the “rat room” became so fond of the animals that he slipped them little bits of food, totally ruining the bio-assay.
As a young biochemist at Baylor Med in Houston I worked with a physiologist who devised a very complex bio-assay for a brain hormone I was helping him isolate. The assay required initial surgical removal of a rat's pituitary gland, an operation that seemed to cause the animals little discomfort and no animosity toward the experimenter. After I moved to Iowa State, my research group used the same assay for over a year―my only personal experience with laboratory animals. The highly inbred albino rats we used were docile and would have made good pets. Instead of maintaining a colony, for each set of experiments we ordered a box of live rats flown in from Sprague-Dawley Animal Co. in Madison, Wisconsin. Obtaining healthy rats was almost the most difficult part of the assay.
In those days, Ames, Iowa, had no commercial airport. Cardboard boxes labeled LIVE ANIMALS containing our rats were flown to the Des Moines airport. The rats traveled comfortably in a heated cargo bay on the plane, but the 40-mile ride in a delivery truck to Ames in winter was another story. We lost one whole batch when the driver left them on the loading dock because the Chemistry Building was locked. (An onlooker suggested jabbing sticks into their frozen little bodies and selling them as ratcicles.) Obviously, to guarantee healthy rats and reliable assays, my group had to start making “rat runs” to Des Moines to pick them up right off the plane.
When it stops being cold in Iowa, it gets hot. As the ambient temperature increased, we ran into trouble after completing each experiment and disposing of its rats. As the weather warmed up, the regular trash bins on the loading dock started drawing complaints about the smell. I received a rather stern memorandum about it from the business manager of the Chemistry Department, a guy with whom I had always had pleasant dealings and whom I suspected of having a sense of humor. I acknowledged his memo politely and put in a formal order for a vulture to get rid of our dead rats. In his written response, he complained that professors were always ordering expensive stuff, quoting the exorbitant price of a European griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus), which he had found in some catalog used by zoo-keepers. I quickly apologized for not having been more specific in my order, since what I had in mind was the plain old turkey buzzard (Cathartes aura) seen circling high over anything dead in Texas and much of the U.S.
We ended up not with a live scavenger but with a small garbage can with a tight-fitting lid on which I painted DEAD ANIMALS. I doubted that the label would annoy anyone who saw it. After all, Iowa produces a lot of pork. The ISU radio station broadcasted almost constantly the current prices for “barrows and gilts” at Chicago slaughter houses. Death is part of life in Iowa as elsewhere.
A Bottom Line
Cohabiting the earth with fellow creatures probably requires disturbing some animals―and animal lovers. It's hard to talk about these things without annoying someone, and I still haven't mentioned a really large animal: the “elephant in the room” that's seldom talked about but can't be ignored much longer:the uncomfortable fact that there are too many of us humans on earth. Our overpopulation is beginning to degrade our own quality of life but has already wreaked havoc on many other species. Destroying habitat on a huge scale is the ultimate human cruelty to animals, driving some species all the way to extinction.
When I was born in 1926, some 4 billion of us shared the earth with other living things. Today we number almost 7 billion. That's a lot of people, taking up almost all the arable land to feed ourselves, deforesting what forests are left, fishing the oceans unsustainably, and using up or polluting the fresh water that all creatures must have to survive. The human population is expected to reach 8 billion only a dozen years from now, and 9 billion by about 2042.
Wars, genocide, devastating climate change, and disease (think malaria or Ebola) so far haven't made much of a dent. Almost every positive human accomplishment, like widespread industrialization, better transportation, or highly efficient agriculture, has also promoted population growth.
Disparity in wealth certainly doesn't help. Human couples may find real satisfaction or (in poor countries) even a kind of economic security by begetting many children. Good for them, we say, but everybody behaving that way brings on “The Tragedy of the Commons” (title of a famous 1968 paper in Science by ecologist Garret Hardin). Barry Commoner popularized the term in a best-selling book, The Closing Circle (Knopf, 1971). What it means is that behavior that is entirely rational and beneficial for a few can become a disaster for all God's creatures, including that few. The Christian community bears some responsibility, partly because we seem to welcome each new human life as a gift from God―no matter how many there are. Medical missionaries around the world have focused on preventing deaths rather than births, inevitably promoting population growth. As followers of Jesus and gene-carrying members of the Homo sapiens party, we'll have to face this issue sooner or later.
It's hard to turn this dilemma into lemonade. In my reproductive years I resolved to do no more than replace myself. Check. I quit using animals in research. Check. Now on Social Security, I eat lower on the food chain, almost as economical as gathering manna. Check. But how can we decrease human population? How does one shrink an elephant without doing great harm?