5: Science, Sadism and Salvation
For the next few years of my life, between 16 and 21, I was largely occupied with my own education. It was the early 1980s and I was involved with campaigning on vegan and vegetarian issues at a local level. There was a gradual hardening of my views. Each new piece of information I sought out convinced me that giving up meat, fish and slaughterhouse by-products was not some fringe activity but central to the survival of the planet.
I was discovering, little by little, the role that meat plays in our culture, its inescapable link with the impoverishment of the developing world and its staggering influence on the major environmental problems which were gradually coming to light over this period. But what really motivated me was the extraordinary and widespread nature of cruelty to animals. I could not come to terms with the fact that it was almost impossible to order a meal that did not involve cruelty. But most of all, I could not understand the refusal of people to react even when they knew the truth. Such is the conviction of youth.
Does everyone think they’re different from the norm? I suspect they do. In most respects I felt extremely normal and liked most of the things that teenage girls like - music, dancing, sex, having fun, doing stupid things and having friends. But there were areas where I was very much on my own, where I could look to no one for support and where invariably I felt isolated. It was usually because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut about cruelty to animals.
I had already organized high street petitions against all kinds of abuse in various parts of the globe but when I went to sixth-form college in Stockport, Cheshire, I was actually confronted with it. The first occasion was on studying for biology A level when, for practical lessons, students were drawn from other groups and class sizes could reach 60 or more.
For my first dissection lesson, I arrived in the classroom to find a newly killed rat on the cutting board - one for every student. They were still warm and rigor mortis had not yet set in. It is highly unlikely that cutting up an animal would ever have any part to play in the working lives of even one of the students present in that laboratory. It is also highly questionable whether they would learn anything they could not discover from numerous other teaching aids that would not have involved death. And a similar scene is repeated in sixth forms and colleges across the world.
The ageing, balding lecturer with tired eyes gave out matter-of-fact instructions as to how to prepare the rat for dissection. We were supposed to place it on its back, stretch out its limbs as if for crucifixion and pin it through its paws to the board beneath.
I looked at the rat in front of me and was disgusted by this casual violence. This institutionalized belittling of life was, I felt, part of the problem which faced society, not part of its cure. The rat is highly intelligent, some say more intelligent than a dog, and has developed complex social patterns (which is why vivisectionists frequently use it for behavioral studies - although what relevance that has to human behaviour I fail to see). And what have we done with this rodent, a species whose time on the globe far outstrips ours? We call it vermin and allow anyone to do anything they like to it. In this case 60 were needlessly killed for an A level practical.
I wanted no part of it, stood up and told the lecturer so. There was no obvious reaction in his eyes, but he offered no objection and I sensed an unspoken understanding of my views.
As I left the lecture room I caught sight of the rest of the class, mostly eyes averted, concentrating intently on the simple job in front of them for fear that by looking at me they would be identified with my views. That is a reaction I have grown used to over the years. Despite this and other refusals to take part in dissection, I passed my biology A level.
I went on to Reading University to read pure zoology, but was horrified by more needless dissection. The first two terms were the most difficult as they involved endless dissection and had to be completed before it was possible to elect specific components. To begin with, I attended the lectures, remained silent, watched what other people did but took no direct part. I illustrated my work by copying the drawings from textbooks.
On one occasion, a tray of newly killed blackbirds was brought into the laboratory and distributed amongst the students. So cavalier was the approach that there were many more birds than students. Life was considered so cheap, of such little importance, that they could not even bother to count the number needed.
As time went by I became more vociferous about my beliefs in front of the other students and eventually the lecturers as well. The strange thing was that my objections were noted but no one attempted to justify the dissections as a vital part of the degree process. In the end I passed the first-year practical exams with a B.
Perhaps it was naïveté, but I really did not have a clear idea of what would be involved in my chosen degree. The component I intended to take was embryology, but at the first lecture part of the shell of a chicken’s egg was removed, exposing the little chick and its beating heart. It seemed to me that we were being asked to desecrate life before it had even started. I walked out.
After that I tried entomology, but having just watched the extraordinarily powerful Animal’s Film by Victor Schonfeld, I was in no mood for compromise. This was the film chosen to launch Channel 4 TV in Britain and is almost two hours of heart-rending revelation of the way we treat animals - from food to fur. It has become almost the definitive film on animal abuse.
The first act I was expected to do on the entomology course was place a pin in either end of a maggot and pull in opposite directions, tearing it apart. This time I spoke out forcibly to the tutor and was eventually called to see my head of department, who accused me of being too vocal.
Next it was parasitology, but that involved cutting up animals infected with parasites, so I moved on to invertebrates. This was the most shocking of my experiences. A pan full of crabs had been boiled while alive in order to kill them before dissection. I touched one and despite all that it had been through, it moved. It was still alive. On this occasion when I expressed my anger I was backed up by other students. The lecturer was visibly shaken and she walked out of the class.
I decided it was impossible for me to continue with pure zoology, although that is what I had always wanted to study, so I opted for a joint degree - zoology and psychology. In fact it was to prove the most useful degree I could have done. I studied the communication of dolphins, whales and also chimpanzees, and my practical project was on ethology - the study of animals in the wild. I chose feral cats.
Part of the degree was the study of farm animals and I chose to look at the effect factory farming has on an animal’s natural behaviour. It is one thing to state this in intuitive, even emotional terms and that’s something I’m always being accused of. But to observe it carefully, measure it, quantify it and then set it out as a proposition in scientific terms which can be justified and defended is something else. I face so much rhetoric and blatant lying about the way animals are kept that I am grateful to have been able to prove that the way in which we rear them destroys their natural behaviour and therefore virtually destroys them.
On leaving university I was desperate to work in animal rights but was forced to spend the first few months teleselling advertising space for Media Week in London. This was not part of the grand design! But after six months I got what I wanted and I still have the champagne bottle (empty now, of course) which fuelled the celebration.
I became a research officer with an anti-vivisection organization in the summer of 1986. Now I was into animal rights at the deep end and even my previous research had not prepared me for the abysmal and sickening nature of some of the things I had to deal with. Many of the tortures which passed for experiments were recorded on video by the teams responsible and I had the misfortune to witness dozens of them.
This book is not about vivisection but about my motivation, my beliefs and imperatives. Some of these were formed during this period and are therefore relevant. What I witnessed there made me ashamed of many scientists and disgusted me to a degree that I still find hard to cope with.
I have no intention of listing a string of abuses carried out on living creatures by people without a single shred of pity or compassion, but I will tell two brief stories. Both came to light as a result of the videos made of them, the first shot by vivisectors themselves, and publicised by animal rights organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in the USA. They are both unforgivable and say much more about the natures of those who carried out the tortures than they do about so-called scientific investigation.
The first ‘experiment’ was performed at the University of Pennsylvania head injury department, in Philadelphia, in 1984 and involved a big baboon. He was strapped to a table fully conscious and his head immobilized in a helmet. His head was then subjected to a huge impact - which was not powerful enough to kill him but strong enough to cause obvious excruciating pain and brain damage.
The baboon was then released from his restraints and as his head lolled about, hopelessly out of control, a woman vivisector can be heard saying, ‘There he goes!’ She then adds, ‘You’d better hope the anti-vivisectionists don’t get hold of this video.’ Still holding the injured animal, the group burst into laughter.
The excuse offered for this unspeakable assault was that it would assist car design and help avoid injury. I don’t want to go into the irrelevance of animal experiments or the morality of commerce inflicting such pain for profit, but the record of some motor manufacturers is that of cynical disregard rather than an altruistic search for improvements. At that time, when dangers were identified, the first thing the manufacturers did was equate the cost of likely law suits with the cost of making changes to the design. Whichever was the cheaper tended to dictate what action they took. The baboon’s suffering was almost certainly part of this cynicism.
The second case concerned Britches, a newborn stumptail macaque monkey. Ungainly, with large sticky-out ears, he was nevertheless beautiful. Like any other baby macaque, he would have had huge round eyes and would have spent the early months, even years of his life clinging to his mother. Neither of those things applied to Britches because immediately after birth at the University of California’s research centre at Riverside, Los Angeles, in 1985, he was removed from his mother and his eyelids were stitched together.
The stitches which blinded him were not even the neat, surgical sutures of experience but huge crude stitches with thick twine, the stitches of indifference, the equivalent of stitching a human’s eyes with string.
So desperate was this little creature for comfort that he would cling on to and hug anything placed in his cage - a blanket, a small cuddly toy, anything. But, deprived of all comfort, all maternal care, and kept in a sterile and barren cage without stimulation, he was mostly allowed only a padded cylinder to cling to.
Watching one animal inflict such intense suffering on another, particularly one so innocent and uncomprehending is, undoubtedly, the worst sight I have ever seen in my life. And the reason for this experiment? To determine the effect of blindness on children. The vivisectors at the University of California excused their use of the monkey by saying that the daily routine of children’s lives made it too difficult to work with them.
What type of mind could have conceived of this and, perhaps more importantly, could have carried it out?
The wide-ranging work I did on vivisection led me to conclude that most vivisectors fall into one of two categories. To the first, all that matters is cause and effect. They have absolutely no concept of suffering and no conscience about what they do. They storm into the laboratory, administer the injections or shocks or force feeding, storm out again and await the results. They are, in its truest interpretation, the psychopaths of science.
The second type is the sadist. We have been brought up with a belief, repeated and reinforced every time a vivisector talks about their work, that they partake in it unwillingly and in our best interests. It’s nonsense. Many of these people obviously get a buzz out of the torture they administer and the name of the game is power. There is not a shadow of doubt in my mind that they would do these same things to humans without a second thought if it were given legitimacy. There was no shortage of scientists and doctors eager to carry out unspeakable experiments on humans at Buchenwald and other concentration camps. Perhaps even more frightening, there were almost no lengths to which British and US security forces would not go in order to spirit these people out of Germany at the end of the war and save them from trial in order to have access to their knowledge. This sadistic breed of scientists did not suddenly appear from nowhere and live only in Nazi Germany. They exist everywhere.
The story of Britches has a happier ending than most vivisection victims. He was released from his misery when still a young baby, the stitches removed from his eyes and the long and painful process of trying to repair the acute psychological damage undertaken. It would be nice to think that this compassionate response was initiated by the vivisectors responsible for his pain - but it wasn’t. It was made possible only because the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) broke into the laboratories and released him, finding a loving and caring refuge where he would be safe.
It’s quite difficult for me when asked by journalists about my views on the ALF. The question is usually posed in conjunction with alleged ALF violence against humans and I know that any vaguely supportive response will be used as a stick with which to beat me and my organization, particularly as I work so much with young people. Of course I don’t support any action that endangers human life or safety. But when I look at footage of Britches’ abysmal life at the hands of his vivisectors and then a few months after his rescue, my heart goes out to those who were brave enough to risk their own liberty to release him from such a squalid existence.
Despite the appalling nature of the things I had to deal with, I at last believed I was helping animals. But my first lesson in internal politicking was about to be learned. It erupted in such a devastating way that it almost destroyed the organization.
But I found a new job to go to and it offered exciting prospects - youth education officer with the Vegetarian Society. I was faced with the challenge of starting a whole department from scratch. Up to this point the organization had done no campaigning work, largely building its reputation as a food and information organization over a period of 150 years. Now, in 1987, I was starting with a clean slate and a brief to concentrate on young people - those who hold the key to a more compassionate tomorrow. I decided my long-term goal was to try and bring about a change in national attitudes. Such determination is easy when you’re 23.
The following seven years of constant campaigning gave me the skills and the experience eventually to found a new and dynamic charity - Viva! (Vegetarians International Voice for Animals).