Which is true. I don't want to kill spiders or ants or anything unless they directly interfere with my life. I don't want to see ants in my kitchen, but I don't care if they are having a party on the sidewalk outside my home. I don't like to see spiders or flies or gnats inside my home. When I do see them inside, well, I do kill them. But I feel bad for them. I feel guilty when I crush those tiny critters. Sometimes I even apologize to them, as if that makes any difference to the ant!
I am no tree-hugging nutcase to whom environmentalism is a religion, and I routinely make fun of the Earth Day rhetoric, But, I care for, and worry about, the natural environment--the living and inanimate--because of a deep conviction that the cosmos is not merely about us humans and our own comfortable material existence. My sincere belief that there is nothing for me after the remaining twenty-four years of my life does not mean that I am going to trash this place while I am here.
This being the Earth Day time, my various news feeds feature writings on many aspects of our existence on this glorious pale blue dot. In one, the author reflects on a part of his life in which he was an animal experimenter:
First, I had to learn how to shock a pigeon. A graduate student demonstrated how one person held the pigeon upside down while the other plucked out the feathers in back of its legs, cut two lengths of stiff stainless steel wire from a spool and pushed them through the skin and under the pelvic bones. The wires were then soldered to a harness placed on the pigeon’s back. The harness contained a plug that would be connected to a source of electric shock during experiments. No anesthetic or sedative was used.
One day, while programming an experiment, I accidentally touched the electrodes and got a jolting shock that numbed my entire arm. I was amazed that, according to my professor, the shock level was the correct one to use for pigeons. I told myself that pigeons must not feel pain as much as I did
We tell ourselves all kinds of things in order to keep doing those things over and over.
I was told that everyone had to take a turn killing the pigeons after the experiments were finished. A graduate student showed me how to dump a couple of dozen birds into a clear plastic garbage bag, then pour a splash of chloroform on them and tie the bag shut. I remember the first and only time I did the killing
I would imagine that except a minority, most of us would get messed up beyond repair if we conducted experiments on animals. Especially if we did that more than once. I would think we would forever be haunted by the images and the sounds.
As I look back on this nearly 50 years later, I am astonished that the daily grind of depriving, shocking and killing these animals did not move me to leave my job. My rationalization is that I was a student and young worker in institutions of higher learning, programmed to receive the wisdom of academia. I was studying how the science that supposedly advanced our civilization was done. Speaking of his infamous experiments in which human subjects followed orders thinking they were giving extremely painful shocks to other humans, the Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram said, “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.” I think that describes me pretty well.
Even when I kill ants and spiders that come into my home, I make sure I kill them as fast as I can. I don't want those critters to suffer. Yet, experiments on animals is nothing but watching them suffer. If from those experiments we derive some life-extending benefits to humans, are our additional years worth all that suffering we put the animals to?
I sat with a small notepad writing the alien’s speech as my thoughts drifted back to my days in punishment research. The words flowed in almost final form as I drew on my own rationalizations for my acts of animal torture. Tears welled up in my eyes as I wrote: “We now recognize that you, too, are a sacred life-form. We deeply regret what we have done. We ask forgiveness. We are sorry.”
I don't ever get trapped into the Earth Day rhetoric of "save the planet." As George Carlin joked, the planet knows how to take care of itself. The planet will easily shake us humans off--a volcanic eruption alone can knock us out. Instead, it is the every day life (and death) issues, starting from how we treat the ants and the spiders and the pigeons and the pigs, that Earth Day should be about. And for those, we need to think of every single day as Earth Day. But, that's not how we humans will do it, and neither will we ask forgiveness and feel sorry :(