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Deconstructing Slate’s “Pepper” Series

For those who didn't read the five-part Slate series "Pepper, the stolen dog who changed American science" by Daniel Engber, I recommend it for the history, but also for the misconceptions and assumptions that you might want to discuss on the Facebook discussion about the series.

Let's deconstruct:

  • Part I: Where's Pepper? I addressed this one last week. Beloved family pet Dalmatian, Pepper, is stolen, and after several weeks of searching is discovered to have been experimented on at a hospital and died on the table when researchers tried to implant her with an experimental cardiac pacemaker. My fears about what the rest of the series would involve were all realized.
  • Part II: Man Cuts Dog. This one gives us a look inside the mind of the vivisectionist, Daniel Engber. There's a vague sense that perhaps he cares about the dogs or thinks that what he does to them might present an ethical dilemma, but the overwhelming feeling is that it's all worth it. About cutting a dog open and stopping the flow of blood to her heart, he writes: "Remember to move quickly, as the dog can endure only a few minutes in this predicament. (You can buy some extra time by presoaking the animal in a basin of ice water.)" For Engber, who dispassionately describes procedures most of the time, the "advances" in the medical care of humans are all well worth what he and other vivisectionists do to dogs and other sentient nonhumans. He writes, "The dog remained a vital tool in biomedical research for more than 300 years and was the vehicle for a remarkable run of medical breakthroughs."
  • Part III: Pepper Goes to Washington. The tiresome Hitler was a well-known vegetarian comment is included in this segment, but I found it irksome long before that. This morning, during the Facebook discussion, Engber writes (and the first sentence is reason alone to chime in):

    Bring on the PETA hotties! Actually, I didn't quit neuroscience as a result of the experiences described, but I did quit working with animals. By the end of my time as researcher, I was performing behavioral experiments on humans. But that's neither here nor there — I'm very supportive of animal research in principle. The point of my series was to introduce some of the difficult questions that don't often get asked within science, precisely because of what Alina has so aptly described as the "climate of fear" that pervades the lab. It's one that's brought on, no doubt, by the acts of vandalism and intimidation of radical animal-rights groups, but I think it also serves to insulate the research community from any responsibility it might otherwise have to increase transparency and public engagement with the work. I'm sure we could do a much better job of ensuring the humane treatment of our laboratory animals–but at this point it's very difficult even to start the discussion.

When Slate wrote me saying I might find this series interesting, what
they don't know is that we who are invested in not torturing any
sentient beings don't ask the same questions Engber is asking. "How
long should one animal be used in the lab before it is euthanized?"
isn't really on our list of questions (he asks that in the FB

I think he also doesn't know that not all of us think that chasing down Class B dealers is as important as working to shut down animal experimentation and create more alternatives. He's right with his implication that stopping the seizing of pets and strays simply created a more efficient, effective means of commodifying and torturing dogs and cats. But there is a significant contingent who is not as enamored with the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act as he is. It "guarantees humane treatment?" Maybe on paper.

  • Part IV: Brown Dogs and Red Herrings. This one addresses the decreasing number of dogs and cats being experimented on and, without mentioning it, discusses speciesism and our affection for dogs–pet dogs particularly (and especially purebreds)–which leads to our revulsion with the idea of snatching, vivisecting and killing them. Of course, "That's not to say dogs didn't have their niche in biomedicine. Medical schools, in particular, made ample use of them for education and research in surgery and cardiology." And thanks to the efforts of groups such as PCRM, that ample use isn't so ample anymore.
Engber mentions that in 1972, the USDA put into place "a special exemption for rats, mice, and birds, allowing scientists to treat them however they saw fit—in cages of any size, in experiments with any degree of pain and suffering. That exemption remains in force, despite Schwindaman's later attempts to overturn it. To this day, 95 percent of the animals used in research labs receive no federal protection whatsoever under the Animal Welfare Act." He differentiates those animals from what he calls "the cute animals" which is important and one of the few passages that I appreciated in this series. The fact that we care about–and fight for–animals based on how cute we have deemed them to be is disgraceful.

If Engber does a good job with anything, it's with pointing out the flaws in the strategies of pro-animal activists and in the outcomes of their campaigns. He concludes this segment with:

Meanwhile, rats and mice are subject to some of the most extreme and invasive experiments in biomedicine. By the early 1980s, we were spiking mouse DNA with cancer-causing genes; a few years later, we started to "knock out" specific lines of genetic code. (Scientists mapped out the entire mouse genome in 2002 and the rat genome in 2004.) We regularly subject rodents to pain, starvation, solitary confinement, and grotesque disfigurement. Whatever misery they endure is multiplied across the hundreds of millions of rats and mice used in labs every year.

The animal-welfare groups have failed in their most ambitious efforts to protect laboratory rodents. "We did and do strongly support the inclusion of rats and mice," says Cathy Liss, current president of the Animal Welfare Institute. "But the question is how can we properly address that? At this juncture, it's premature to go forward and rally support." With rodents off the table, though, it's not clear what's left for the activists to do.

  • Part V: Me and My Monkey. This is where we get to see who Daniel Engber really is. He talks about "My research monkey," Clayton, and what he did to Clayton, and writes as if Clayton didn't mind at all. He was leashed, but didn't need to be, he recognized Engber and didn't want to kill him (until eight years later, which is very interesting), and he makes it sound like Clayton was having a good old time with his "2-inch titanium rod screwed into the top of his skull." He makes Clayton sound bored with his life of torment: "I remember the day he crossed his legs on the shelf of the chair and started strumming his fingernails against the wall."
Engber writes of experimenting on cats and on the "furtive language" vivisectionists use to decrease the emotional impact of what they do. "The word starving was replaced by fasting, bleeding by hemorrhaging, poison by toxicant; full-body photographs of lab animals were removed, and the pronoun it was subbed in for any use of he or she to describe them. Authors who referred to their animals by given names were instructed to use a string of letters and numbers instead."

Engber returned recently to the "monkey room" where Clayton was kept when Engber used him for research years ago and to his surprise, Clayton was still there.

If Clayton remembered me, it wasn't with fondness: He rose to all fours as I approached and grunted at me with his lips parted—an aggressive, open-mouth threat. There was little evidence of the adolescent who had cowered in the back of his cage eight years ago. As an adult, Clayton lingered near the bars, scowling. (I discovered later that he'd been separated from his old cage-mate Duper for fighting.)

I'd love to say that this was Engber's epiphany, and that he fought for Clayton's removal to a sanctuary and is now a powerful voice against the vivisection of sentient nonhumans. But that's now what happened.

Here's where we reach the point of the series:

Clayton was born in a breeding center; he grew up in metal boxes and spent his adolescence with a hole in his head and a coil around his eye. In 10 or 15 years of life, he suffered through multiple surgeries and infections and endless hours of restraint in a plastic chair. And for what? Pepper's death, at least, contributed to the development of the cardiac pacemaker—a revolutionary medical device that would prolong millions of lives. Every hour of Clayton's existence has been spent, and will continue to be spent, in the service of basic science.

"Yep, he's still going strong," my former mentor said when I returned from the monkey room. We stood outside a recording chamber, where another animal now sat in front of the monitor. Some people might not like the idea of a monkey working so long, he continued; they say it's better to use each lab animal for one experiment only or a series of related ones … but all the experiments in a given lab are at least somewhat related. "You could easily argue," he added, that the resources necessary to buy and train a new monkey would be a net minus for animal welfare. Why should we euthanize Clayton and start over? Isn't it better for science, and more humane, to use just one animal?

First of all, whether someone was born in a breeding center, under a porch or in my living room doesn't make them more or less entitled to a life free of enslavement, torture and slaughter. It does not make them more or less a "tool."

As an aside, each time I read the word "mentor," I got chills. To view someone who spends their life starving, piercing, mutilating, terrifying and killing others as a mentor is shocking. At least Engber was shocked to see Clayton. But not shocked enough.

Next, to say that the monkey is "working" is absurd and incorrect. Last I checked, work is something you consent to. You decide to do it, usually in exchange for some kind of payment you have agreed to. If not, you are volunteering. Neither of these words apply to Clayton or any other animal in a laboratory.

Finally, what Engber doesn't entertain is the notion that no animal–not one–needs to be in a laboratory and above all not one should be in a laboratory. He writes as if what he used to do–and what he defends–is morally justifiable on its face, and it's just the details that might be questionable. But the entire industry is questionable. The entire idea isn't justifiable.

Just because men did something that ended up helping people doesn't mean they should have or it was worth it. Engber is fond of listing all of the advances that came out of the vivisection of nonhumans, and my only question is: What if all of those researchers used retarded babies in their experiments? Or babies who weren't retarded? Or mute babies? Or they used blind babies for experimental blindness treatments? And what if there were plenty of cures and vaccines that came from all of that? Would you advocate for continuing to do such research just because it yielded results? Wouldn't you at some point say: That's not right–we need to stop that immediately and put our money and energy into finding alternative ways of performing medical research.

For me, and others who respect the lives of sentient nonhumans, experimenting on those nonhumans isn't right. We need to stop it immediately and put our money and energy into finding alternative ways of performing medical research.

See Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine for more on alternatives, and chime in on the Facebook discussion or e-mail Daniel Engber with your thoughts. If you want to tweet about it, use the hashtag #whpep.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tracy #

    I'm sorry I read the first part of the series and am glad I didn't read the rest. I had no idea the writer was a former animal experimenter. He's only identified as a senior editor at Slate in his bio in the first installment. How annoying!

    June 8, 2009
  2. Bea Elliott #

    My head hurts with all the justifying, denial, paraphrasing, rewording and unclaimed guilt D. Engber reveals. It's both amusing and appalling to know what lengths he and his ilk go through to avoid responsiblity for their brutal (and unnecessary) acts. If there ever was to be justice for these sorts of crimes – I'm quite certain he would not compromise the full meaning of "mercy".

    June 8, 2009
  3. Oren #

    Excellent blog post. But I'd go much easier on Engber, because he's a powerful voice that speaks to a different audience.

    To begin with, I think we agree the series is extraordinary. You're right that the most important part is Part V, Me and My Monkey. It does show who Engber really is, and it explains how he has begun to recognize the implications of the animal experimentation (torture) he had participated in. He's definitely conflicted, and he hasn't arrived at the place you'd like him to. But a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

    He doesn't agree with everything you believe, but he agrees with enough to understand your message. That's very rare for somebody coming from his world and his background. As a result, he can give an eyewitness view from inside the lab that nobody else can. It helps that he's a fantastic writer.

    When he writes about cutting a dog open, he's not trying to give a "how to" explanation; he's giving us a peek into the mindset of the scientists who perform such actions.

    Calling him "the vivisectionist Daniel Engber" does not help because it shuts down dialogue. This piece succeeds in opening eyes and raising consciousness, and it will find it's audience. The truth will make itself known.

    Glad I found your blog.

    June 24, 2009
  4. Olivia #

    The husband-and-wife, doctor-and-veterinarian team, C. Ray and Jean Swingle Greek, who wrote Sacred Cows and Golden Geese, maintain that few to no significant advances in medicine came from animal experimentation and that, if anything, it prevented progress.

    June 26, 2009

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