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Saving the Animal Planet, by Susan Lonkevich

Illustration by Noah Woods

A California philanthropist mourning his dead miniature schnauzer creates a multimillion-dollar foundation to fund “no-kill” animal shelters around the country. He is criticized for lavishing his wealth on needy pets instead of needy people.
    Just in time for spring break, an animal-rights group targets college students with a “Got Beer?” ad campaign. It suggests that consumers would be healthier, not to mention kinder to cows, if they drank cholesterol-free beer instead of milk. Under pressure from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the group distills the alcohol out of its message, but continues to link dairy products to cancer, heart disease and other ills.
    Few topics stir up more public interest, emotion and debate today than humans’ interactions with and use of animals. But what’s often missing from the headlines, attention-grabbing gestures and policy-making is the exchange of unbiased, scientific data, observes Dr. James Serpell, the Marie A. Moore Associate Professor of Humane Ethics and Animal Welfare at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine. In an attempt to fill that void, Serpell has reestablished a 21-year-old academic center on campus and committed it to studying the impact and ethics of human-animal relations—minus the hyperbole.
    A browse through recent news stories —about tofu pies tossed at fur-draped runway models, a man jailed for refusing to give up his illegally kept ferret after it allegedly bit a child at a pro-ferret rally, and a clerical leader associating vegetarians with the Antichrist—would seem to indicate that the director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society (CIAS) has a formidable task ahead.
    “There are a lot of people who are quite entrenched” on either side of the animal-welfare issue, admits Serpell, a soft-spoken Englishman who is not too serious-minded to keep a Far Side coffee mug stamped with anthropomorphic cows on his office desk. But he believes that society will ultimately call the shots—and that it is inching toward the left in its concern for the environment and, consequently, the treatment of animals.
    “I see my goal here as a kind of facilitator of that process,” says Serpell, who for the record, is not a vegetarian, though he does limit his consumption of animal products. “I’m not trying to slash through cherished icons or beliefs, but rather to kind of set up a dialogue, bring different parties together to talk about the research and have things on a fairly scholarly basis, so it doesn’t just end up in polemics.”
    To that end, CIAS has hosted seven interdisciplinary conferences on campus since 1997, using a grant from the provost’s office, and is engaged in several research projects. Its long-range goals include starting a graduate program on animal welfare and human-animal interactions at Penn’s Vet School, creating a clearinghouse for information on alternatives to animal research, establishing a program to improve the treatment of farm animals and studying both the positive and negative effects of pet-keeping on companion animals as well as humans.
    Whether any of these goals is realized, however, depends critically on Serpell securing permanent funding for the project. For the time being, Serpell is the Center (he has one post-doctoral assistant), although a number of colleagues at Penn have been helpful to the organization. “I find it difficult to formally affiliate people without knowing that the Center has a future,” he explains.

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