the Animal Planet ,
occupying Serpells West Philadelphia home are a cat named Maddie, an
iguana named Lagarto and assorted fish. As of early March, there was also
an unnamed but incredibly long-lived walking-stick insectthe second-generation
descendant of a creature found by his son two years agohibernating discreetly
inside the family fridge. Theres nothing to feed it in the winter,
Serpell explains dryly. As soon as some leaves appear on the trees, well
bring it out again and, hopefully, revive it.
It should come as no surprise that this pet-tolerant
parent collected all kinds of creatures when he was young. My parents
said [that] from the moment I could move, I was focused on animals. The
house was constantly full of my animals. Lots of very unwelcome animals,
like snakes and lizards and stuff. Serpell assembled his earliest menagerie
in Washington, D.C., where his father worked for the BBC, but moved back
to England with his family when he was eight. He went on to earn his masters
degree in zoology and his Ph.D. in animal behavior at Liverpool University,
specializing in the colorful displays of Australian birds called lorikeets,
before taking a post-doctoral position at Cambridge and opening an animal-behavior
As a young researcher, he says, I started to think
more about the role of companion animals in my life and in other peoples
lives, and began to wonder, What in the world are we keeping them for?
Unlike farm or lab animals, pets fulfill no overtly useful function.
When Serpell tried to peruse the available literature
on the subject, he discovered there wasnt any. Given that this was 1979
and the number of pets that were out there, he recalls, it just struck
me as astonishing that the social sciences and psychology had really never
addressed this issue. A few pioneers in psychotherapy would notice that
they could get access to their clients inner feelings better if there
was an animal in the room, and things like that. Serpell obtained a small
grant and set to work. (He would significantly supplement the literature
in 1986 with In the Company of Animals: A Study of Human-Animal Relationships,
updated in 1996.)
the same time, a small circle of scientists, maybe a dozen people around
the world, were becoming interested in this field from different perspectives.
One of them was Dr. Alan Beck, an animal ecologist who had been working
for New York Citys health department, looking for the most part at the
bad things that animals do for peoplebites, rabies and so on. Beck,
who is now the Dorothy N. McAllister Professor of Animal Ecology at Purdue
University, says he met former Vet School dean and emeritus professor
Dr. Robert Marshak at a meeting and was encouraged to get involved with
a new program at Pennthe first of its kind, examining all facets of
the human-animal bond. The Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society
was funded by the Dodge Foundation in 1979; Beck became its first director.
For a time, the Center was very active, bringing in
a social worker to help grieving pet-owners and starting an animal-behavior
clinic. Dr. Aaron Katcher M56, an emeritus professor of psychology at
Penns School of Dental Medicine, contributed significant research on
the health benefits derived from companion animals, demonstrating in one
study that the mortality rate among coronary patients who owned pets was
much lower than it was among those who did not. Then, in 1989, Beck left
Penn to become director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue.
The other members of CIAS scattered as well, leaving the program dormant
for nearly a decade.
Serpell came to Penns Vet School in 1993 to fill
a newly endowed chair in animal welfare. At the time, he says, he was
advised not to try to revive the Center until his position was secure.
When I got tenure, I decided to regenerate the Center and give it a slightly
different focus, more of an animal-welfare focus, which, he notes, is
in tune with the direction the whole society is going in.
Even as animal-welfare issues move closer to the forefront,
however, they continue to be polarized. At the heart of the problem, believes
Phil Arkow C69, an animal-welfare advocate who chairs a Philadelphia
foundation concerned with the links between animal abuse and family violence
and who spoke at one CIAS conference, is the fact that, People who work
with animals for profit arent speaking the same language as the emotionally
based animal-rights advocates. He believes that as they have become more
successful, some in the animal-rights community have grown more strident,
and in response, their opponents have dug in their heels. We need those
extremists to raise the level of public awareness, but we also need mainstream
centrist groups to bring reason and research into the fray. What [CIAS]
can do, and is doing, says Arkow, is to bring that reason and research
component in to help quantify a lot of these issues. We tend to focus
on anecdotes and intuition when what we really need are hard numbers.
Dr. Andrew Rowan, senior vice president for research
and education of the Humane Society of the United States, characterizes
the factions this way: The animal industry has been intent on emphasizing
the misanthropic, violent tendencies in the animal-protection movement,
and the animal-protection movement has been intent on emphasizing the
nasty, sadistic behaviors and activities that go on in the industry. So
you have, in a sense, caricatures of both sides built up in the policy
debate [instead of attempts at] understanding what either community is
approaches his potential role as a broker in the fray with due caution.
Somebody in my position treads a very difficult path, he explains. If
Im seen as an advocate, I lose credibility in my scholarship and my academic
standing. If I do nothing in terms of advocacy, then Im viewed as kind
of a pillar of the establishment, and animal-protection [groups] dont
have any respect for me.
We hope its not the kiss of death, but we admire
him greatly, says Mary Beth Sweeten, director of research and investigations
at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the group that
sponsored the aborted Beer vs. Milk campaign. The few times I have dealt
with Dr. Serpell, he has reminded me of George Bernard Shaw, the playwright
known, among other things, for his commentaries on vivisection and vegetarianism.
Hes thoughtful, highly intelligent, and that whats we need to put the
message forward to people who might otherwise never think of the inherent
worthiness of species other than humans.
Though PETA is better known for its publicity stunts
than its position papers, Sweeten doesnt bristle at Serpells criticisms
of the hyperbole emanating from the animal-rights debates. People would
like to think that animal-protection organizations exaggerate, because
its more comfortable to think that way. But when you look at the documentation
that we obtain from factory farms and puppy mills and laboratories, there
is no denying that there are serious problems, [and cases of] outright
Getting the truth out, she adds, sometimes requires
a bit more confrontation or theatrical tactics, such as the Oscar Meyer
Weinermobile being accosted by a costumed pig. Were trying to speak to
society as a whole. Dr. Serpell is likely to succeed where we may fall
shortthat is, with people [in the industry] who dont see him as a threat
to their livelihood.
CIAS conferences at Penn feature no porcine protests or shouting matches,
just a gentle reminder from Serpell to stay civilized even if you disagree
radically with the speaker. At previous events, members of Penns Center
for Bioethics have pondered the propriety of cloning Fido or Fluffy [Gazetteer,
April 98]; a science historian has traced the marketing of the dolphin
into Hollywood star; and an English professor has mused over the depiction
of canines in Wuthering Heights. A veterinarian has even theorized
that aggressive behavior in some male dogs may coincide with female owners
menstrual periods. But the forums have generally centered on broader themes
of concern to Serpell, including the training of and research on animals;
the use of animals for food; and the practice of pet-keeping.
How do you train excitable
animals like antelope to stand still for veterinary procedures? To Dr.
Temple Grandin, a University of Colorado scientist, the solution turned
out to be carrots and yams, which she calls the antelope equivalent of
cake and ice-cream.
Grandin told the audience
at the March CIAS conference on New Directions in Animal Training, Handling
and Restraint how she and her colleagues habituated antelope and bison
to being handledan experience which ordinarily could send the flighty
animals crashing into fences and snapping off horns.
Over a period of 97 to
118 days, the antelope were conditioned to walk into a wood crate and
eat treats dispensed from a rudimentary candy machine while blood was
drawn from their hind legs. The process required subtle steps, like sliding
the crate door open a few centimeters more each day. These are not animals
you can force, she explained. They just panic. Because studies show
that fear memories are not erasable, Its important to make sure the
first set of experiences is good.
Grandin, who appeared
to be dressed more for a roundup than a research exchange in black, Western-style
gear, is best known for helping transform the cattle industry with her
pragmatic alternatives to stressful slaughtering and handling techniques.
Approximately half of the beef cattle now killed in the United States
go through one of the humane systems she has designed, saving the industry
money in the process, because animals that dont stress out are less likely
to produce bruised meat.
One of the sources of
her well-respected insight is the autism she has had since birth. As Grandin
once explained to The New York Times: I think in pictures like
an animal. My nervous system is more like an animals. The sounds that
bother me are the same sounds that bother an animal. My emotions are simpleand
the main one is fear.
Fear in animals can
be measured in the stress hormone cortisol. The antelope and bison which
had been habituated through Grandins method had very low levels of it
in their blood.
The use of animals in
scientific research was the topic of one of the earliest CIAS conferences,
in March 1998, and continues to be a target of animal-protection groups.
With the implementation of stricter federal rules for animal-research
oversight in 1985, lab-animal welfare has greatly improved, Serpell observes.
Though its not his goal to end the use of animals in research, he would
like to discontinue dissection in science classes, which, in his view,
tends to engender in young people a kind of utilitarian view of animals
as expendable things.
Dr. Harry Rozmiarek, professor
and chief of laboratory animal medicine who as the Universitys veterinarian
is responsible for the welfare of animals used on campus, doubts its
possible to eliminate animal experimentation. Research depends critically
and constantly on animals as research subjects, he says, and animals
benefit as well. Transplantation medicine is now used in animal medicine.
Fifty years ago you wouldnt have heard of an animal receiving hip replacements
or kidney transplants. While alternatives are constantly being discovered,
Rozmiarek, who also serves on the board of directors of Public Responsibility
in Medicine and Research, says, There isnt a good alternative to the
mammalian system to study mammalian questions. Instead, he says, the
thrust must be on animal welfare, including pain prevention. Never should
an animal suffer.
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