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Saving the Animal Planet , continued

 

Animal Magnetism

Currently occupying Serpell’s 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 insect—the second-generation descendant of a creature found by his son two years ago—hibernating discreetly inside the family fridge. “There’s nothing to feed it in the winter,” Serpell explains dryly. “As soon as some leaves appear on the trees, we’ll 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 master’s 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 clinic there.
 
  
As a young researcher, he says, “I started to think more about the role of companion animals in my life and in other people’s 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 wasn’t 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.)
    At 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 City’s health department, “looking for the most part at the bad things that animals do for people—bites, 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 Penn—“the 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 M’56, an emeritus professor of psychology at Penn’s 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 Penn’s 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 C’69, 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 aren’t 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 about.”
    Serpell 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 I’m seen as an advocate, I lose credibility in my scholarship and my academic standing. If I do nothing in terms of advocacy, then I’m viewed as kind of a pillar of the establishment, and animal-protection [groups] don’t have any respect for me.”
    “We hope it’s 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. “He’s thoughtful, highly intelligent, and that what’s 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 doesn’t bristle at Serpell’s criticisms of the hyperbole emanating from the animal-rights debates. “People would like to think that animal-protection organizations exaggerate, because it’s 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 animal cruelty.
    “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. We’re trying to speak to society as a whole. Dr. Serpell is likely to succeed where we may fall short—that is, with people [in the industry] who don’t see him as a threat to their livelihood.”
    The 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 Penn’s 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.

Dangling the Carrot

    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 handled—an 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, “It’s 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 don’t 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 animal’s. The sounds that bother me are the same sounds that bother an animal. My emotions are simple—and 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 Grandin’s 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 it’s 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 University’s veterinarian is responsible for the welfare of animals used on campus, doubts it’s 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 wouldn’t 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 isn’t 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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