By Dennis Drabelle | Thirty years ago, Adrian R. Morrison, now emeritus professor of behavioral neuroscience at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine, would have been hard-put to discuss the issue of animal rights as calmly as he does in An Odyssey with Animals. By his own account, he was then incensed at animal-rights advocates who were breaking into laboratories, kidnapping animals destined for experiments, and harassing scientists and their families at home (Morrison’s included)—all in an effort to dramatize their conviction that animals were being needlessly abused.
In the interim, however, laws to protect animals in labs have been enacted, scientists and others who hold sway over animals (notably farmers and hunters) have drawn up codes by which to minimize the creatures’ suffering, and Morrison himself has devoted much of his time to thinking, debating, and writing about how humans should interact with animals. He admits that, for all their excesses, those hardcore advocates performed a valuable service: prompting scientists to re-examine whether and how they should make use of animals in their work. Morrison’s initial rage, in other words, has given way to reflection, and this wise book is the result.
Despite its modest length, An Odyssey ranges widely. For example, Morrison takes a look at bovine tail-docking—an issue previously unknown to this city-boy reviewer. As Morrison explains it, shortening a cow’s tail had become a commonplace procedure “to keep the udder clean and the urine-soaked swatch at the end of the tail out of the milker’s face.” Tail-cropping was painful to the cow, however, and once a study showed that trimming the swatch was just as effective, trimming became the preferred move. “In this way,” Morrison writes, “science was able to provide farmers with concrete data, which in turn improved the welfare of their animals.” A small point, perhaps, but an indication of the nuances involved in trying to alleviate the suffering of the animals on which we depend.
At the other end of the spectrum lie such momentous questions as to what extent humans differ from animals and whether we are morally justified in experimenting on them. Morrison believes that we can do so with a clear conscience, provided that we take care to cause as little pain as possible. “Wonderful will be the day,” he writes, “that we no longer need to use animals in a way that does them harm, or we are able to replace them completely in testing. That day is some distance in the future.”
To those who would rule out animals as subjects of experiments right now, Morrison offers a practical reminder. “Virtually every major advance in medicine has resulted, directly or indirectly, from research performed with animals … : tetanus and oral polio vaccines, treatments for rabies and anthrax, cardiac catheterization, insulin treatments for diabetes, development of anticoagulants and antibiotics, open heart surgery, organ transplants, lithium, and other treatments for major mental disorders.” He goes on to throw out a challenge: if activists would ban animals from labs, shouldn’t they offer themselves as substitutes or, failing that, forego all benefits to themselves and their loved ones derived from experiments present and past?
After the thorny questions posed in Morrison’s Odyssey, the central moral problem raised in The Foie Gras Wars, by Chicago Tribune reporter Mark Caro, might seem like child’s play. Surely it’s wrong to eat foie gras, the ultra-smooth liver of a goose (the traditional source) or a duck (more common today) after the organ has been fattened up by force feeding through a tube—a procedure called gavage. That certainly is the view of many animal-rights organizations, which have picketed restaurants serving foie gras and lobbied state and city governments to ban its sale.
But as Caro investigates the issue and visits foie gras farms, he finds actual conditions to be at variance with the product’s bad rep. The ducks do not run away from the farmhands who force-feed them, and their only sign of stress is panting, which may or may not be related to gavage. Caro even flies to France to observe gavage in its country of origin. Each time, his conclusion is the same: Although you can’t say that the birds actually like being force-fed, the experience does not seem to traumatize them.
Back in the States, visiting California, Minnesota, New York, and Philadelphia (where some restaurants were picketed), Caro comes to know and admire the farmers who produce foie gras and the restaurateurs who serve it. He seems less impressed with the protestors, some of whom come across as true believers who refuse to consider any evidence that might undercut their credo. They simply know that gavage is cruel, and when Caro tells them he’s seen it take place again and again without causing noticeable perturbation, the activists insist he was hoodwinked. But as Groucho Marx once said, “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”
Another Marx Brothers line—“Vy a duck?”—might also be cited: that is, why all the tumult over such a minor food item? As one chef puts it to Caro, “In Chicago 50 or 75 people eat foie gras in a night, right? And there’s probably a million people a night eating beef that’s raised really inhumanely.” The answer seems to be that activists first zero in on what they hope will be the easy cases.
In the end, Caro refrains from taking a position on the ethics of eating foie gras. But thanks to his reportorial skills and engaging prose style, the reader should have enough information to make up her own mind on what has turned out to be a surprisingly complex question.
Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69 is a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World.