The year is 1780. In Bologna, Italy, Luigi Galvani is working on one of his many projects. He accidentally discovers that he can cause contractions in dissected frog legs by hanging them from a brass hook and touching the muscle with a steel scalpel. He has just created the first electrical cell.
Our understanding of the human body and muscle contraction is forever changed. Soon afterwards, Galvani's friend, Alessandro Volta, applies the finding to his own work and produces the first battery.
If People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) had been active in 1780, the group would have strongly opposed Galvani's work. Immediately, they would have assembled an action committee to agree on how best to address the issue. They would probably have decided to raise public awareness and support for the frogs at the grassroots level. They might even have dressed someone in a frog suit and had them walk around Bologna's town square.
Poor old Galvani wouldn't even have been able to go to the market for a half pound of fresh pasta without getting a pie thrown in his face.
Our understanding of the human body and muscle contraction would not have been forever changed. Volta would never have invented the battery. The world would have remained horse-drawn and candlelit.
When Procter & Gamble announced the end to animal testing for its current beauty, fabric and paper products on June 30, PETA claimed an important moral victory. Since its inception in 1980, PETA has been unequivocal in its belief that "Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on or use for entertainment." PETA employs animal rescue, celebrity involvement and the occasional throwing of pies at the CEOs of companies whose policies it disagrees with.
Like PETA, I oppose the use of animals for the testing of beauty, fabric and paper products. Also, I do not think it possible to justify their use for entertainment or as a source of leather or fur.
But animals have played, and should continue to play, an important role in research and the development of medical therapies. Just a few of the more important discoveries that have employed animal models are: vaccinations against smallpox, diphtheria and polio; insulin production for diabetics; blood typing; kidney and heart transplantation; cardiac pacemakers; cancer chemotherapy; magnetic resonance imaging; CAT scans; and ultrasound. All of us have taken advantage of these developments at some time.
As yet, no effective cure exists for: AIDS; many forms of cancer; Alzheimer's disease; hepatitis; brain and spinal cord injury; arthritis; cystic fibrosis; cerebral palsy; Parkinson's disease; and many others. We probably all know someone who has suffered from one of these conditions.
PETA maintains that if researchers had been required to use alternative methods, they would still have found treatments for the many diseases that have now been eradicated. But such a statement is easy neither to prove nor to disprove.
On its Web site, PETA lists many important discoveries that were made without the use of animals. For instance, in 1895 Wilhelm Roentgen discovered the X-ray and revolutionized medicine using only human subjects. Of course, he later died of intestinal carcinoma. But they forget to mention that.
In April, activists claiming to belong to the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) forced their way into buildings at the University of Minnesota. They released 116 animals, stole notebooks and vandalized 12 laboratories. The estimated cost of damage was $4 million, and work on Alzheimer's disease, cerebral palsy, cancer and Parkinson's disease was destroyed. Ironically, some of these laboratories were developing alternatives to animal use, but those systems were also destroyed.
In an interview with New Scientist magazine, a PETA spokesperson said of the ALF, "I understand their frustration. The real crime is that millions of animals are being tortured and killed."
In this age of social consciousness, we sometimes forget the importance of being able to study a disease in a living system. In many cases, observing a disorder in an animal model provides a greater understanding of its cause, development and possible treatment.
Some conditions are rare and do not occur frequently enough to allow study in humans. Others develop so quickly that it's almost impossible to observe the early disease stages without the use of animals. Increasingly, however, we are made to feel guilty for supporting the use of animals to develop medical therapies.
PETA and other animal support groups now use computer systems for much of their research and public education. Many have informative Web sites that enable us to investigate the bad guys without even leaving our living rooms.
In 1992, though, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition named computer manufacturer Hewlett-Packard the dirtiest of a "dirty dozen" of polluting electronics companies. According to a 1993 report by the U.S. Council on Economic Priorities, Hewlett-Packard also extensively uses animals for the development of pharmaceuticals and has held a number of nuclear weapons contracts. But PETA does not boycott its products.
Both IBM and Apple Computers have been criticized by the Ethical Consumer Research Association (ECRA) for owning subsidiaries in countries where cheap labor can be exploited such as Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Thailand. In 1995, Xerox Corp. gained a place on INFORM's "Toxic Watch 1995" list consisting of the 300 companies with the largest total production-related waste of carcinogens in the United States. But PETA does not boycott the products of these companies either.
According to the Department of Labor, 40 percent of Burmese children never attend school. The figures are similar for the rest of Asia, Latin America and Africa, where the rates of child labor are the highest in the world. Why? Because the majority is harvesting the vegetables, rice and other crops that constitute a vegetarian diet. Many are beaten, mistreated and forced to work more than 12 hours a day to satisfy the demand from Western countries for fresh produce. But PETA still assures us that giving up meat is the only ethical decision.
In 1995, workers were found in slave-like conditions in an El Monte, Calif., sweatshop. They were held in an apartment complex surrounded with barbed wire and forced to work 20-hour shifts seven days a week. Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich claimed that it was the "worst case of slavery in America's recent history." Similar incidents are reported frequently in America and other countries that manufacture products for American companies. But PETA reminds us that we must endeavor to stamp out the fur and leather trade on the grounds of cruelty.
We are all aware of the pollution and environmental damage caused annually by oil and diesel companies. But have PETA's 600,000 members replaced their cars with bicycles? No.
Maybe I'm naive, but there's something ironic about sticking anti-Procter & Gamble slogans to the fender of your SUV before you drive to the store for your organic vegetables. Are those bumper stickers biodegradable? Is the glue toxic? Does the SUV get terrible gas mileage? Do you care?
I shared my fourth-grade class with a devout vegetarian named Sarah Lewis. She criticized anyone who ate meat or fish. She also refused to dissect a frog and instead became an expert on the intricacies of celery.
But Sarah ate chicken, because she just hated chickens. She said that their beady eyes gave her nightmares and so she was trying to rid the world of them, one by one. Every time she ate a chicken she knew there was one less pair of beady eyes to infiltrate her nightmares.
Sarah Lewis scared me very much.
Looking back on fourth grade, Sarah had a lot in common with PETA. True, PETA never got its head stuck between the railings outside the school, but the similarities are still there.
PETA points an accusatory finger at you with one hand and funds companies guilty of animal research and environmental damage with the other. Sarah Lewis was a vegetarian who ate chickens. It's the same thing.
So, the next time PETA attacks your ethics, remember Luigi Galvani working tirelessly in his dusty laboratory, on the brink of producing the first electrical cell. Then ask yourself: Was he really such a bad guy?