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What Animals Want by Larry Carbone

Joel Marks brooks no monkey business with animals’ well-being.

What do animals want? Larry Carbone, a research laboratory animal veterinarian, makes no bones about it: They don’t want to be there! He writes, “If voluntary consent were our standard for animal research, the whole business would end – not because we cannot understand what the animals are telling us, but because we can” (p.179). How, then, does Carbone justify vivisection, and his own career? In a sense he doesn’t even try. The clue to his motivations, then, is to be found on the very first page of text, in the Acknowledgments:

“Two people’s illness and death brought pain and sadness to my years of writing. My father, John Carbone, died of Alzheimer’s disease at the start of this project, while my friend Joe DelPonte passed away midway through. They gave me love through the years, while their illnesses taught me that, no, I cannot call for an abolition to animal research, no matter my oath as a veterinarian to relieve animal suffering.” (p.vii)

What, then, is the purpose of this book? I must admit to having been nonplussed. Actually, I wavered. On the one hand, there is a perfectly straightforward reading of it as a history of progress in providing welfare for lab animals. The author could then be conceived as a cross between Mother Theresa and Saint Francis, facing almost insurmountable odds as he struggles to do the best he can for such animals under their unfortunate circumstances. But on the other hand, the book could be read as a confession by someone who is complicit in all that he describes. Carbone writes, “I have presided over the deaths of thousands of laboratory animals and have seen more pain and suffering than I care to recall, yet I make no call to stop animal experimentation now, only to make it better” (p.239), and again: “I am not writing about whether animals should be in laboratories or whether people have a right to use them in experiments” (p.3). However, he also writes, “No one in my profession can talk about animal research without at least some nod to what I call the ‘big question’: Do we have a right to use animals in research at all?” (p.18)

The easiest way to understand Carbone’s position is that he defers to, and helps constitute “society’s moral consensus” that “animal research is justifiable and allowable, while simultaneously animal welfare must be protected” (p.57). But in fact he does not consistently apply these ideas, for he writes, “I conclude that we may not have a right to experiment on animals, only a very pressing need” (p.19), and, for example, “That anesthetic drugs might interfere with data interpretation is a scientific explanation [of refraining from their use to alleviate animal pain], but explanation is only synonymous with justification if we grant that all scientific ‘needs’ trump all animal interests” (p.185). This leaves open the possibility that some scientific needs would justify discounting animal interests (or needs), so “the devil is in the details” (p.46). But it is exceedingly difficult to pin Carbone down on which if any needs do justify animal suffering.

Indeed, Carbone makes the case against the sort of animal research to which he is committed in the most effective terms there could be. Not only is he able to testify as a witness of thirty years’ standing, but he also knows how to skewer the sophistries that have been put forward in its defense. Carbone would do Socrates proud. To give you one of scores of examples: Carbone analyzes the fallacious methodology employed by scientific and veterinary ‘experts’ to back up their recommendations for exercise standards for laboratory animals: “Rather than defend specific claims with their source in the scientific database, these experts line up their witnesses in extensive bibliographies, none of which is cited directly” (p.215). Thus, as Carbone points out, any skeptic would be hard put to refute them without undertaking a daunting task. Yet when Carbone himself attempts to do this scholarly spadework, he finds precious little authoritative support for the supposed experts’ conclusions. Consider also the breathtaking cheat of concluding that cage size does not matter on the basis of experiments that compare an animal’s behavior in small cages of slightly differing sizes, which does not allow the animal any opportunity to show off her clear preference for a much larger one (p.115).

An Amoral Treatise

Carbone is fully self-aware as an agent on the job and as an author. He is highly versed in the relevant philosophical, sociological, and historical literatures. One does not often come upon a book which devotes an entire chapter to the guillotining of rodents, but Carbone treats the subject as a case study in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, rhetoric, and more. Another chapter devoted to cage sizes and exercise is at once a story of human comedy and animal tragedy. As a result, reading this book is both an ordeal and a pleasure, for the suffering it reveals and for the competence of its critique respectively. In the end, though, the experience is one of exasperation, since the book makes the reader want to cry out for an end to the practice it delineates, but the book itself does not cry out for an end to the practice. Instead the book advocates the path of painfully won (and lost) reforms that can never keep up with or even catch up with both the enduring and the ever-new horrors in store for these captive animals, while holding out a vague hope for some unspecified future when, due to public opinion or technological breakthrough, it will all be over.

What I see as the essential nut that this book cannot crack is the moral intuition that, no matter how much prevention of or relief from suffering or premature death is at stake, no one has the right to impose significant suffering or premature death on another who is innocent and non-threatening. No lab animal is causing or threatening harm to any human being, either intentionally or inadvertently. Therefore to remove this being from its natural habitat (not to mention breed it to be ‘unnatural’, and sometimes painfully so) and house it in a cage for the rest of its life; to subject it to distressing and sometimes painful or crippling procedures; and finally to kill it, seems to me to have no viable justification. It’s that stark and simple. Anything else strikes me as hand-waving.

But I do not accuse Carbone of hand-waving. He tells it like it is, and, far from being the admission of a guilty conscience, this book is more an unapologetic plea for minimizing the harm to other animals in the pursuit of our medical and other worthy goals. But that those goals take precedent over the well-being of the animals is for Carbone not in question. Let me suggest, then, that the only source of confusion for a reader of this book would lie in the assumption that it’s a moral treatise.

Here’s an analogy. One of my graduate school philosophy professors used to snicker at any mention of the Problem of Evil, which is a notorious argument against the existence of God. Basically it says, “Suffering exists, therefore an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God does not exist’. What amused my professor was not any weakness in the argument, but the traditional name of the argument; for the notion that suffering poses a ‘problem’ could only be entertained by somebody who believed in the relevant God. But if you happen not to hold that fantastical belief in the first place, as he would say with outstretched palms and lifted shoulders, “What’s the problem?” There is pain in the world. Why would anyone suppose there wouldn’t be?

Similarly for the ‘problem’ of vivisection. It is only if one supposed there were a right or wrong about the matter that a justification would need to be sought for it. If instead, vivisection is examined only sociologically or anthropologically, as a human practice, for example, then the only issue is how to account for it, given our natural empathy with the suffering of all living creatures. The explanation, in broad brush, is not difficult to come by: People who engage in or support vivisection are more moved by human suffering than by animal suffering. This does not reduce the latter to zero in their estimation or their feelings, but it definitely reduces its significance in the scheme of things and makes it the loser in a contest between the two. That, I think, dispels any air of mystery that would otherwise attach to this excellent book.

Ethical Issues

I admit that this reader’s eyes are not unbiased, since I oppose research on animals in laboratories, and sympathize with Carbone’s lament that “Antivivisectionists have the easy message” (p.73). I remain skeptical of his characterization of the research defender’s message as “more complex and difficult” (ibid). Maybe instead, it is just trying to justify the unjustifiable? But any reader should finally judge the book for themselves. I recommend it in the highest terms. It is exhaustively researched and exquisitely written; and Carbone is eminently suited to write on the topic, having doctorates from Cornell in both veterinary medicine and the history and philosophy of science, as well as his subsequent distinguished career. Nor, certainly, could one find fault with Carbone for a failure to try to improve the lot of laboratory animals: he is a leading spokesman on their behalf. But one sees the same story here as in the farming industry – the pursuit of reform goes hand-in-hand with the expansion of animal exploitation. So while animals in labs are surely better off now than before the contemporary animal liberation movement began in the 1970s, Carbone estimates the number of animals in U.S. labs to have more than quadrupled between 1993 and 2001, and likely to increase. In an analogous way, factory farming, although under ever-mounting pressure from animal activists to reform, has nevertheless increased the eating of flesh worldwide, with no let-up in sight. Furthermore, it is not at all clear that any amount of reform could ever address the essential evils of confinement and premature death in both lab research and factory farming; and in the former, there will always be procedures that involve pain as part of the experimental design – for example, when animals form a control group in the testing of a new analgesic.

What will it take to reverse this trend? Carbone foresees the end of vivisection, and “would like to live to see that day” (p.239), but he does not appear to see his own role as speeding that result. Instead he is striving to reduce the hurt and harm done by what he takes to be a necessary evil. But if there is not a commitment to ending the evil itself, I for one do not see much hope of that desired outcome. Quite the contrary. Carbone’s book paints an uncompromising picture of the forces at work to maintain the status quo and even turn back some hard-won gains. Whether that is his acuity of mind, or my antivivisectionist reading glasses, or simply the character of a critical book intended to spur reforms, it is what I have taken away from What Animals Want. The bottom line is that, so long as scientific goals are the dog that wags the ethical tail, any procedure whatever, no matter how painful or lethal, can be approved for use in the lab (pp.68 ff and 183). This stance is doubly damning because it is ripe for abuse, and, even when functioning as intended, leaves the animals completely vulnerable to the considered judgments of institutional committees with diverse commitments.

Carbone’s project in this masterful work is precisely to explode the myth of the “innocent, objective, neutral” experts who preside over the fates of the animals (p.237). His particular thesis is that many different constituencies vie to speak for the animals, but by dint of their special interests, all have doubtful authority to do so – whether they be the scientists who want to experiment on them, the protectionists who want to rescue them, or the veterinarians like himself somewhere in the middle trying to assure the ani mals’ welfare under the existing circumstances. In case study after case study, the book illustrates how contingencies from every corner determine which policies become implemented. Thus, there are occupational biases – the medical professionals who see only physical pain as relevant to animal welfare; turf battles – the lab animal veterinarians who are viewed as intruders by the scientists doing the experiments; political accidents – the Congressman who happens to like dogs; media exposés – the Sports Illustrated story on dog dealers which led to the first federal legislation to protect lab animals, etc. And while all this is going on, the animals themselves, who are the ultimate authority, are largely ignored. But Carbone has already told us what t hey want: not to be there in the first place.

© Prof. Joel Marks 2011

Joel Marks was formerly the Chair of the Philosophy Dept at the University of New Haven, and is our Ethical Episodes correspondent.

What Animals Want: Expertise and Advocacy in Laboratory Animal Welfare Policy by Larry Carbone. OUP USA, 2004, 304 pps, £22.50 hb, ISBN:978-0195161960.

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