by Harshad Karandihar, University of California at Berkeley
‘It’s a family of organisms that is data deficient and endangered. We collected ten specimens from the streams and rivers in Las Cruces and analyzed their stomach contents,’ the presenters enthusiastically explained.
‘So it’s endangered, nobody really knows what’s going on with them, and you just killed ten of them?’ I asked, horrified.
‘Yeah, but the REU group is killing them anyway. They’re killing 30 of them. We’ll just contribute our samples to them,’ they explained, with a shrug of their heads.
‘But… never mind.’ I shook my head in disbelief.
The next group presented. They had collected 20 macro-invertebrate specimens from a river in the station. They didn’t know what these things were. The specimens were spread across a water-stained sheet of paper with splotchy number tags for each of them.
I was myself party to this massacre. As we excitedly found our first spider in our plots, Nicholas swiftly dunked it in a vial of ethanol, my hesitant protests petering out into the cold forest air. He had a permit to collect, he explained. And he was fast becoming, or probably was, one of the world’s leading experts on Ctenid spiders. He’d discovered over a dozen species previously unknown to science, and had six or so more waiting in the wings.
It was all for science. Who was I, a mere conservationist, a bleeding heart, to question these time-accepted methods? I didn’t have a single publication to my name; I am not even sure that I have conducted any ‘real’ research in my life. I am not sure I have the locus standi to question these things, and yet, throughout this course, it is something that has deeply affected me. Does an organism deserve to die just because killing it is necessary to ‘discover’ it? Does it deserve to die just so that we can learn how to ‘do’ science? Isn’t this but an extension of the sheer arrogance that our species demonstrates to the rest of the planet and its denizens? Where does it stop? Why do experiments that involve killing or capturing large mammals need to pass through ethics committees, but ones involving ‘lower’ organisms happen without what seems to be a modicum of hesitation and thought about the appropriateness of our actions? How, then, are we different from the masses whom we often look down upon as unaware and indifferent towards the fate of this planet? An obvious response is that these killings don’t really matter in the larger scheme of things; they do not significantly disturb the system or affect its equilibrium in any way. But as important as the ultimate impact is, it is the attitude that troubles me. A lack of sensitivity towards other living beings sounds to me as a terrible ethical framework to base anything planet-saving magic that you might conjure up during the course of your career.
I understand that it is not an easy question to answer. Do we stop all use of animals? That is clearly impossible, given the role animal testing plays in the development of vital drugs, and possibly for some other stuff that my evidently simple, bleeding-heart mind is completely unaware of. But what I want to really question is the line in the sand that we have drawn for ourselves. Mammals and most vertebrates – not cool to kill them (although you are more or less free to imprison them and torture them for behavioral studies to understand how they and their societies work. Irony, anyone?). Everything else – yeah, whatever. As scientists keep realizing (much to their chagrin, I suspect), more and more non-human organisms are sentient beings who think and feel and have emotions. Isn’t it time that we questioned science and the scientific process itself? How is it absolutely ok to deliberately inflict pain on another organism, unless it is the question of your very survival? I’ll end with a quote from Gandhi: ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.’ Just like the no swimming rule, can OTS have a no killing rule?