Vivisection

A RICH, healthy, well-educated woman once remarked that there was no amount of suffering which she would not be willing to have inflicted upon dumb animals, provided that she might obtain by such means some possible relief from future illness, or even a slight prolongation of life. Few people are quite so frankly brutal as that, and the modern defenders of vivisection profess to be actuated by humane considerations. They declare, first, that most cases of vivisection are painless ; and, secondly, that the total result of vivisection is, by means of important discoveries in medicine and surgery, to prevent more suffering to the human race than it causes to the inferior animals.

Not all vivisection is painful. The term includes every form of experiment upon animals, and some experiments produce discomfort rather than pain; some are carried on while the animal is under the influence of an anæsthetic; some involve the death but not the suffering of the animal. Then, again, some experiments are performed for purposes of research, and others for purposes of illustration in the classroom. Are all of these experiments justifiable ? Are some of them justifiable ? And are they justifiable or not according to the value of the results obtained from them ? These are questions which every man ought to weigh and decide, inasmuch as the responsibility rests ultimately upon the community. The problem is in some respects a difficult one, — let us frankly admit that; and, moreover, it is essentially a problem in morals. To take the life of an animal —much more, to inflict pain upon it — for a given purpose must be either a right act or a wrong act. To regard such acts as morally indifferent would be to hold that man has no duty whatever toward the lower animals; and such a theory is never avowed, though indeed it is sometimes practiced, in civilized countries.

What, then, is the nature of dumb animals, and what moral relation do we sustain toward them ? In all physical respects there is practically no difference between their nature and ours. They feel fatigue, hunger, and thirst, and they suffer pain precisely as we suffer it. Some animals — horses and dogs especially — have that nervous organization and temperament which renders them peculiarly susceptible to pain. When a dog receives a sudden wound or blow, he seems to suffer even more than a man who receives a like injury.

Intellectually the dumb animals are of course vastly inferior to man, but their intellects, so far as they go, are closely akin to the human intellect. That animals reason is a fact of everyday experience. That they can communicate their ideas and feelings to one another and to man is equally plain. “ When a cat or a dog, ” wrote the late Mr. Romanes, “pulls one’s dress to lead one to the kittens or puppies in need of assistance, the animal is behaving in the same manner as a deaf mute might behave when invoking assistance from a friend. That is to say, the animal is translating the logic of feelings into the logic of signs; and so far as this particular action is concerned, it is psychologically indistinguishable from that which is performed by the deaf mute.”

When we come to consider the moral and emotional nature of dumb animals, we find that on that side the connection between them and us is far more close than it is on the intellectual side. I will not discuss the question whether dumb animals have any sense of right and wrong. I believe that they have this sense in a rudimentary degree; or at least that it is latent in them, and may be developed. The popular, instinctive notions about animals, the result of the experience of the race, seem to justify this view. “If we say a vicious horse, ” remarked Dr. Arnold, “why not a virtuous horse ? ” — and we do speak of a “kind ” horse. It is not denied that some dumb animals have a sense of humor, and it may be doubted whether this sense is ever disassociated entirely from that of right and wrong. However, since the point is disputable, I do not insist upon it, but pass to one concerning which there can be no dispute, namely, that of the love and affection which dumb animals display for one another, and still more for man. All that is best in man springs from something which is practically the same in the lower animals that it is in him. I mean the instinct of pity or benevolence. To this instinct as it exists in the lower animals Darwin attributes the origin of conscience in man.

It is the tendency of a sophisticated age like the present to overestimate intellectual as compared with moral and emotional gifts. The material civilization upon which we pride ourselves is almost entirely the achievement of the intellect. Fame and wealth, luxury, cultivation, and leisure, —all the big prizes of the world, in fact, — are obtained by the successful exercise of the intellect. The moral qualities, of themselves, can procure a man nothing but a clear conscience, and the approval, perhaps mixed with contempt, of his neighbors.

And yet, when the intellectual qualities are brought to the test of reality; when one’s view of them is not clouded by pride, avarice, or passion, how amazingly does their value shrink and shrivel ! When a man lies on his deathbed, for example, his intellectual achievements, though of the highest order, will seem as nothing to him, —he will ask himself simply whether he has lived a good or a bad life; and after his death his family and his friends will look at the matter in precisely the same way.

In these highest attributes of our nature, or at least in some of them, we are closely resembled by the dumb animals. They have the affection, the attachment, the power of self-sacrifice, which men have. To a person who takes the merely scientific view of things, there is no mystery about the dumb animals. He knows the mechanism of their bodies and the nature of their functions; he has weighed, measured, dissected and vivisected them; and the idea that there can be anything sacred about the poor creatures is to him the most absolute superstition and folly.

However, when one considers the undeserved sufferings of the brute creation, and especially their sufferings at the hands of men; still more when one considers the immense and for the most part entirely unused capacity for affection which they possess, the mystery of their existence is apparent. Not dogs only, but elephants, monkeys, birds, and perhaps all kinds of animals have this capacity. Crows possess it to a degree which can hardly be imagined by one who has never known them in captivity. As much latent affection goes to waste in every flock of crows that flies overhead as would fit a human household for heaven. Is there no mystery here?

Physically our power over the lower animals is unlimited, — we can do with them what we will; but morally it is limited by considerations of justice, of mercy, of sympathy, and of regard for the individuality of a living being. We must, I think, go even a step beyond this, and admit that the mystery which surrounds the lower animals, the contrast between their innocence and their sufferings, and the utter obscurity in which their destiny is wrapped impose upon us further limitations of caution and even of awe in dealing with them. The subject is, as I have said, difficult, and astonishingly little consideration has been given to it; but nevertheless one general principle immediately suggests itself, namely, that the only way of utilizing the inferior animals which can with certainty be pronounced right is the natural way, — by which I mean the employment of their natural functions, as we employ the strength of a horse, the predatory instinct of a cat, the watchfulness of a dog, and the capacity of a hen to lay eggs. This use is in the line of the animal’s development; and in making such use of an animal man may truly be said not only to be acting in accordance with natural principles, but even to be improving upon nature’s work. No wild horse ever had the speed of a thoroughbred or the strength of a modern cart horse. Moreover, domesticated animals, if they have humane owners, are better off than animals in a wild state.

It may be admitted, also, that in a case of necessity the functions of an animal may rightly be overstrained. It would not be wrong, for example, to overdrive a horse, at the risk of killing him, in going for a doctor, just as, in war, forced marches and hopeless attacks are often commanded, though suffering and even death among the soldiers are the inevitable and the foreseen result. Casuistry may confound — and does confound — such use of a horse with the vivisecting of him ; but that is a mistake which no unperverted conscience would ever make, and these matters are to be decided by the conscience rather than by the intellect.

But is it right to kill animals for food, and is it right to kill them for sport ? This is really a single, and not a double question. Killing animals for sport alone, under such circumstances that they cannot be used for food, is a detestable thing, seldom practiced, and universally condemned by sportsmen. In the operation of killing animals for food, whether they be in a wild or in a domestic state, there is perhaps no necessary cruelty. There would be no deer in our woods and no fish in our streams, were they not protected for purposes of sport. Even the deer and the trout that are killed probably get more pleasure than pain out of life; and this may be true also of cattle and sheep. Still, there are weighty arguments against the practice of killing animals for food: it is attended with much unnecessary cruelty; the butchering of animals is a degrading occupation; and it may be doubted if we have a right to turn a living creature into a mere article of food, and to breed creatures for that express purpose. The time may come when flesh-eating will be felt to be barbarous. I am not concerned to defend it. “Whatever my own practice may be, ” wrote Thoreau (and he was not a vegetarian), “I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.”

If, however, the practice of killing and eating dumb animals is right, then I will admit that it can fairly be cited in justification of the practice of painless vivisection; that is, of using dumb animals for experiments with serum or otherwise, which may end in death, but which do not involve actual pain as distinguished from discomfort. This is, perhaps, an uncalled-for admission; the two practices do not stand on quite the same ground, although there is an analogy between them.

But between the use of animals for food and the use of them for experiments which involve pain and suffering there is no analogy. Such use of them is contrary to the unperverted instincts of humanity. We should despise the man who tortured an animal for his own good: how, then, can the torture be justified when it is for the good of the human race in general ? The late Dr. Henry J. Bigelow exclaimed in a public address, “Better that I or my friend should die than protract existence through accumulated years of torture upon animals, whose exquisite sufferings we cannot fail to infer, even though they may have neither voice nor feature to express it! ”

To inflict pain upon an animal for scientific purposes is to do a moral wrong in order that a possible intellectual or physical benefit may result to ourselves. To witness or even to read of a painful experiment upon an animal produces a feeling of revulsion in the spectator or the reader; and this natural, instinctive, inevitable feeling is a sufficient and the best possible proof that the act is immoral and wrong.

The vivisectionists, however, declare that it is a question of expediency: we are justified in inflicting any amount of suffering, provided that it pays,— pays the human race. But who is to hold the scales ? According to what principle are they to be adjusted ? Who has a warrant to pronounce that a given torture may rightly be inflicted upon dogs for the sake of a given benefit which may result to mankind?

A certain Italian, Dr. Castex, wishing to study the effect of massage upon dislocations, deliberately dislocated the limbs of numerous dogs. He published an account of all these experiments, and the following is a fair example of them: “Experiment 8. Poodle dog . . . replaced on the table without chloral; I dislocate his two shoulders. The animal utters screams of suffering. I hold him for twenty minutes with his two shoulders dislocated, and the elbows tied together behind his back. ”

Why does one shrink with horror from a recital like this? It is because it violates the unsophisticated conscience ; it violates that instinct of pity which is the only safe judge of right and wrong. The practice of painful vivisection violates, I say, the fundamental instinct of pity implanted in man; and the result is, as it always must be when an instinct is persistently violated, that a passion to do that very thing which nature forbids arises in its place. How otherwise can we account for the wanton cruelties of certain vivisectors ? “ Dr. Majendie, ” relates Dr.

Elliston, “in one of his barbarous experiments which I am ashamed to say I witnessed, began by cutting out a large round piece from the back of a beautiful little puppy. ” Majendie may have been by nature a brutal man, but even he would hardly have done that when he was young in vivisection.

Two reasons are given in defense of vivisection : one, that it advances knowledge; the other, that it tends to free the human animal from disease and suffering. Both reasons are such as appeal with particular force to an intellectual and luxurious age like the present, — an age in which all dangerous work is done by men hired for the purpose. In a familiar letter the late Benjamin Jowett spoke of that “extravagant value for human life which is springing up among us, ... a feeling which would have been despised in an ancient state.” And Matthew Arnold declared that the London cockney was characterized by an “almost bloodthirsty ” fear of death and love of life.

Neither knowledge nor freedom from pain nor length of life is an ultimate good or sufficient end in itself: these things are good only as means and according to the use which is made of them. We should hold that man guilty who pursued knowledge and left his children to starve; we despise the man who, when the occasion arises, prefers freedom from pain or length of life to the dangerous duty imposed upon him by patriotism or by honor.

At the siege of Lucknow young Havelock was observed by a fusilier to be standing in a very much exposed spot. “Come out of that,sir! ” cried the fusilier. “A chap ’s just had his head taken off there.” Young Havelock stayed where he was, and cheerfully replied, “And what the devil are we here for but to have our heads taken off ? ” That expresses the spirit in which life should be met, — avoiding pain and danger when we can do so by proper means, but disdaining to avoid them by ignoble, cruel, or cowardly means. All will agree that knowledge, freedom from disease, prolongation of life, may be purchased at too high a price; and is not the torture of dumb animals such a price ? Is it conceivable that a race which, from mercy to the dumb animals, renounced vivisection would prove morally inferior to a race which permitted and practiced vivisection?

The value of intellectual advancement is grossly overestimated. Scholars who ought to know inform us that the Anglo-Saxon of to-day is intellectually inferior to the Greek who lived two thousand years ago. If the human race has improved during that time, — and who will deny that it has improved ? — it is not because man has advanced in knowledge, but because he has more sympathy with his inferiors, be they brute or human, more justice, more generosity, more mercy toward them.

The same arguments which would lead us to vivisect the inferior dumb animal would lead us to vivisect also the inferior human animal. A grown dog is equal in intellect to a child six months old; it is at least equally susceptible to pain, and in point of love and affection it is much the superior of the child. Why not vivisect the child as well as the dog? A criminal, though superior in intellect to the dog, is not, or may not be, his superior from the moral point of view. Why not vivisect him ?

In classical times human vivisection was practiced upon a large scale; and it would be easy to construct a plausible argument in favor of it.1 We take the life of a murderer: why not vivisect him ? What right has he to be exempted from torture any more than an unoffending dumb animal, who is equally susceptible to pain ? Besides, it is a fact, to which attention has often been called, that in the interest of medical science it would be much more profitable to dissect men alive than it is to dissect horses or dogs alive. In other words, it would “pay” better. The vivisection of dumb animals is defended on the ground that it pays, and it is hard to see why the vivisecting of criminals could not be defended on the same ground. Shall not one criminal be put to torture, if thereby something may be discovered which will prolong the lives of many innocent, or comparatively innocent persons ?

In this country we are not quite so cruel as the French and Italians; but we are more cruel than the English, — more cruel, perhaps, than the Germans. A medical man in Jersey City published an account of some experiments which he made upon dogs; and of this publication the British Medical Journal of November 15, 1891, said, “It is a record of the most wanton and the stupidest cruelty we have ever seen chronicled under the guise of scientific experiments.”

But, the humane reader exclaims, are not the abuses of vivisection guarded against by the humane, the cultivated men who stand at the head of our institutions of learning ? Alas, no. Among those persons who are ultimately responsible for vivisection — I mean among the presidents and trustees of colleges, of medical schools, and of universities — there is a cold indifference upon the subject which would shock the ordinary, uneducated person if he were aware of it. Several years ago, a defense of vivisection, entitled A Statement in Behalf of Science, was issued to the public by a committee of eminent surgeons and professors. This committee had been, appointed by the presidents of the following societies: the American Physiological Society, the American Society of Morphologists, the American Anatomical Society, the American Society of Naturalists, the American Society of Physicians, and the American Society of Surgeons. Nothing, therefore, could be more authoritative. This document, which was indorsed by President Eliot and other distinguished persons, expressly sanctions the practice of vivisection, without the use of anæsthetics, however painful the operation, in those cases (and they are numerous) where to use an anæsthetic would diminish the value of the experiment. Further, the Statement expressly defends the custom of vivisecting dumb animals, not only for experiment but also for mere purposes of illustration in the classroom; and it makes no distinction in this respect between painful operations and those in which anæsthetics are used, — whereas in England vivisecting in the classroom without the use of anæsthetics is prohibited by law. The language of the Statement is in the highest degree decorous and euphemistic, but when examined it will be found to cover every form of cruelty that can be perpetrated in the name of science.

A few years ago, a respectable member of the medical profession wrote to the presidents of the chief colleges and universities in this country, inquiring whether vivisection was regulated or limited in their respective institutions. The replies, with few exceptions, — I believe with only one exception, — indicated that the various presidents addressed had given no attention whatever to the subject, and had left the matter entirely to the vivisectors themselves. These institutions included Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Amherst, Bowdoin, Williams, Cornell, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Oberlin, Leland Stanford Jr., California, and the Western Reserve University. The president of the last-named university, the Rev. Dr. Thwing, wrote, “In answer to your courteous inquiry, I beg to say that a professor who is worthy of being made the head of the department of biology is certainly worthy of deciding the important question which you ask.”

And yet the English Royal Commission to investigate vivisection declared, “Inhumanity may be found in persons of very high position as physiologists.” “A physiologist, ” said Claude Bernard, “is no ordinary man. He is a learned man, a man possessed and absorbed by a scientific idea. He does not hear the animal’s cries of pain. He is blind to the blood that flows. He sees nothing but his idea. ” It is to this man that university presidents and trustees have handed over their own responsibility in the matter.

Henry Childs Merwin.

  1. To a slight extent, experiments have been performed in this country upon infants, insane paupers, and others.