Vivisection is the abysmal practice of keeping a thinking, feeling individual in a controlled (and confined) space for the purpose of conducting research and experimentation. Cruel and invasive, it epitomizes the worldview that human animals are the ones for whom this entire world exists. Perhaps this is why one of my favourite quotes is that of Alice Walker, who challenges this notion when she says “the animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men”.
Every time I visit with my guinea pigs, or see one of them ‘popcorn’ (a guinea pig’s expression of joy – probably the most joyous thing I have ever seen), I’m sadly reminded that most guinea pigs don’t live like this. In many parts of South America they are used for food and/or ritualistic sacrifice, and even if they’re ‘lucky’ enough in other parts of the world to be kept as pets, many of their most basic needs for space/socialization/enrichment are never met. Since it is World Week for Animals in Laboratories, I wanted to think of something special I could do to honour non-human animals like Eleanor (my youngest guinea pig) who end up nothing more than discardable test subjects for our cosmetics, cleaning products, cigarettes, pharmaceuticals, and medical research.
If you’re like me, your exposure to many animals (specifically small mammals like guinea pigs, rabbits, mice, rats) was limited to other friends’ pets, or chance encounters in the wild. I had a pretty traditional immigrant upbringing which meant that both sides of my family saw these small animals as pests, likely remnants of an old cultural fear of parasites and disease. I remember the one and only time I saw a mouse scurry across the floor of my childhood home in Rockwood, Ontario. It was early morning during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, and I was watching the swimming. I’d never seen my mother shriek like that, and still haven’t to this day. I remember being so happy that something so magical lived in my house.
I didn’t know much about small mammals, and while I had no doubt in my mind they were as unique as the cats or dogs I’d been exposed to, I had no idea that their personalities were so easily discernible. Of our three ladies, we know who is the leader (Abigail), who is the most anxious (Ruby), who is more adventurous (Eleanor). We know who prefers being on the ground (Abigail) and who prefers climbing up to their second level (Ruby and Eleanor). While Eleanor loves a bit of dried banana, Ruby and Abigail could do without it. And Ruby will eventually eat the blueberry you put in front of her, she’d prefer a freeze-dried strawberry any day. Despite Abigail and Ruby requiring overhead cover at almost all times in order to be comfortable, Eleanor is a brave young maiden who comes right out to meet you, somehow certain you’re not a hawk or some other fearsome predator. While Ruby and Eleanor like petting, no one loves it more than Abigail, who will settle into your lap for as long as you’ll have her. All three of their calls are distinct to me; I could likely recognize them with my eyes closed.
Learning experientially that each of my guinea pigs has such a vibrant personality, entirely different from her sisters, and bearing witness to their idiosyncrasies every day has been such a gift. I’m so thankful I’ve come to know just how special guinea pigs are because it provides a personal motivation to what has, until relatively recently, been a more generalized and abstracted ethical impulse to protect them. I created the following video to both showcase the beauty and uniqueness of dear Eleanor and to encourage anyone who’s ever loved an animal like her to not support industries that would keep her in a cage the size of a shoebox her entire life, until she was deemed no longer ‘useful’ and ‘sacrificed’ (industry term for killing).
OK, so you’re sickened that animals are used this way, but how do you ensure you’re not supporting this insanity when you’re just trying to buy shampoo or cleaning spray? In terms of who tests on animals, if you shop in conventional stores, it can be a bit of a minefield. But guess what?! The fine folks at Leaping Bunny and PETA have created very comprehensive lists, which I am pleased to share:
Leaping Bunny Shopping Guide– comprised of a number of impressive advocacy and awareness groups, this guide is the only internationally recognized standard for cruelty-free products and ingredients, however Canadians may not recognize many of the companies listed on here. So in addition to this list, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the following resource as well.
PETA’s Cruelty-Free Shopping– contains a particular search function on their site, which allows you to search whether or not particular companies are animal friendly (really handy!), as well as provides you with a list of which companies test on animals, and which companies don’t. Additionally, they have a list of common animal ingredients so you can learn to recognize them in your potential purchases! I recommend perusing the list based on products you already have in your home, and determining alternatives to them based on what you find!
Knowing what to fill your cart with is an extremely important part of refusing to participate in the systemic abuse of animals. For the work that I’d like to do though, it is critical that I understand the structural components of animal research and experimentation, since understanding this process is integral to helping me fight it, enabling me to dialogue with people and be informed on these issues. If you’re interested in learning more about the experiences of animals that are/have been used for research, I heartily recommend keeping a close eye on two documentaries that are currently in the works. Maximum Tolerated Dose and The Ghosts in Our Machine delicately and honestly cover this topic, lending personal narratives to issues that are often only discussed conceptually. Keep a close eye on the site too, as I have an awesome interview with Karol Orzechowski, who is the director of Maximum Tolerated Dose (as well as the videographer/editor of The Ghosts in Our Machine) posting soon!
While this has been a lengthy entry, I would be remiss to not mention a big part of the vivisection industry. Organizations that fundraise for illness research (like the Canadian and American Cancer Societies) experiment on a broad range of animals, from mice to dogs. Despite 70% of all cancers being diet-related (and related to a diet high in animal foods at that), only 1% of the budget of these organizations goes towards prevention! So if donating to these fundraising efforts that support vivisection bothers you, why not make it a personal mission to educate the people you can about the benefits of a plant based diet? Many of the disease epidemics currently sweeping North America are diet-related (i.e.: type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, most cancers) and prevention is the most responsible way we can handle this serious public health crisis. If this is something that interests you, I suggest familiarizing yourself with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), whose site is full of wonderful resources and alternatives to animal experimentation.
For the animals (people are animals too!)
“Ask the experimenters why they experiment on animals, and the answer is: ‘Because the animals are like us.’ Ask the experimenters why it is morally okay to experiment on animals, and the answer is: ’Because the animals are not like us.’ Animal experimentation rests on a logical contradiction.” - Charles R. Magel