I wasn’t prepared for the firebombs.
It started with a simple one-line e-mail from a Yale researcher I had hoped to talk to: “I’m sorry, but given the recent PETA attacks on campus, I don’t feel comfortable talking about my research in a newspaper.” I had heard of PETA, short for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but I knew very little of their actions, and as far as the relationship between PETA and researchers, I had never before stopped to think about it.
Agreeing to speak with me on the condition of anonymity, the Yale researcher invites me to her office on a weekday in mid-November. Apologizing for the cluttered space, she appears at ease, pointing out the view of nearby gardens and discussing her workload for the day. Yet minutes into our conversation, I realize I’ve stumbled upon something much bigger than what I anticipated.
She shows me an online article about attacks in Santa Cruz, California on August 2, 2008. Unknown animal rights activists set off two firebombs, targeting scientists who conducted animal research at the University of California, Santa Cruz. One bomb destroyed a researcher’s car, while the other sent a researcher and his two children fleeing after the device went off on his porch, engulfing his off-campus house in smoke. At the time, the American Animal Liberation Press Office, which commonly posts messages from groups taking credit for animal rights violence, announced that no organization had claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack. But AALP spokesman Jerry Vlasak did comment on the incident: “It’s regrettable that certain scientists are willing to put their families at risk by choosing to do wasteful animal experiments.”
The attacks were 3,000 miles from Yale’s campus and six months past, yet I notice that the researcher is still visibly shaken. “These are people who don’t value human life,” she comments. (PETA was not involved in the attacks, I later learned.)
“These horrendous acts of terrorism have become common,” she continues. “It reminds you that there are people who really think that you should be harmed. When you see events like in California, and you read that they’re so misinformed, and know that some think it’s really OK for humans to die if animals live. You’re not free to talk about your work anymore. If someone learns you do animal research, they might come bomb your house.” She pauses.
“I don’t want my kids being blown up.”
On October 16, 2008, about five PETA activists wearing monkey masks held up a banner that read “Yale Murders Monkeys” and marched on Yale. In a press release, Justin Goodman, research associate supervisor in the Laboratory Investigation Department of PETA, alleged that over 160 primates “are locked up in Yale’s laboratories. The monkeys spend their lives confined to steel cages in which they are mutilated, injected with poisons, and forced to become addicted to drugs before they are killed — all at taxpayers’ expense.” The event, coinciding with National Primate Liberation Week, was one of many demonstrations that took place across the country, drawing attention to what Goodman called “the plight of the tens of thousands of primates imprisoned in U.S. laboratories.”
Incidents like this one, coupled with more sinister efforts farther afield, have made the ethics of animal research a sensitive topic of conversation, especially at Yale. Two days after my initial interview with the Yale researcher, I receive a call on my cell phone from a restricted number.
“Hi. This is Charles Hogen, Deputy Director of Public Affairs at Yale University. Do you have a minute to talk? I’d like to discuss your article on PETA for the [magazine].”
I had sent out only a few e-mails to some researchers and doctors at the University. I had spoken to one in person. And somehow, the Deputy Director of Public Affairs had gotten a hold of my name and cell phone number.
Convinced that Dr. Hogen will force me not to run the story, I am surprised when he tells me he only wants to make sure I have the University’s “official statement” on the issue. Eager to give a human voice to Yale’s research, he gives me a list of pre-approved patient advocates, or patients willing to talk about their illness, complete with their numbers and ailments.
“There is a balkanization of the issue,” he tells me in a seemingly PR-free moment. “The PETA contingent believes that people are evil animal murderers, and researchers think that PETA throws firebombs and threatens children. It doesn’t lead to constructive dialogue; neither side is being heard. In some cases [PETA’s] actions have been violent — borderline terrorism, threatening children. It’s very concerning to faculty members doing research. It’s an important subject.”
I realize that Dr. Hogen is perfectly right: in the conflict between researchers and PETA, drama and sensationalism make constructive dialogue impossible. Researchers see PETA members as violent fanatics, and PETA views researchers with parallel contempt. When I ask about PETA, researchers recount stories that seem too crazy to be true: for instance, one scientist tells me that the woman who founded PETA had a hysterectomy so that she would not give birth to a meat-eater. Meanwhile, PETA calls researchers “fear mongerers” who want to scare the public into thinking that their health hinges upon the use of animal “experimentation.” Hiding behind accusations, rumors, and fears, people don’t manage to address the real issue: whether an animal has the same rights as a human being.
And so the challenge becomes transcending the accusations to grapple with the hard questions. What happens when the perceived needs of humans clash with the rights of other living, breathing creatures? On what moral grounds do we argue our position — in favor of humans, or in favor of animals — when the two sides oppose each other so forcefully?
To put it bluntly, which side is right?
Nationally, animal research is heavily regulated. Under federal law, institutions that conduct animal research must set up an Institutional Animal Care & Use Committee (IACUC), a self-regulating entity that enforces animal research regulations. At Yale, the IACUC serves to “provide assistance to investigators in fulfilling their obligation to plan and conduct animal experiments in accord with the highest scientific, humane, and ethical principles,” as well as to “ensure the humane and sensitive care and use of animals,” according to a Yale Web site.
But while the IACUC regulations are grounded in good intentions, the Yale researcher who told me about the firebombings suggests that heightened sensitivity over animal testing is beginning to stunt research. “People are spending less time on research, and more on legal work,” she says. “We end up doing more legal work than actual discovery and care. I’m all for treating animals fairly, but now the regulations take up so much time.”
The researcher accuses PETA of using the 1966 Freedom of Information Act, which allows people to view documents from public agencies, to obtain information from the NIH “to shut down research by finding discrepancies in grants, publications, and protocols.” Discrepancies can happen, the researcher notes, because “grants are not contracts,” and “scientists often change their experiments as science itself constantly updates.” She adds that she views PETA’s FIA advocacy efforts as “abuse.” Although Yale is a private institution, its research publications are available to the public because the research is often funded by NIH grants. “[PETA] is unaware of the vast regulations,” she argues.
Though we spend a lot of time discussing the Yale researcher’s opinions on PETA, it is her comments on the importance of research that stick out to me. She twice mentions the idea that if all biomedical research stopped, we would go back to an age of plagues. Epidemic diseases like smallpox, polio, and scarlet fever are transmitted by pathogens that constantly evolve, she tells me solemnly. “Go into the cemeteries and you just see all the children who died — people had 10 children and eight or nine of them would die. If we stop doing research, we go back to that era.”
As I collect my winter things and begin to bundle up against the imminent cold, she tells me, “I know people who are tragically ill, and who desperately need our research. I am e-mailed by them or their loved ones, and I’m constantly reminded of their anguish.” She shakes her head angrily: “I am appalled that PETA constantly says that research has never created new treatments. If you think of the world in 1930 and you think of it now, all advances in medicine were done through animal research.”
It is difficult to contact PETA: I leave voicemails that are never returned, send e-mails to phantom addresses. Finally, I get in touch with Kathy Guillermo, Director of Laboratory Investigations at PETA, who says that PETA would be happy to talk to me and forwards my e-mail to Justin Goodman himself.
As I prepare for my interview with Goodman, I can’t help but be nervous; I have spent the last few weeks gathering information from researchers too afraid to speak with me. I have read several articles on animal rights “terrorism,” including a horrific story in which animal rights activists stormed a researcher’s house during her young daughter’s birthday party, causing the researcher to hide in the closet with her child as the activists punched her husband. Gathering the accusations, miscommunications, gossip, and the waves of fear and caution that radiated from researchers and officials, I have set out to have the conversation with PETA that no researcher would have.
So it is an utter shock that talking to Goodman is so smooth; there are no walls, no barriers. Words are not inherently dangerous, and an opinion does not have to be checked. There is a sense of freedom in our flowing conversation that was notably absent in the interviews I conducted with researchers. “I am very proud of my position on this,” Goodman tells me when I asked him whether I can use his name in my piece. And with the slightest hint of mockery, he adds, “I’m not afraid.”
One of the first things I notice about Goodman was that whenever I try to say “researcher,” he is quick to substitute “experimenter.” About an hour into our talk, I ask him why he uses the term. He replies, “I don’t think what they do to animals should be considered research.” The Laboratory Investigation department of PETA, of which Goodman is the research associate supervisor, is in charge of investigating animal experimentation that is being done in institutions across the country. “We learn about animal experiments that are being conducted in laboratories or classrooms, read articles, or hear complaints from a student, and we’ll contact the university and try to work with them to replace the use of animals,” he explains.
Because Yale is such a large animal research facility, the University has “always been on PETA’s radar,” Goodman says. The group’s involvement on campus began in April 2008, when PETA activists stopped a talk about animal research that was to be presented as part of Science Saturdays, a science education program for children sponsored by the University. “We learned that Yale had organized a presentation with Marina Picciotto regarding the importance of working with experimental animals for devising new ways to help people quit smoking,” Goodman tells me. He adds that Picciotto’s presentation was so brazen an attempt to indoctrinate children into approving of cruelty to animals that PETA decided to pay closer attention to research at Yale.
When I later talk to Professor Picciotto, she has a very different take on the purpose of the talk. “It was about the biological basis of nicotine addiction, which kills between 300,000 to 500,000 Americans per year,” she says. “Because I do work with animals, there would have been data from animal experiments in the presentation, but the primary goal was about science, not about the justification of animal experiments.”
This is not the first time that Professor Picciotto has come under attack from animal rights activists. PETA previously accused her of spending $15 million since 1996 on “cruel experiments” including “exposing mice and rats to nicotine by injecting it into their abdomens, placing it directly into holes cut in their skulls, or forcing them to choose between drinking water laced with the drug and dying from dehydration,” according to a PETA blog entry.
Recently, Professor Picciotto has had to defend her work on home turf. On January 27, 2009, the Yale Daily News published a letter written by Alka Chandna, the laboratory oversight specialist at PETA. Chandna alleged that Picciotto, “bored holes into rats’ skulls, injected chemicals directly into their brains, and then decapitated the animals and froze their heads” as well as exposed mice to 360 inescapable shocks in a learned helplessness test.
Picciotto responded in the same newspaper the next day:
Alka Chandna and her associates at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) want you to live in a world with no new medications for cancer, pain, heart disease or addiction … Alka Chandna’s colleagues at PETA describe the research done in my laboratory as ‘useless’ because they say that smoking is a choice humans make, and because we already know that smoking is bad. But there is much we do not understand about addiction … At present there is no way to understand the scientific basis for what nicotine does to the brain, nor of testing whether a particular therapy will increase the chance for permanently quitting, without using animals in research.
When I ask Picciotto about the blog entries and letters that attack her, she replies, with a steady voice, “I fundamentally believe that relieving human suffering or disease of children is worth the sacrifice of mouse lives.”
Over the course of our conversation, I find out that Picciotto is a breast cancer survivor. The drugs that saved her life had been tested on animals.
The day before, I asked Goodman point-blank if he wants a cure for cancer. “It’s completely irrelevant to me whether or not we can come up with the cure for a specific disease or test a specific drug without animal experimentation,” he said.
Sometime during our weeks of correspondence, Goodman and I find ourselves on the topic of the Santa Cruz firebombings. Fingers shaking slightly as I skim my notes, I try not to stutter as I ask him whether PETA has assumed responsibility for the attacks.
“PETA had no involvement in the Santa Cruz bombings, or in any firebombings period,” he starts. “We would never resort to threatening a researcher’s life. I speak for myself and I speak for PETA, you don’t need to threaten a researcher’s life in order for them to feel threatened.” Goodman adds that the experimenters’ accusations are “an excuse to not engage in dialogue about the issue. It’s a diversion. Instead of actually talking about the moral issues involved here, they want to divert your attention away from PETA and the issues we’re trying to address.”
PETA’s objection to animal research is a moral one. “We shouldn’t imprison, poison or mutilate animals for experiments for the same reason we shouldn’t do it for human beings,” Goodman says. “The animals that are abused in laboratories — from rats to rabbits to monkeys — are thinking individuals who have the right to be treated respectfully, without being violently exploited for someone else’s benefit.” When I mention the federally approved IACUC, alluding to the “vast regulations” the Yale researcher had pointed out to me, he is quick to cut in: “No amount of government oversight or internal rubber-stamping by IACUCs changes the fact that animals are suffering and being harmed, for the benefit of others. It doesn’t make it any more ethical.”
After our conversation, Goodman emails me what he claims are summaries of USDA reports from 2005 to 2007 that outline Yale’s violations against the Animal Welfare Act.
Page 1: In August 2007, Yale was cited for a violation of the AWA related to an incident where a dog suffered burns to his chest after he was operated on and left underneath a heat lamp.
Page 2: In October 2006, Yale was cited for a failure to perform an adequate search for alternatives to painful surgical procedures in animals. Yale was also cited for failing to identify and treat a pig and rabbit who were showing signs of illness.
Page 3: During the October 2006 inspection, Yale was also cited for failing to properly care for and treat a monkey who was exhibiting “psychological distress presented by circling and pacing.” (I should note here that research shows that 90% of caged primates in laboratories exhibit abnormal, stress-induced behaviors like neurotic pacing, hair pulling and some even resort to self-mutilation. So this problem is not isolated and is almost certainly effecting [sic] other monkeys at Yale as well).
Page 5-6: During the December 2005 USDA inspection, Yale was cited for performing an unapproved procedure on a rabbit, for failing to conduct an adequate search for alternatives, for failing to adequately describe experimental procedures in research protocols and for possessing outdated drugs.
As we wrap up our conversation, Goodman tells me that the fears of Yale researchers are “completely irrational and unfounded. These people should be afraid that people will find out what they do to animals, and will be upset about it, but they shouldn’t fear for their physical safety. PETA has never done anything ever that should cause people to fear for their physical safety.”
Goodman tells me that if experimenters were forced to sit down and debate their moral position on animal research, they would realize that their position is “indefensible, and they’d be terribly embarrassed.” In his mind, researchers fear PETA because “we’re effective in exposing what they do to animals. They’re afraid.”
I didn’t know how to digest what Goodman told me. Was I, in attempting to uncover the truths behind researchers’ anger, fear, and misconceptions, about to face the same embarrassment? Having just heard PETA’s side of the story, how could I possibly support animal testing, when the only defense I had was that it would alleviate human suffering? If an animal life is equal to a human life, then how could I possibly argue with that?
Three years ago, my aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer, a disease that killed my grandmother and has afflicted the women in my family for years, including my mother. At the time, my aunt refused mainstream medication and stuck to holistic treatments. Her cancer grew worse, and the doctors told us that she would soon die. When I visited her for Christmas, she had just arrived home from brain surgery. The cancer had spread, ten tumors attacking her brain. I was barely allowed in the room, because her weakened immune system had developed an infection during the surgery. As I stood watching her slowly lift her sickly frame to a sitting position, a thick scar caressing her bald head and sallow skin, I could not help but wonder how she was still alive. My uncle told us the infection was responding well to the new medication. That medication was tested on animals. As my aunt’s condition continues to fluctuate, I am thankful for every molecule that drips down her IVs. In each drip, there are minutes more to spend with her.
A few months into researching PETA, the image of my bed-ridden aunt in mind, I contact Dave Menaker, one of the patient advocates on Dr. Hogen’s approved list. In February 2000, Menaker visited the doctor after discovering he couldn’t feel the toes on one of his feet. A few weeks later, after visiting surgeon after surgeon, he was diagnosed with an ependymoma, a tumor in his spinal column. Left to its own devices, the tumor would have slowly crushed his spinal chord, first leaving him paralyzed, then eventually killing him. The surgery that saved his life left him as a paraplegic, able to move only his hands.
Menaker’s wife places the phone on speakerphone. “Our social life is still restricted,” she tells me. “We ended up with some friends that we’ve lost, and a few friends that we’ve gained. We can’t get into some of our friends’ homes, our relatives’ homes.”
“It’s totally different,” says Menaker. “My bathroom functions are totally different and they take quite a bit of time. Clearing of the bladder is a major issue, being strong enough to be able to transfer easily from the wheel chair to the bed to the bathroom. I’ve been going to upper body exercising for the last eight years to strengthen my upper body. It takes three hours to get out of the house in the morning. Flying is not feasible — we can’t handle it.” Referring to his wife, he notes, “She has to do all the work — making sure I have all my medications to take.”
The Menakers stress that they support humane animal testing. “We don’t want to see any animals tortured,” Menaker assures me. He argues that if there were no animal testing, treatments would have to be tested on human beings. “The same kind of issues that crop up with animals would crop up with humans,” he says. “Do you test on animals or humans?”
As I prepare to hang up the phone, I ask the Menakers if there is anything else they would like to say. Menaker’s wife, her voice almost lost over the phone, tells me the family needs help. “We want a cure,” she says. “Tomorrow would not be fast enough.”