Book Review

The Human Use of Animals: Case Studies In Ethical Choice

By F. Barbara Orlans, Tom L. Beauchamp, Rebecca Dresser, David B. Morton, John P. Gluck
Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN: 511908-8 Softcover $22.50 + $3.95 shipping.
To order by credit card, call 1-800-451-7556 (1-800-387-8020 in Canada)

Reviewed by Karen Davis, PhD

With this book, educators, policymakers, lawyers, veterinarians, students, animal advocates, and others have an excellent opportunity to examine the human use of nonhuman animals in institutional and ritual contexts. The Human Use of Animals presents specific cases of the use of animals in the following areas: biomedical research, cosmetic testing, behavioral research, wildlife research, education, farming, companion animals, and religious sacrifice. The book does not give answers; it focuses the issues. It raises questions.

This book facilitates the revaluation that is now taking place in science, philosophy, and law based on the growing body of evidence that nonhuman animals have complex intelligence, awareness and emotions. It conveys an appropriate sense of being troubled as well as engaged not only by the issues but by the animals under discussion – all the baboons, rabbits, chickens, calves, chimpanzees, geese, and other sensitive creatures whom we as a society and a species treat like so much rubbish.

Robert J. White, who has made a career of transplanting heads from one nonhuman primate to another, criticized a scientific journal in 1990 for publishing a supplement on ethics and animals. He said, "I am extremely disappointed in this particular series of articles. . . . Animal usage is not a moral or ethical issue and elevating the problem of animal rights to such a plane is a disservice to medical research and the farm and dairy industry."

It is a disservice that was long overdue. The Human Use of Animals does well to extend this disservice. It uses a method that allows the reader to put on several different "heads" involved in each case under consideration, including that of the animal victim.

What I especially like about this book is the clear exposition of each case and the way the book places the moral questions it raises in concrete situations, creating a captivating interplay of drama and discussion. The case of a little "vagrant" bird who was cruelly killed by an ornithology student, a bird whose "skin lies flat in a small specimen tray in the Museum" unexamined by anyone since 1992, is in essence the story of every exploited animal and should perhaps be read first so that its lingering pain will keep one mindful of what every case presented finally amounts to.

The section on Food and Farming has an exemplary chapter on the Force-Feeding of Geese to produce foie gras ("fat liver"). It gives not only the background and the means of production of foie gras in a most readable form; it highlights the story of how one man, Peter C. Lovenheim, a shareholder in Iroquois Brands, a US corporation, used his shareholding power to challenge Iroquois' importation of a product the company claimed it had no obligation to investigate or terminate. Lovenheim refused to accept this: "He and other like-minded shareholders saw the proper treatment of animals as a perennial problem of Western morality that any sensitive person should consider, and therefore as relevant to the operations of a business."

While I highly recommend The Human Use of Animals, I have some concerns. One is the sometimes exaggeratedly cautious and overqualified use of language where plain speaking is called for. For example, in the chapter on "broiler" chickens, pathologies that in humans are known to cause pain, that are reflected in the chickens' behavior as pain, and that painkillers affect similarly in chickens, humans, and other animals, are said to "indicate" that these birds "may well be in pain." No: they indicate that the birds are in pain. At worst, this manner of speaking is an invitation to produce more pain and suffering experimentally in chickens when enough has already been done from which to draw meaningful conclusions and take appropriate action. At the same time, this style of discourse is ripe for analysis in its own right: it is part of what the book is about.

I am also concerned that while the book includes birds – the "vagrant" vireo, force-fed geese, Alex the African gray parrot featured in the work of Irene Pepperberg, and chickens used in intensive farming and in ritual sacrifice (see the excellent chapter on the Santeria Case), it stints them. Current evidence suggests much more than merely "that some birds display signs of intelligence" and that chickens have "limited intelligence." It is annoying to read this about Alex, the parrot: "More remarkably [than mastering little laboratory tasks], he apparently uses words like 'no' to express feelings of annoyance, displeasure, and noncooperation, rather than his 'native language' of a squawk or a screech" ("Fowl Deeds," p. 263). Maybe a "squawk" or a "screech" is all we hear at the outer fringes of his world. Here again, however, an opportunity presents itself to examine the rhetoric. Why, for example, are the lofty disciplines of science and philosophy so often at the coy level, when it comes to other animals, of "Does It Lay Eggs?" and "Does It Talk?"

The Human Use of Animals is important because its distinguished authors are pushing the envelope. No doubt a reason the book adopts an overly circumspect manner of speaking about animal subjectivity and moral claims is that it wants to reach scientists, even as it includes them. While the authors urge the reader to "make up your own mind," their point is that animals matter very much. The dignity of animals matters. It matters how we treat them. As philosopher Mary Midgley once wrote, "Animals are not just one of the things with which people amuse themselves, like chewing-gum and water-skies, they are the group to which people belong."

A major benefit of this book is that you can select from it a specific case for consideration of a general issue, such as the use of other species for organ transplants or for food, or the question, "What Does the Public Have a Right to Know?" If you wonder about any of this, The Human Use of Animals is for you.