Pet, Dinner, Research Subject – Our Complicated Relationship with Animals

    When WHYY’s behavioral health reporter Maiken Scott set out to understand the passion of animal rights activists – she got a lesson in ethics along the way.

    Animal Rights Activists are vowing to continue their protests against Michael Vick and the Eagles. The NFL is no stranger to player misconduct. Gun violence and drunken driving by players have made headlines. But they have not sparked the kind of passionate outrage that the Vick provoked. When WHYY’s behavioral health reporter Maiken Scott set out to understand the passion of animal rights activists – she got a lesson in ethics along the way.

    Listen: [audio:090820msanimal.mp3]

    Let’s face it. When it comes to animals, most people are hypocrites.

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    Serpell: They will have one category of animal which they looove and lavish affection on and then another category they just eat.

    James Serpell speaks from experience. A pet owner and meat eater, he is professor of animal welfare at the University of Pennsylvania. He says how we determine which animals make a good pet….and which make a good dinner – doesn’t make a lot of sense:

    Serpell: It’s not as if pigs are stupid and dogs are smart – they are both at about the same level of intelligence and probably quite affectionate, pigs, if you get to know them.

    Serpell says he continues to struggle with how he categorizes animals.

    Not a problem for Maria Pandolfi. A passionate animal rights activist, her position is unwavering:

    Maria Pandolfi holds one of her pet rats.
    Maria Pandolfi holds one of her pet rats.
    Pandolfi: I feel that it’s wrong to kill, and I think when you are not supposed to kill anyone, that includes animals too, so I try not to even kill bugs.

    In her activism, Maria champions an animal that elicits about the same level of compassion as bugs – RATS. Close to a dozen of them roam freely in her South Philadelphia home:

    I love that they are very intelligent and they just love you back.

    An art teacher by day, Maria is the president and founder of Rat Chick Rat Rescue. Her organization takes in rats given up by families, and rescues them from pet stores and laboratories.

    Maria Pandolfi's rats enjoying some time around the house.
    Maria Pandolfi's rats enjoying some time around the house.
    Pandolfi: They are kind of the animal that people hate the most, and I’m a very compassionate person. I grew up with learning disabilities, and because of that it enables me to feel for others. so I think that I just really feel for rats because of the prejudice against them.

    Maria is vegan, and opposes all research on animals. She says it is cruel and unnecessary. She has infiltrated research labs, and runs protests.

    One of the people Maria would think of as cruel is U Penn Researcher Adrian Morrison. He is soft-spoken, a proud grandfather. He has had many run-ins with animal rights activists, who targeted his office in 1990.

    Morrison: You are sitting in the room that was broken into, they trashed the office, removed files, letters…

    Angered, Morrison set out to write a book exposing the animal rights movement. But his reflections on the issues brought him to a different place. He remembered internal debates he had over the course of his career:

    Morrison: I’d walk along and all the sudden I’d say – do I really want to keep doing this to cats, and then then I’d always say ‘yes, because this is the way medicine progresses, and medicine has helped children, and there is a difference between a cat and a child.

    Morrison still believes in the value of animal research – but says today the work can be done in better, less cruel ways. [Morrison’s book is called “An Odyssey with Animals”] His stance would not satisfy Maria, who says her strong opinions have made her somewhat of an outcast, even among old friends:

    Pandolfi: Some of them think that I’m totally insane, and then there is people at work, some of them understand to a degree, but some of them think that I’m the craziest thing they ever met.

    It’s easy to look at somebody protesting outside a lab and think they are nuts, says Villanova ethicist Brett Wilmot:

    Wilmot: We become very complacent when we’re in an environment that for the most part reflects our sense of order, and justice and reasonableness, and then when other people are in that same environment and find it appalling and react that way, our first reaction is to think “wow – what on earth is wrong with them” when again, they may be simply exhibiting the same kind of reaction we would under different circumstances.

    Spending time with Maria Pandolfi, James Serpell and Adrian Morrison – it becomes clear that all three struggle. For Maria – her passionate struggle is about saving the animals. For the other two, the struggle is a quieter one, an ongoing conversation and balancing act.

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