Suffering for the Love of Birds
Kevin Folta

There is deep injustice on both sides here. It is not equivalent, for the prevailing ethos of science holds that it is justifiable to do almost anything to animals if the potential for gain is sufficient. There is little willingness on the part of scientists to seriously engage with the ethical perspective that upholds a different conclusion.

I have no doubt that this young scientist is sincere, regrets the discomfort her studies cause their subjects, regrets the destruction of their lives she causes when she captures them. She knows better than most what damage that interference wreaks in their individual lives. I have no doubt she is convinced her work will lead to many and important benefits to birds, and she may even be right. Many of our medical-scientific breakthroughs have been achieved at the cost of terrible suffering by lab animals — and sometimes, by humans forced into that role.

It always astounds me how researchers take that fact — that their efforts brought about great boons to humanity, other animals, even the world — to mean that the knowledge could never have been acquired through other means. That simply cannot be known. Because we have pursued knowledge in the belief that the best way to get it is through using animals, we really haven’t sought out other methods. Once it became illegal to use vulnerable humans in such studies, we learned how to approach questions differently.

The dialog between science and ethics could be profoundly beneficial to both — but it is never allowed to take place. The blame for this must be assigned to the side with all the power in our society, which would be the contemporary scientific world view. Those who have thought about this issue deeply and reached a different conclusion would prefer to have such a dialog, but instead are treated as whack jobs. Frustration does not lead to generous behavior toward those who cause it, and while it does not excuse activists’ hateful and threatening actions, it does explain it.

It is always an expression of value when the interests of one individual being are sacrificed for another, or for many. It is probably not something that can be resolved absolutely and finally. But it is perhaps the most serious question humans must grapple with over and over. I happen to believe that a house sparrow, member of an invasive species or not, should not be used as laboratory material for the purposes cited. But I would like to have a conversation about the legitimacy of such expropriation of a life.

How much of what passes for public discourse today are attempts to avoid the deep questions that divide us?