Sometimes I think that the easiest to do would be to give up, to not look, to not bring the pain of knowing into my life. The magnitude of abuse that we all deal with, no matter what issue we work on is so overwhelming that the our mental ability to process it, let alone attempt to have an impact on the abuse, is simply overwhelmed. Our minds can process, albeit very unpleasantly, single incidents of abuse or pain. Individual animals that die, illnesses, injuries, are things that we can handle. But when we are confronted with systematic abuse on a massive scale, I don’t think that our minds can handle it. Images of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of animals swirl in our minds. We stagger mentally, and we lose the ability to function.
When primates are held in captivity, no matter where, they simply do not function well. They were not designed to be in cages, and therefore their systems do not handle the isolation, confinement, stress, and monotony well. As a result, their bodies rebel and their minds are lost.
The stress of captivity continues to build, and without an outlet, the pressure has to go somewhere. As I read through the lives of monkeys that are imprisoned in labs, the stories are almost always the same. Animals are so stressed by confinement, lack of ability to roam, lack of ability to get away from aggressive cagemates, or the simple inability to hide, that stress continues to build through days, weeks, months and years of imprisonment. Monkeys are long lived, spending decades in the laboratory prisons. Passing through lifetimes of isolation, monotony, loneliness, and trauma.
Eventually it erupts. Broken bones, lacerations, and other injuries are unimaginably common. When the five-centimeter full thickness lacerations which expose bones are sutured, the real problem is not solved. When the injured fingers, toes, and tails are amputated, the pathology is not removed. When these animals are faced with unrelenting cages of steel, they simply cannot cope, and the stress has to come out somewhere.
If the animals do not act out physically, the pressure still exists. One of the most common phrases I read is “chronic non-responsive diarrhea.” Sometimes this is called wasting disease. Veterinary care staff try to treat this with days of Pepto-Bismol and other versions of symptomatic and supportive care. But the problem is not the animal, the problem is the cage. Pepto-Bismol cannot replace freedom. Anti-diarrheal treatments do not turn stainless steel into earth, trees, sky, and the ability to move without barriers.
The condition, the illness, the problem is not curable with medicine. The only antidote to a cage is freedom.
The laboratory environment breathes starkness, artificiality, and stress into the air. It is palpable and cannot be missed, even showing up in the documents that describe the diseases of the animals. The conditions flow through the animals, changing them forever. And after that the pain flows out, and can be sensed by anyone who comes into contact with the situation. In many cases, the agony of these animals ends up accumulating in me.
This is the price that we must pay for changing the world. We cannot blithely say things like: “Stop abusing animals,” and expect anything real to happen. We must speak the truth, the full truth – with all of its accumulated agony – if we are to make a difference. When we choose not to see the pain, when we look away from the unpleasant pictures, when we refuse to read about the experiments – we doom their victims to continued suffering. We cannot make change without experiencing pain and grief, for this is the first step of gaining empathy and true compassion for those who suffer.
When you experience the suffering yourself, you understand in some small way the pain that you seek to end. It becomes personal, a part of you, and cannot be ignored or walked away from. Ending the agony, both theirs and yours, becomes the driving force in your life.
The pictures painted by the pages that come out of the labs are almost always very similar. Dozens and dozens of traumatic injuries. Chronic non-responsive diarrhea, which usually leads to euthanasia. Page upon page, agony upon agony. Documents from the University of Washington, Seattle, describe primates with severely contracted limbs and ulcerated skin. Many others were allowed to simply waste away from disease, losing up to 20% of their body weight (imagine a 150 pound human reduced by disease to 120 pounds). In one incident two primates escaped from cages and fought, one was so severely injured that the monkey was euthanized.
These animals were real. They lived, suffered, and died. Without us, without our struggle for them their deaths would remain unknown, unmourned, and forgotten. It is up to us to give their lives and their deaths meaning. It is our duty to feel their pain, share their deaths, and make them the reason for our struggle. Every time an animal dies we must rededicate ourselves to fighting for their freedom. Every time they suffer, we must stand up again and say NO! For if we are unwilling to experience pain, we allow theirs to increase and make certain that it will continue unabated.
But when we are willing to share their pain, participate in their grief, and take their suffering into our own lives, we become the champions that these animals need and deserve. Opposing multi-national corporations is no longer daunting. Taking on nationally-known colleges and universities carries no fear. We are empowered to end the abuse because we simply KNOW that it has to be done. We don’t give up. We will never give in, and we will never walk away. For at the same time that our hearts are broken, our resolve is forged in iron.
We must open our hearts to the animals, whether they are suffering or free, healthy or diseased, living in our homes or dying in a laboratory. This is our duty, our calling, and our responsibility.
This is what it means to care.
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