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For Whom The Bell Tolls the Don Barnes interview

He once experimented on primates; irradiating them as part of US airforce nuclear research. Now Don Barnes is one of the finest voices in the anti-vivisection movement. He was dismissed from the Brooks Airforce Base for refusing to conduct a particularly odious experiment. Today he is based in Texas and works for the Animal Protection Institute in Sacramento, California.

So what makes this man tick? We're about to find out.

Interview by Claudette Vaughan, January 2000.

CLAUDETTE: Don, you're presently executive director of Voice For Animals Inc, on a voluntary basis. What does this entail?

DON: My duties range from the protection of wildlife to helping domestic animals survive in urban settings. I write, do radio and television interviews and stories, take legal action against those who abuse other animals, and mount protests and rallies against circuses, rodeos, laboratories, factory farms, and fur shops. I help local sanctuaries rescue skunks, opossum, raccoons, coyotes, snakes, and birds. I contact local, state and federal representatives seeking their support or criticizing their positions on various issues.

CLAUDETTE: You had been an experimenter for about a decade when you walked into the lab to witness one of your technicians holding a monkey, about to smack it in the face. Was this event revelatory in nature? Were you immediately faced with a rational, moral dilemma or was this just the final straw?

DON: The incident with the technician was not a turning point in my life, but it eventually served to underscore my budding conversion to animal rights activism. After I had read Peter Singer's book, Animal Liberation, and had began to shed the conditioned ethical blindness syndrome, I could look back at incidents such as this and wonder at my own confusion. I could punish that technician for intending to strike a monkey in the face, but had I ordered him to bolt the monkey into a metal chair and deliver hundreds if not thousands of electric shocks to that same monkey, I would be justified as I was doing it in the name of science.

While the technician's obvious intent cannot be justified under any conditions, I can understand it better than I understand wielding the hard, deliberate, calculating axe of science. At least his crime was one of passion rather than unimpassioned observation.

CLAUDETTE: What do you mean by "conditioned ethical blindness?"

DON: This is my term for what Lifton called "doubling" in his book, The Nazi Doctors. I was literally conditioned to exclude other animals from my sphere of moral concern. I was taught that to empathize with or to anthropomorphise the behavior or responses of non-human animals was ascientific that is, I could not be a good scientist unless I held myself in total judgmental reserve, observing, not feeling. I have come to believe that this is the key to understanding the vivisector. I do not believe that the vast majority of vivisectors to be sadistic; I believe them to be victims of conditioned ethical blindness, or ignorance reinforced by society and by religion and by science.

Less than 200 years ago, humans were sold into slavery in this country. They were seen as "subhuman" and treated like commodities. The analogy is clear: non-human animals are seen as objects, defined as being subhumans without souls, expendable, not to be included in one's sphere of morality. Richard Ryder saw this clearly in his coining of the term "speciesistic", referring to the arbitrary separation of human and nonhuman.

CLAUDETTE: The anti-vivisection lobby has fought for years to inform the public about the spurious arguments put forth by vivisectors who want animal research to continue. From both a moral and a health perspective these arguments have virtually gotten us nowhere. Is there an answer?

DON: Somehow, I don't think you will agree with me but I don't believe vivisection is fraud. I think it's ignorance: a blind faith in a scientific method which simply cannot find the differences or commonalities between species a faulty experimental design. I cannot believe that most vivisectors know that their work will be spurious; on the contrary, I am convinced that they like myself in the past believe that what they are doing is important to the only species they define as important the human.

Further I believe that vivisection is a moral issue. I might get upset at paying $600.00 tax money to the airforce for a toilet seat, but I don't feel the anger, the angst, the fury that I feel when I think about causing stress, pain, suffering, and death to other sentient creatures. It is not anger about getting ripped off, it's anger at the cruelty and inhumanity of men.

I am also convinced that our diet is a moral issue. I am an ethical vegan, not because I am so concerned about my own health that I refuse to eat the {unhealthy} flesh of other animals, but because I don't think it's moral to eat the flesh of other animals. Sometimes I argue that veganism is a healthier way of life, not just for the individual, but for the environment, and especially for the non-humans who will be raised and eaten merely for food. Again, we are faced with arbitrary criteria. For example, we Americans cringe at the idea of eating a dog or a cat but we have no problem killing and eating "food" animals. I see no difference between eating a dog and eating a pig.

CLAUDETTE: Vivisection is still so secretive, it's legal, it's physically difficult to get in and get footage of animal abuse, and the conditioning of the public has been thorough. What tactics can be used to expose the erroneous belief that experiments on non-humans contribute to public health?

DON: The biomedical profession has come to rely on non-human animals as subjects. It is an institution; a bureaucracy in its own right. They have no idea what they would do if they were forced to empty the cages in their labs. On the other hand, we are convinced that this is exactly what they must do in order to finally understand enough about human physiology, psychology etc to help humans. Trouble is, we're fighting an industry; we cannot expect rapid changes from such vested interests. We are slowly recruiting more and more individuals from the ranks of medicine, veterinary medicine and other scientific fields with whom to refute the trite assertions of the vivisection industry. You say our arguments have not worked; well, their science has not worked either, and more and more scientists are beginning to recognise that.

CLAUDETTE: There are three ways to win any conflict: conversion, accommodation, or coercion. What in your opinion is the best way to instigate mass change from within the vivisection community?

DON: If I knew how to stop vivisection, every laboratory cage in the world would be empty today and would have been empty yesterday. I am frustrated as well, but I cannot believe that we can rely on dishonest arguments and mud-slinging without justification. I realise that there are many more commonalities between species than there are differences, and would not be surprised to find even more commonalities as we delve into the genetic manipulation of life forms as even a single drug turns out to have common effects across species, the argument that interspecies extrapolation never works is shot to hell.

Do I think we should study other animals to understand humans? No. Never. Nor do I think we should use other humans in invasive experiments even if it means helping more humans in the future.

CLAUDETTE: Do you see the Animal Liberation Front as taking practical action to ameliorate the plight of laboratory animals or do you prefer the techniques of strategic non-violence?

DON: I have no problem with the ALF in their liberation of suffering beings. I do have a problem with violence towards species, including humans, for I don't believe we can argue that the end justifies the means any more than the vivisectors do.

CLAUDETTE: Is it a waste of time to lobby governments? Do you see change coming from this direction?

DON: I came to Australia in 1990 to testify before a Senate Select Committee with Peter Singer and Richard Ryder. We were desperately trying to limit the growth of the vivisection industry. Did we fail? Perhaps. But perhaps we detailed the escalation of the industry for a time, thereby saving countless numbers of sentient beings from pain and suffering and death. I would come over again tomorrow to argue the case if I could. Just this morning, I wrote several letters for several signatures to lobby our US Senators to ban the steel-jawed trap in our National Refuges. I hope we can win this one as it make a difference to thousands of innocent animals who will be caught in these cruel devices.

CLAUDETTE: Gary Francione once said that those who push for abolition of vivisection by compromise moving forward in tiny steps such as asking for longer chains for the slaves (non humans), asking for improved facilities etc are playing into the hands of the opposition by being conciliatory. What is your opinion of that?

DON: I think Gary Francione has something important to say when he insists that our goal must be abolition, not reform. At the same time, I remember Gary helping to save a dog in Israel and helping to transport that dog to the US for its safety, while simultaneously a couple of us were arranging the same trip for a cat. We do what we must for the individual animal as well as for the "universe of pain and suffering", as Henry Spira often described the status of non-human animals.

My partner and I rescued a feral male cat the other day who had been hit by a car a few days earlier. The bones were sticking through the skin on his leg and maggots had infested the wound. We spent over $1300 to save this cat. He died. In retrospect, that money could have spayed and neutered many other cats or been used to find good adoptive homes for them. Did we make a foolish decision to try and save the life of this feral tom who almost certainly would have had difficulty surviving with just three legs? I'll leave that question to your readers. Frankly, I'm not sure what I'll do when faced with the same situation today or tomorrow or next week.