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August 2004
I Married a Vivisector
By Zoe Weil


In June, 1985, as I approached the old Victorian house in West Philadelphia where I rented an apartment, I noticed a man sitting on the stoop with a tortoiseshell cat. The cat looked remarkably like the pregnant stray who’d given birth to six kittens the day I brought her home six weeks earlier. Having never seen a tortoiseshell cat prior to this stray, I found my meeting with the man and his cat strangely coincidental.

I introduced myself. His name was Edwin, and he also lived in the house and was the only person in the building I hadn’t yet met. It turns out that I’d never met him because he was a graduate student whose seven a.m. to midnight hours meant that he came and went while I was sleeping.

I invited him to meet the kittens, and I noticed immediately that he was so gentle with them. We started talking about what we did, and he told me that he was in a Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania studying the biochemistry of vision. I had recently been volunteering for a professor in his department who was teaching chimpanzees a symbolic language, so in addition to rescuing tortoiseshell cats (he’d found his cat under a dumpster the previous year), we had this in common.

What we did not have in common was that his research involved animal experimentation, and I considered myself an animal rights advocate. We were soon a couple, but one would not have been inclined to call ours a match made in heaven. Our relationship was akin to a die-hard Republican hooking up with a Ted Kennedy-style Democrat, or a Christian Fundamentalist falling in love with a practitioner of Wicca. Few people thought our relationship was destined for marriage, let alone marital bliss. And frankly, neither did we. In those early years we argued constantly, and vivisection was a particularly touchy subject. When my PETA newsletters arrived I’d read the atrocities out loud and exclaim, “Isn’t this disgusting!? Isn’t this horrible!?” Edwin, the analytical scientist, would usually reply, “I don’t know, I’d have to read the study,” which exasperated me to no end.

How we navigated those incendiary years is a mystery, but this is what eventually happened: we began listening to instead of yelling at each other. He made me realize that despite my proclamations I was not actually a vegetarian (I still ate sea animals as well as dairy products and eggs). He was the one in our relationship who said he wanted to stop going to zoos (I declared that I loved the animals at the zoo; he explained that he liked them too much to want to contribute to their life behind bars). I stopped asking him what he ate for lunch every day and berating him for eating mammals and birds, and once I stopped harassing him he stopped eating them.

Then I became vegan and was hired by an animal rights organization. The organization I worked for often targeted the research going on at the University of Pennsylvania. We once hosted a forum there on the especially egregious research of Thomas Genarelli, a vivisector made notorious by the film Unnecessary Fuss which was compiled from footage of head injury experiments on baboons that was stolen from Genarelli’s lab. (The film is available from PETA and is one of the most shocking and disturbing videos you are likely to see.) I sat on the side of the room against vivisection, and there were Edwin’s colleagues in the opposite corner.

One evening, the two of us went to hear Ingrid Newkirk, PETA’s president, give a talk at Borders. The bookstore was packed. PETA supporters sat in front, thrilled to hear a speech by one of their heroes. Researchers from the university, antagonistic toward PETA, stood in the back. Edwin and I were in the last row of supporters, Edwin caught between his colleagues and his girlfriend.

Ingrid showed the film Breaking Barriers which exposes the conditions under which primates were living in a particular research institute. While it depicts no experiments, it is heart wrenching to watch the monkeys and apes isolated in cages, ceaselessly rocking themselves back and forth. Sitting right in front of the hostile research community, I was shocked to hear them scoffing, laughing, and snorting at the narration in the film. When the narrator (who also happened to be Ingrid) talked about the chimpanzees driven mad, they chortled.

I later asked Edwin how he thought they could possibly be laughing and snickering, and he responded that the narration and the commentary were unscientific, anthropomorphic, and took leaps of logic that researchers find naïve. I thought the researchers were simply blinded by their scientific training and perspective which prevented them from seeing the animals as sentient beings rather than as test subjects. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. What I really thought is that they were unfeeling, unthinking, cruel, heartless jerks. And I was quick to share these judgments with Edwin. For his part, Edwin found himself somewhere in between his colleagues and me, committed to scientific, critical thinking, but not so steeped in this thinking that he was unable to see and appreciate suffering when he saw it. Several years later, after completing his Ph.D. and a post-doctoral fellowship and obtaining a professorship with his own government-funded lab, Edwin abandoned his career as a research scientist. He returned his government grant and went back to school to become a veterinarian. He also turned vegan.

Over those same years I became very involved in the animal rights movement, and what I saw was some of the same absolutism, refusal to listen, rigidity and name-calling that I’d despised and decried in the research community (and that characterized me during those early years). Whether it was the signs at protests declaring “Vivisectors are scum” (they were talking about my gentle husband after all), or the endless diatribes on how vivisectors are in it for the money (my husband lived on a $5,000 a year stipend during graduate school, and when he finally had his own lab after six years of 80 hour work weeks, he only took home $30,000 per year). (The truth is scientists could make a whole lot more money if they became physicians, with fewer hours and better job security to boot.)

I began to see that taking sides, whatever those sides are, poses dangers to understanding, listening, growing, and solving conflicts. This is not to say that we should never “take sides,” but the very notion of “sides” implies a battlefield, a competition, a winner and a loser. Aren’t there other metaphors that work better? The issues involved in animal rights (or any controversial subject) have become so polarized with those in the pro-animal camp vilifying people like my husband, and those in the pro-vivisection camp declaring animal rights activists as anti-science at best and lunatics at worst. How can we ever find a better way with this as our mode of communication? Most animal researchers are not evil. They are not money-grubbing. They are not without heart. Nor are most animal rights activists anti-science, over-emotional fanatics. We simply want the exploitation and abuse of other sentient beings to end.

I married a vivisector, and thanks to Edwin I’ve learned to listen better and build bridges with people instead of burn them down. At least now I try. There were many years where I preferred to satisfy my urge to vent and rage than to make the effort to hear out those whose actions and opinions I found abhorrent. Now when I see others doing what I used to do, I realize how counterproductive (and often destructive) such an approach is. It might feel good, but it feeds the wrong animal. That is to say, it provides fuel for hatred, rather than fuel for peace and compassion.

The path toward bridge-building that I’ve found to be most effective is humane education. It’s an approach and a vision that trusts people’s ability to listen, learn, and choose without coercion or manipulation. I believe that humanity can choose differently in a host of ways, and while I recognize the necessity to legislate change, I also know that laws only pass once people are educated and have adopted, by and large, a revised perspective. Humane education brings people the information and critical thinking skills, the reverence and commitment, and the choices that enable us all to lead more humane lives. By teaching people about what is happening on our planet—to animals, to other people, to the environment—and by helping people become creative thinkers and conscious choice-makers, we can bypass fighting and name-calling and go directly to problem-solving and a more humane world.

Zoe Weil is the co-founder and president of the International Institute for Humane Education which offers an M.Ed. degree and certificate program in humane education as well as the “Sowing Seeds” humane education weekend workshops. She wrote this essay on her anniversary with Edwin with whom she has lived for 19 years.



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