In The Omnivore\’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan tells of visiting a model sustainable farm. The farm sold pasture-fed chickens, and on \”chicken processing day\” Pollan felt obligated to slaughter a few chickens in order to experience every level of the trajectory of meat from farm to table.
He was shown how to place the chickens in the killing cones, how to hold their heads at just the right angle and sever the carotid artery with a single stroke of the knife. At the beginning, he was full of trepidation about the chickens\’ state. Were they distressed when they were placed into the cones? (They didn\’t seem to be.) Did they suffer when their throats were cut? (It was over quickly.) Would he be able to do the job neatly and efficiently, inflicting as little pain as possible?
He steeled himself and killed a chicken. Then a second, and a third. And he was utterly surprised by how quickly the sequence of actions became mechanical for him, how by the time he had \”processed\” a dozen chickens he was completely immersed in the technical aspects of the job, and dissociated from the animals he was slaughtering.
I know just how he felt. I had the very same thing happen to me in my first job after college. It was a temporary job, to fill a few months between graduation and graduate school, and I was happy to be hired by a research institute as assistant in a cancer lab. My job was to inoculate hamsters, mice and rats with cancer cells, divide them into treatment groups, inject them with various drugs, and keep track of every single animal–its weight, the growth rate of its tumor, and its date of death.
This was in the 1960s, long before the animal rights movement.
On the first day I was issued a thick leather glove for my left hand, for holding hamsters while my right hand did the injecting, measuring and weighing. I was taught how to catch and immobilize mice without getting bitten (the leather glove didn\’t work with mice, because you had to be quick and dexterous to work with them). I was taught how to hold big struggling rats without losing a finger. I was handed a very large forceps and shown how to \”sacrifice\” an animal by breaking its neck.
Sometimes, at the end of a short-term experiment involving, say, 200 mice, most of the animals were still alive. It was too time consuming to kill them one by one, so I was taken to a garbage pail full of dry ice and shown how to empty cage after cage of mice into it, where they would eventually suffocate.
At the end of the first day, I could barely drive myself home. My hair and my clothes reeked of the place, and I was shaken to the core by having had to kill small, warm, living things, and witnessing the suffering of the ones that were still alive.
But I was a biology major, and had prided myself in dealing dispassionately with fetal pigs and other animals on the dissecting table. As a very young woman in a world run by men who were ever on the lookout for signs of female weakness, I had learned to hide all symptoms of empathy and tenderness. Besides, it was a good job, and I couldn\’t very well spend the summer sitting at home reading French novels. So I stuck it out.
The first few days were terribly hard. At one point I messed up an experiment by using my forceps to euthanize some hamsters that I knew were at death\’s door. What difference could it make to record their death during the a.m. versus the p.m. check? \”You are interfering with the natural progression of the tumor,\” my supervisor told me kindly but firmly. \”The animals must die on their own time, without your help.\”
I will spare you further descriptions of that place. But to me the worst horror was how quickly I learned to tolerate it. Like Pollan with his chickens, I soon got immersed in the technical aspects of the work. I became the fastest weigher and measurer in the lab, kept meticulous records, helped my colleagues capture mice that had gotten loose. And while I didn\’t enjoy what I was doing, neither was I inwardly weeping for those animals.
I remember how shocked I was at the extent of my adaptability. And I remember how, suddenly, chapters in the history of humankind that had seemed inconceivable when I studied them in class became not only understandable, but plausible. Roman circuses, the Inquisition, Napoleon, the Holocaust–I could have been right there, cheering for the lions, lighting the pyres, slaughtering Spanish peasants, \”doing my job\” as a camp guard. Just how far was I capable of going? How much horror could I learn to tolerate?
I still haven\’t gotten over that experience. It taught me to mistrust myself and the rest of my species. But I don\’t know what to do with this insight into human nature–except perhaps to try to keep the mistrust of myself and the sense of horror alive.