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A SPIDER SHOWS THE WAY TOWARDS GREATER COMPASSION FOR ANIMALS

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By Barbara King

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The Montréal Review, July 2021

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One June night this summer, I encountered a wolf spider on the floor near my bed. This tiny animal had somehow wandered indoors; a rescue was clearly in order. That rescue turned out to be a fraught one, but after it I felt renewed determination to help animals caught up in agriculture and biomedical research.  

Does that seem absurd, making that leap from a single invertebrate in my own home to billions of animals entangled in agricultural and biomedical systems?  It is and it isn’t, as I will explain.  

The spider, almost certainly a female judging from her size, remained motionless on the floor as I regarded her. Perhaps she was looking at me too. Wolf spiders have keen eyesight. They are described as ‘athletic hunters’ who ‘run down’ their prey rather than building webs, and are non-venomous. 

I flashed back to a day about ten years ago.  That time, two wolf spiders had appeared in the bathroom, sitting side by side. My lifelong reactivity to arachnids, emergent in childhood and amplified by my mother’s disgust of such beings, got the better of me; I beat the pair to death with my shoe and flushed them down the toilet.   

Immediately I felt terrible. How could I call myself an animal advocate and do this? 

That incident become a turning point because I challenged myself to observe local spiders and learn about them, in order to overcome the reactivity. By the time I met the new wolf spider in 2021, I was in the midst of a virtual tour for Animals' Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild. Repeatedly I reported to audiences how smitten I had become with spiders, especially jumping spiders spotted in the yard and the magnificent orb weavers who set up shop outside my study. I lovingly showed favorite spider pictures and allowed myself to feel proud of a big personal evolution.  

Yet, that June night, things were not going according to the compassion-to-animals script.  I’ve described here the spider as ‘tiny’, but in the moment that wasn’t part of the tight unnerved loop circling through my brain. She’s so big she’s close to the bed she can jump what if I can’t catch her she could jump on my bed I want her gone.  

Clattering through drawer after drawer in a frenzy, I spied a small plastic orange urine-specimen cup left over from some past medical adventure. Using controlled motions that I willed into existence, I lowered the jar over the spider, taking good care not to press down on her legs with its rim. This small being didn’t deserve to be squished because of my agitation. 

The rescue to outdoors, helped along by my husband, went just fine. Really believing that the spider wanted to live allowed me to overcome all the unfair prejudices that had unexpectedly reasserted themselves in my head.  

Contesting invasive experimentation on animals in laboratories isn’t as simple as rescuing a spider, of course. Yet I’ve come to think it starts the same way, by seeing an individual who wants to live, and live safely. That makes it easier to overcome those assumptions we carry around in a culture dominated by human exceptionalism--- in this case, that animal models are necessary to do good science.  

Cornelius, a rhesus monkey known also as R10033, was born at the Wisconsin Primate Research Center 11 years ago. Housed in a laboratory cage, most often in solitary, Cornelius has shown signs of illness and depression while required to participate repeatedly in invasive experiments. I know something of his life thanks to undercover animal advocates’ work, but that’s only one reason Cornelius haunts me. His is a face I can now conjure, but most laboratory animals are hidden away and unknown. According to the Animal Alliance of Canada, over 4 million animals of various species are used annually for experimentation in Canada alone. Unsurprisingly, in the US the number is much larger, around 25 million vertebrate animals.   

What can we do? In Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, Alexis Pauline Gumbs writes movingly about sea mammals’ entanglement in industrial capitalism in ways that diminish all of us. She asks, ‘At least take a moment to imagine how you would move if we weren’t all  caught up in this.’  

Let us imagine, then, doing science in ways that are better for Cornelius and better for us. Cornelius wouldn’t be in a laboratory at all. And we’d have left behind an antiquated system that, as I’ve written in Animals’ Best Friends, fails to translate to meaningful help for human overwhelmingly often. Peer-reviewed analysis from 2015, for instance, concludes this about drug testing using animal models: 

In 2004, the FDA estimated that 92 percent of drugs that pass preclinical tests, including “pivotal” animal tests, fail to proceed to the market. More recent analysis suggests that, despite efforts to improve the predictability of animal testing, the failure rate has actually increased and is now closer to 96 percent

Individual resistance to this systemic failure adds up. Instead of accepting what we’ve too often absorbed through the skin in our culture--- that of course animals are necessary for good science--- we can think more critically. We might read the fine print in the methods section of science articles that excitedly report breakthroughs using animals, with a goal to grasp both what the animals endured and the limitations of those experiences for helping humans. We might educate ourselves about, and support the further development off, tools and techniques for leaving behind animal models. I’m particularly excited about organs-on-a-chip, the small fluid-filled devices that allow growing of human cells from organs like the lung, kidney, or stomach for direct experimentation.   

In moving from laboratories to slaughterhouses, let’s return to the site of my encounters with wolf spiders: the home. For animals like cows, pigs, chickens, goats, fish, and octopus who are labeled as food--- as if that labelling were entirely natural, somehow preordained by our evolution over the millennia---our homes may become primary sites for compassion. In preparing three meals and perhaps a snack or two each day, we may choose plant-based meals. As an anthropologist, I know that our large brains today owe their existence in part to meat-eating millennia ago in the evolving human lineage. But I also know that that fact doesn’t mean that we evolved to eat meat. We didn’t evolve to eat anything in particular; our lineage is not carnivorous but instead omnivorous and opportunistic, with individuals consuming whatever it made sense to eat at a particular time and place.  

In our particular time and place—Earth in the 21st century--- it makes sense to consume as little meat, seafood, and dairy as each of us can manage. I’m not suggesting veganism is desirable or attainable for all people, but rather that all significant efforts matter. For one thing, we recognize those cows, chickens, goats, fish, and octopus as fellow travelers in a world alive with thinking and feeling beings. For another, eating plants is the single best thing any of us can do on a daily basis to mitigate the accelerating effects of global warming.  

Through resisting cultural norms that for some of us are deeply ingrained and that hurt other animals, by acting in concert with the sure knowledge that other animals want to live, we help ourselves, too.   

Sometimes, it takes a spider to show us the way. 

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Barbara J. King is a biological anthropologist emerita at William & Mary and the author of seven books about animals including How Animals Grieve. Her latest, Animals' Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild, was published in March. Find her on Twitter @bjkingape

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