An Omelas for animals in Berkeley

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“The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes — the child has no understanding of time or interval — sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, is there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make him stand up … The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good,” he says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer.

In 1973, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a story depicting a utopian society whose happiness is founded upon the misery of a single child locked away in a dark room. Three decades afterward, the tale eerily describes the situation at UC Berkeley.

Right now in Barker Hall, there is a child locked in a cage, either screaming to be freed or resigned to the anguish and loneliness she has endured for years. Just a few floors above, students learn her anatomy from a chart while researchers concoct drugs to pump into her blood and ultimately kill her.

The only difference between Berkeley and Omelas is that in Berkeley she is not a human but a mouse, and instead of a single child, there are more than 35,000 held underground — one suffering soul for every student. Like a human child, this mouse would like to build structures to play in, roam outside of her enclosure and socialize with friends. And recent research — which often distresses the animals — from the University of Chicago indicates that rats and mice feel empathy toward their own kin.

Administrators and officials would have you believe that these animals are cared for with the utmost respect. In February, when the USDA fined UC Berkeley for leaving five voles to starve and die of thirst, Roger Van Andel, director of the Office of Laboratory Animal Care, stated that “aggressive action” would be taken to assure that “this sort of thing could not occur again.”

One might wonder exactly what Van Andel meant with this statement. Even if UC Berkeley never violates the Animal Welfare Act again, will these animals ever be able to see the light of day or play with their friends? Will these mice, dogs, cats and monkeys ever be free of the captivity and death that animal research necessitates? Do not let them fool you — confining and hurting an individual against his will is never humane, nor will it ever be done with his welfare in mind.

Animal research, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. Violent practices toward animals do not solely exist in the domain of scary men in lab coats. If cutting open a poor animal’s stomach and using her body for a medical experiment is wrong, then cutting her throat and eating her body surely is as well — yet this is a practice that many of us engage in, if not actively support, on a daily basis.

Historically, philosophers such as Descartes justified these practices by asserting that animals are soulless automatons unable to feel pain, pleasure or anything at all. Yet in terms of ability to experience the complex interplay of thoughts and emotions that we enjoy, modern biologists are confident that dogs, cats, humans and rats are all on the same cognitive playing field.

This claim, while obvious to anyone who cares for a nonhuman companion, has some radical consequences for how humans must treat other living creatures. Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist, went as far to say that “In 100 or 200 years time, we may look back on the way we treated animals today as something like we today look back on the way our forefathers treated slaves.”

Dawkins is right: Animals that you and I would love if we knew them personally are systematically hurt in unimaginable ways. Try, for example, to imagine yourself as a sheep escaping a miserable transport truck only to find yourself trapped in a room, forced to watch your brothers and sisters be slaughtered while you wait your turn. Despite this dire situation, I do not believe, as Dawkins may believe, that it has to be this way for the next hundred years.

On Thursday, activists symbolically collapsed on the steps of the Valley Life Sciences Building and Sproul Hall to represent the mass killing for which UC Berkeley’s research arm is responsible. A few weeks ago, protesters demonstrated outside of the Telegraph Avenue Chipotle to dispel the myth of humane slaughter with the message, “It’s Not Food, It’s Violence.” These are signs of changing times: Grassroots animal rights activists all over the world are beginning to adopt a strong and confident message of species equality. And despite difference in appearance and ability, people are coming to recognize that we are all earthlings with the desire to live and be free.

For as Ursula K. Le Guin wrote of those who walk away from Omelas, “Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity … which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives.”

Brian Burns is an activist and organizer for Direct Action Everywhere, a grassroots animal rights network.