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The Veterinary School’s Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society is attempting to find common ground in the animal-welfare debate. Getting the Lion and the Lamb together was nothing in comparison.

By Susan Lonkevich | Illustration by Noah Woods

Sidebar | Other-Worldly Companions

A California philanthropist mourning his dead miniature schnauzer creates a multimillion-dollar foundation to fund “no-kill” animal shelters around the country. He is criticized for lavishing his wealth on needy pets instead of needy people.
    Just in time for spring break, an animal-rights group targets college students with a “Got Beer?” ad campaign. It suggests that consumers would be healthier, not to mention kinder to cows, if they drank cholesterol-free beer instead of milk. Under pressure from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the group distills the alcohol out of its message, but continues to link dairy products to cancer, heart disease and other ills. 
    Few topics stir up more public interest, emotion and debate today than humans’ interactions with and use of animals. But what’s often missing from the headlines, attention-grabbing gestures and policy-making is the exchange of unbiased, scientific data, observes Dr. James Serpell, the Marie A. Moore Associate Professor of Humane Ethics and Animal Welfare at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine. In an attempt to fill that void, Serpell has reestablished a 21-year-old academic center on campus and committed it to studying the impact and ethics of human-animal relations—minus the hyperbole. 
    A browse through recent news stories —about tofu pies tossed at fur-draped runway models, a man jailed for refusing to give up his illegally kept ferret after it allegedly bit a child at a pro-ferret rally, and a clerical leader associating vegetarians with the Antichrist—would seem to indicate that the director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society (CIAS) has a formidable task ahead. 
    “There are a lot of people who are quite entrenched” on either side of the animal-welfare issue, admits Serpell, a soft-spoken Englishman who is not too serious-minded to keep a Far Side coffee mug stamped with anthropomorphic cows on his office desk. But he believes that society will ultimately call the shots—and that it is inching toward the left in its concern for the environment and, consequently, the treatment of animals.
    “I see my goal here as a kind of facilitator of that process,” says Serpell, who for the record, is not a vegetarian, though he does limit his consumption of animal products. “I’m not trying to slash through cherished icons or beliefs, but rather to kind of set up a dialogue, bring different parties together to talk about the research and have things on a fairly scholarly basis, so it doesn’t just end up in polemics.”
    To that end, CIAS has hosted seven interdisciplinary conferences on campus since 1997, using a grant from the provost’s office, and is engaged in several research projects. Its long-range goals include starting a graduate program on animal welfare and human-animal interactions at Penn’s Vet School, creating a clearinghouse for information on alternatives to animal research, establishing a program to improve the treatment of farm animals and studying both the positive and negative effects of pet-keeping on companion animals as well as humans.
    Whether any of these goals is realized, however, depends critically on Serpell securing permanent funding for the project. For the time being, Serpell is the Center (he has one post-doctoral assistant), although a number of colleagues at Penn have been helpful to the organization. “I find it difficult to formally affiliate people without knowing that the Center has a future,” he explains.

Animal Magnetism

Currently occupying Serpell’s West Philadelphia home are a cat named Maddie, an iguana named Lagarto and assorted fish. As of early March, there was also an unnamed but incredibly long-lived walking-stick insect—the second-generation descendant of a creature found by his son two years ago—hibernating discreetly inside the family fridge. “There’s nothing to feed it in the winter,” Serpell explains dryly. “As soon as some leaves appear on the trees, we’ll bring it out again and, hopefully, revive it.” 
    It should come as no surprise that this pet-tolerant parent collected all kinds of creatures when he was young. “My parents said [that] from the moment I could move, I was focused on animals. The house was constantly full of my animals. Lots of very unwelcome animals, like snakes and lizards and stuff.” Serpell assembled his earliest menagerie in Washington, D.C., where his father worked for the BBC, but moved back to England with his family when he was eight. He went on to earn his master’s degree in zoology and his Ph.D. in animal behavior at Liverpool University, specializing in the colorful displays of Australian birds called lorikeets, before taking a post-doctoral position at Cambridge and opening an animal-behavior clinic there. 
   As a young researcher, he says, “I started to think more about the role of companion animals in my life and in other people’s lives,” and began to wonder, “‘What in the world are we keeping them for?’” Unlike farm or lab animals, pets fulfill no overtly useful function. 
    When Serpell tried to peruse the available literature on the subject, he discovered there wasn’t any. “Given that this was 1979 and the number of pets that were out there,” he recalls, “it just struck me as astonishing that the social sciences and psychology had really never addressed this issue.” A few pioneers in psychotherapy “would notice that they could get access to their clients’ inner feelings better if there was an animal in the room, and things like that.” Serpell obtained a small grant and set to work. (He would significantly supplement the literature in 1986 with In the Company of Animals: A Study of Human-Animal Relationships, updated in 1996.)
    At the same time, a small circle of scientists, “maybe a dozen people around the world,” were becoming interested in this field from different perspectives. One of them was Dr. Alan Beck, an animal ecologist who had been working for New York City’s health department, “looking for the most part at the bad things that animals do for people—bites, rabies and so on.” Beck, who is now the Dorothy N. McAllister Professor of Animal Ecology at Purdue University, says he met former Vet School dean and emeritus professor Dr. Robert Marshak at a meeting and was encouraged to get involved with a new program at Penn—“the first of its kind,” examining all facets of the human-animal bond. The Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society was funded by the Dodge Foundation in 1979; Beck became its first director.
    For a time, the Center was very active, bringing in a social worker to help grieving pet-owners and starting an animal-behavior clinic. Dr. Aaron Katcher M’56, an emeritus professor of psychology at Penn’s School of Dental Medicine, contributed significant research on the health benefits derived from companion animals, demonstrating in one study that the mortality rate among coronary patients who owned pets was much lower than it was among those who did not. Then, in 1989, Beck left Penn to become director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue. The other members of CIAS scattered as well, leaving the program dormant for nearly a decade.
    Serpell came to Penn’s Vet School in 1993 to fill a newly endowed chair in animal welfare. At the time, he says, he was advised not to try to revive the Center until his position was secure. “When I got tenure, I decided to regenerate the Center and give it a slightly different focus, more of an animal-welfare focus,” which, he notes, is “in tune with the direction the whole society is going in.”
    Even as animal-welfare issues move closer to the forefront, however, they continue to be polarized. At the heart of the problem, believes Phil Arkow C’69, an animal-welfare advocate who chairs a Philadelphia foundation concerned with the links between animal abuse and family violence and who spoke at one CIAS conference, is the fact that, “People who work with animals for profit aren’t speaking the same language as the emotionally based animal-rights advocates.” He believes that as they have become more successful, some in the animal-rights community have grown more strident, and in response, their opponents have dug in their heels. “We need those extremists to raise the level of public awareness, but we also need mainstream centrist groups to bring reason and research into the fray. What [CIAS] can do, and is doing,” says Arkow, “is to bring that reason and research component in to help quantify a lot of these issues. We tend to focus on anecdotes and intuition when what we really need are hard numbers.”
    Dr. Andrew Rowan, senior vice president for research and education of the Humane Society of the United States, characterizes the factions this way: “The animal industry has been intent on emphasizing the misanthropic, violent tendencies in the animal-protection movement, and the animal-protection movement has been intent on emphasizing the nasty, sadistic behaviors and activities that go on in the industry. So you have, in a sense, caricatures of both sides built up in the policy debate [instead of attempts at] understanding what either community is about.”
    Serpell approaches his potential role as a broker in the fray with due caution. “Somebody in my position treads a very difficult path,” he explains. “If I’m seen as an advocate, I lose credibility in my scholarship and my academic standing. If I do nothing in terms of advocacy, then I’m viewed as kind of a pillar of the establishment, and animal-protection [groups] don’t have any respect for me.”
    “We hope it’s not the kiss of death, but we admire him greatly,” says Mary Beth Sweeten, director of research and investigations at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the group that sponsored the aborted Beer vs. Milk campaign. “The few times I have dealt with Dr. Serpell, he has reminded me of George Bernard Shaw,” the playwright known, among other things, for his commentaries on vivisection and vegetarianism. “He’s thoughtful, highly intelligent, and that what’s we need to put the message forward to people who might otherwise never think of the inherent worthiness of species other than humans.”
    Though PETA is better known for its publicity stunts than its position papers, Sweeten doesn’t bristle at Serpell’s criticisms of the hyperbole emanating from the animal-rights debates. “People would like to think that animal-protection organizations exaggerate, because it’s more comfortable to think that way. But when you look at the documentation that we obtain from factory farms and puppy mills and laboratories, there is no denying that there are serious problems, [and cases of] outright animal cruelty.
    “Getting the truth out,” she adds, sometimes requires “a bit more confrontation or theatrical tactics, such as the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile being accosted by a costumed pig. We’re trying to speak to society as a whole. Dr. Serpell is likely to succeed where we may fall short—that is, with people [in the industry] who don’t see him as a threat to their livelihood.”
    The CIAS conferences at Penn feature no porcine protests or shouting matches, just a gentle reminder from Serpell to stay civilized even if you “disagree radically with the speaker.” At previous events, members of Penn’s Center for Bioethics have pondered the propriety of cloning Fido or Fluffy [“Gazetteer,” April ’98]; a science historian has traced the marketing of the dolphin into “Hollywood star”; and an English professor has mused over the depiction of canines in Wuthering Heights. A veterinarian has even theorized that aggressive behavior in some male dogs may coincide with female owners’ menstrual periods. But the forums have generally centered on broader themes of concern to Serpell, including the training of and research on animals; the use of animals for food; and the practice of pet-keeping.

Dangling the Carrot

    How do you train excitable animals like antelope to stand still for veterinary procedures? To Dr. Temple Grandin, a University of Colorado scientist, the solution turned out to be carrots and yams, which she calls the antelope equivalent of “cake and ice-cream.” 
    Grandin told the audience at the March CIAS conference on “New Directions in Animal Training, Handling and Restraint” how she and her colleagues habituated antelope and bison to being handled—an experience which ordinarily could send the flighty animals crashing into fences and snapping off horns.
    Over a period of 97 to 118 days, the antelope were conditioned to walk into a wood crate and eat treats dispensed from a rudimentary “candy machine” while blood was drawn from their hind legs. The process required subtle steps, like sliding the crate door open a few centimeters more each day. “These are not animals you can force,” she explained. “They just panic.” Because studies show that fear memories are not erasable, “It’s important to make sure the first set of experiences is good.” 
    Grandin, who appeared to be dressed more for a roundup than a research exchange in black, Western-style gear, is best known for helping transform the cattle industry with her pragmatic alternatives to stressful slaughtering and handling techniques. Approximately half of the beef cattle now killed in the United States go through one of the humane systems she has designed, saving the industry money in the process, because animals that don’t stress out are less likely to produce bruised meat. 
    One of the sources of her well-respected insight is the autism she has had since birth. As Grandin once explained to The New York Times: “I think in pictures like an animal. My nervous system is more like an animal’s. The sounds that bother me are the same sounds that bother an animal. My emotions are simple—and the main one is fear.”
    Fear in animals can be measured in the stress hormone cortisol. The antelope and bison which had been habituated through Grandin’s method had very low levels of it in their blood. 
    The use of animals in scientific research was the topic of one of the earliest CIAS conferences, in March 1998, and continues to be a target of animal-protection groups. With the implementation of stricter federal rules for animal-research oversight in 1985, lab-animal welfare has greatly improved, Serpell observes. Though it’s not his goal to end the use of animals in research, he would like to discontinue dissection in science classes, which, in his view, “tends to engender in young people a kind of utilitarian view of animals as expendable things.”
    Dr. Harry Rozmiarek, professor and chief of laboratory animal medicine who as the University’s veterinarian is responsible for the welfare of animals used on campus, doubts it’s possible to eliminate animal experimentation. “Research depends critically and constantly on animals as research subjects,” he says, and animals benefit as well. “Transplantation medicine is now used in animal medicine. Fifty years ago you wouldn’t have heard of an animal receiving hip replacements or kidney transplants.” While alternatives are constantly being discovered, Rozmiarek, who also serves on the board of directors of Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research, says, “There isn’t a good alternative to the mammalian system to study mammalian questions.” Instead, he says, the thrust must be on animal welfare, including pain prevention. “Never should an animal suffer.”

Serpell finds much greater room for improvement within food-animal husbandry, the focus of a CIAS conference last fall. Ethicists and scientists considered the effects of the transformation of the small family farm into large production facilities, not just on domesticated animals but on the environment and social fabric of a community. Back in his office a few weeks later, Serpell underscored the need to replace rhetoric with research. Studies have shown, for example, that some conditions criticized by animal-rights groups are “are actually not bad from the animal’s perspective,” he says, while other practices are inhumane and must be changed.
    John Blatt, a lifelong chicken farmer outside Reading, Pennsylvania, is amiably taking a few moments one late winter morning to do something that his father would never have done: talk to the media. It’s one of his duties as president of the Berks County Farm Bureau. “I feel if we’re not active in government or other organizations,” he explains, “they’re going to do it to us rather than do it for us.”
    Blatt says he couldswitch to agricultural practices that are typical in Europe, such as raising chickens out of the cage—if consumers are willing to pay for it. “If we’re going to raise free-range poultry it’s going to cost considerably more than it does today,” he warns. “I would say somewhere around 20 percent more. If we’re going to talk to the animal-welfare people,” he adds, “we have to include the processors in there and the producers. If it’s going to increase costs, somehow we have to be compensated.”
    Though he’s familiar with many of the criticisms leveled at the livestock industry today, Blatt insists that the reality differs from the harsh picture that’s been painted. “If our animals are not happy in their environment, they’re not going to be profitable for us.” While some farms are poorly managed, “under average-to-above-average circumstances, the animals are very happy. Our hens are singing every morning.”
    Miles away, in Kansas City, Missouri, Dr. Temple Grandin is calling from a hotel room before she heads to a local feed lot where she will demonstrate “quiet, gentle” handling techniques on some 200 head of cattle. When she’s not lecturing at places like Penn, Grandin is out visiting stockyards and slaughtering plants, where she picks up on jangling chains, ominous shadows and high-pitched noises that could stress out animals. She’s even been known to rip an electric cattle prod out of a worker’s hands if it’s being misused.
    The industry listens to her, she says, because, “I tell the absolute truth. I don’t exaggerate. I tell where it’s good and where it’s bad.” It’s those who don’t venture from their offices, she believes, “who have the most extreme views.” Last year, for instance, she worked with McDonald’s on an audit of conditions in the slaughterhouses which supply its beef, and was heartened by the improvements she saw.
    “When you get out in the field, you learn that every pig farm is not a torture chamber.” On the other hand, Grandin is quick to note, some huge problems remain, such as dairy cows being rushed into production, pregnant sows kept in pens too small to turn around in, and animals bred for certain traits that are left with weak bones or frail feathers. 
    Grandin believes there is a place for academic centers like Serpell’s in the mission to improve farm-animal welfare. But to be truly effective, she argues, they must communicate directly with the industry and publish in magazines like National Hog Farmer and Pigs Today in addition to the academic journals. “There’s a big gap between the academic and practical world.”
    Neither Grandin nor Serpell sees anything wrong with humans using animals for food. After all, Serpell notes, animals in the wild do the same. What does bother him are high-volume production methods introduced over the past several decades to satisfy consumers’ demands for, say, cheap chicken or pork. “The low cost of meat reflects how little these animals are valued, in my mind.” In contrast, the hunting practices of our early ancestors reflected a much different attitude.

Bringing Home the Bacon, B.C.

    Imagine you are an Ice-Age hunter trudging out of your cave in search of dinner. In order to not starve, you must devise a reliable system of tracking down your prey. As Serpell explains, you would have to “get inside their heads” to guess how an animal would behave in a certain situation.
    This intense level of identification, notes Serpell, “had an interesting side effect, which was to make hunters feel very guilty about killing them. It’s hard to find a hunter-gatherer group that does not regard the business of hunting and killing animals with a great deal of ambivalence and superstition.” These societies developed elaborate rituals for hunting and making use of every morsel, lest the guardian spirits of the animals take offense and seek retribution.
    For a vast part of the world, this attitude began to change about 10,000 years ago with plant- and animal-domestication. “It created a sort of hierarchical relationship, with humans in a superior position controlling the animals,” Serpell says. And so, “humans became separate from nature.”
    Serpell believes the rise in pet-keeping over the centuries has chipped away at this divide. “If you live with animals as social companions, it makes it hard to think about humans as being somehow very separate and unique.”
    Of course, pet-keeping has drawn tremendous opposition at various points in history, with some owners, often lonely older women, accused of engaging in bestiality or witchcraft. “It was seen as morally dubious,” says Serpell, who has extensively researched the notion of the witch’s familiar in early modern England. (See box.) “There’s a little hint of that sometimes even now. Many people would say, ‘Well it’s okay to have a dog, but to spend $20,000 on a hip replacement is outrageous.’ If you analyze the value of that animal for that person, it’s not at all peculiar; it’s perfectly reasonable.”

Pet Theories

    Today pets have moved very much into the mainstream, and a multi-billion dollar industry has grown around supplying them with food, medical treatment, toys, grooming and even daycare. 
    “There are more homes in America today that have pets than have children,” notes Arkow, the animal-welfare advocate. “We spend more money on pet food than we do on baby food.” Arkow, who writes and lectures about the growing field of pet therapy, describes “a tremendous change” in recent decades among the public and human-services professionals “who recognize the human-health benefit that pets bring into an increasingly urbanized society.” Pet therapy has expanded to include programs for all kinds of people, from troubled adolescents to Alzheimer’s patients. Unfortunately, he says, “there are still no third-party payments for it.”
    Much remains to be studied about the use of companion animals both for social therapy and for assisting persons with physical disabilities, Serpell says. Beyond the warm and fuzzy televised depictions of loyal guide dogs, little research has been done about how these practices affect the animals.
    Dr. Raymond Coppinger, co-author of a paper Serpell has written about this topic, got his students at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., to don the harnesses that service dogs wear and perform typical tasks, such as opening doors with their teeth and pulling wheelchairs. They also used machines to measure the force required. “A lot of these jobs come very close to the absolute limit of what the animals are physically capable of doing,” Serpell says. “Sometimes they exceed this limit.” A wheelchair, for instance, is not designed to be pulled, and dogs that do this must walk at an awkward angle. “So why don’t we design equipment that is right for a dog?”
    Serpell and his assistant, Dr. Yuying Hsu, are trying to tackle another troubling aspect of pet-keeping by determining the links between traumatic early experiences and adult behavior problems that cause so many unwanted dogs to be euthanized. They’re giving owners diaries to track the daily lives of young puppies. Though the study is unfinished, earlier research of Serpell’s indicates “a very strong association” between an early bout of diarrhea and “a whole slew of adult behavior problems.” The timing or circumstances of the first vet visit and shots may also play a role.

Feeling Their Pain

    Since CIAS was founded two decades ago, a half-dozen or so centers devoted to human-animal interactions have cropped up at universities across the country. But the amount of research being funded to study animal welfare is still small in the United States compared to Canada, England and other parts of Europe, Serpell points out. Ultimately, he would like to create a graduate program to focus on these issues at Penn. 
    Considering that the schedule of a veterinary-school student is typically packed with basic science and clinical medicine, Serpell and CIAS already “bring a perspective that I think is very important for our students and faculty to be exposed to,” says Rozmiarek, the University’s veterinarian. “Hopefully, through the meetings and communications that [Serpell] is doing, we can get faculty and students to think more constantly about animal welfare and well-being.” 
    Despite increased popular interest in human-animal relations (as witnessed by such TV networks as Animal Planet), Serpell still sees “a colossal discrepancy in how we treat different classes of animals. It’s unfortunate, because you see how much people can value their companion animals, but somehow they don’t seem to be able to generalize beyond that,” he says. “My feeling is that because we are rather unique as a species in our self-awareness of our ability to suffer and feel pain, and our ability to empathize with others and their suffering, we can also do this with animals.” 
    So we feel—or, in Serpell’s view, should feel—empathy and a moral obligation to ensure the welfare of animals, whether they exist in the wild, on the farm, or in our homes. But what do animals feel toward us—especially the ones that claim our greatest affections? Maybe a pet walking stick or an iguana isn’t capable of mustering a sense of loyalty or love. But how about a dog or a cat?
    Serpell doesn’t know the answer. “Some say that companion animals are just social parasites, subverting our emotions and tricking us into thinking that they love us” to get food and the protection of a pack, he says. “I’m really not sure that’s true. One of the things we’ve clearly done to dogs, for instance, is breed for juvenile types of social behavior. A dog responds to its owner very much the way it responds to its parents. What they show to us is very typical of dependent attachment behavior. I don’t think there is anything particularly subversive or Machiavellian about it.”
    Besides, he says, “The concept of ‘parasitism’ is misleading, because it involves a parasite benefiting at the expense of the host. I think people gain a lot of benefit from animal companions—not the kind of benefit that can be easily measured, any more than you can put a price on the value of friendship. But they’re a very important part of our lives.”


A cat named Pusse. A dog called Tibb. A mouse by the name of Daynty. These were not merely the house-companions of eccentric old women. According to suspicious-minded Englishmen of the 17th century, they were the devil’s agents. Curious about the origins of the “Halloween cat,” Dr. James Serpell, director of Penn’s Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society, began researching the history of the “witch’s familiar;” he compiled a database on the use of animals as evidence in more than 300 English witchcraft trials from 1530 to 1712. He writes about his findings in a paper entitled “Guardian Spirits or Demonic Pets: The Concept of the Witch’s Familiar in Early Modern England.”
    “These animals were known as imps, which literally means an offshoot,” Serpell explains. “They were grafted onto the witch by the devil. They could detach themselves and do bad things on the witch’s behalf. You know, go next door and smother the neighbors’ child, stop the farmer’s cow from producing milk.”
    Most frequently cited were mice, cats, dogs and toads. But ferrets, snails and even beetles were implicated. That was due to the practice of assigning watchers to peer at the accused through a spy hole day and night. “Sure enough, a beetle would crawl across the floor toward them, and they would go, ‘Aha, a familiar!’” The familiar supposedly fed off this witch, “who had a supernumerary nipple somewhere on her body.” As Serpell writes, “This image of the post-menopausal crone giving suck to her demonic animal companion—this grotesque mixing of animal and human categories, reproductive roles, and body fluids—was virtually tailor-made to provoke horror, revulsion and sanctimonious outrage in the puritanical minds of early modern Englishmen.” Interestingly, farm animals were seldom named as familiars—probably, Serpell surmises, because most everyone in then-pastoral England would have been incriminated.
    Even the aristocracy couldn’t escape suspicion. A case in point is Charles I’s nephew, Prince Rupert, whose poodle accompanied him everywhere, even to battle. Puritans who were trying to overthrow the Catholic monarchy circulated the rumor that the poodle, Boye, was a “familiar” which kept Rupert from harm. When Boye was killed at Marston Moor, it only confirmed their suspicions. “Henceforth, the tide of the war turned against the Royalists and we all know the end. The Puritans won and got rid of the monarchy for a while.”

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