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Well into the 1980s, doctors would perform open-heart surgery on infants without giving them pain-relieving drugs. This is hard to believe: By the standards of contemporary medicine, not to mention common sense, the practice is akin to torture. Yet then-conventional wisdom held that babies did not feel pain, at least not in any meaningful way. Their brains and nervous systems were considered undeveloped. And regardless of what they felt, they wouldn’t remember it.

One can read about this in Science and Ethics, written in 2006 by Bernard Rollin, an iconoclastic philosopher who died in November at age 78. When I read of his passing, I recalled a conversation we had several years ago. Rollin, who devoted much of his life to speaking for the voiceless, was still enraged at what happened to those babies. He might have made the point that knowledge changes, sometimes profoundly, and that one era’s objective truth may be revealed, by the light of another era, as a fallacy held together by thoughtless habit. The exact word he used was “mindfuck.”

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The Horse Before Descartes: Bernard Rollin reformed veterinary teaching and helped draft legislation requiring the use of pain-alleviating drugs for animals used in medical research.Colorado State University

Our interview, as it happened, was not about neonatal medicine, but about the ethics of research on animals. Rollin had arrived at Colorado State University in 1969, a long-haired, motorcycle-riding, Brooklyn-born and Columbia University-trained philosopher. A decade later he was asked to teach the school’s first veterinary ethics class. It was the first such class anywhere, and Rollin went on to become a pioneer in the modern animal rights movement, arguing in 1981’s Animal Rights and Human Morality that animals have a right to moral consideration—a position that, then as now, is not universally accepted. It was the first of some 22 books and 800 scholarly articles, though Rollin was more than just an academic.

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At a time when “the failure to control pain in animals was ubiquitous in veterinary medicine and research,” as he wrote in Putting the Horse Before Descartes: My Life’s Work on Behalf of Animals, Rollin helped draft federal legislation requiring the use of pain-alleviating drugs for animals used in medical research. He reformed veterinary teaching at his own school, served on national committees, and met with farmers, ranchers, and scientists, trying to convince them that, far from being radical, his values dovetailed with their own.

Our conversation was prompted by a research project on which I’m collaborating with the human-animal studies scholar Elizabeth Tavella to study so-called fistulated cows: cows into whose sides holes are cut that give scientists and veterinarians access to the contents of their stomachs. Often they don’t receive pain relief. From there, Rollin and I went on to talk about animal husbandry, vet schools, and the cowboys and ranchers he had come—improbably, but Rollin delighted in defying stereotypes—to admire.

I was shocked to learn that cows having portholes cut into their stomachs don’t routinely receive analgesia.1

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For a long time they didn’t use any anesthesia, either. They used what the vets savagely called brutocaine: brute force. To be fair, there are vets who will insist on using post-surgery analgesia for procedures like dehorning, castration, and so forth.

Post-procedural analgesics are routine in human medicine. It would be malpractice if someone didn’t give you analgesics unless you requested otherwise. Yet for 40 years they did open-heart surgery in newborn babies without analgesia. It was based on some bullshit anatomy from 19th-century Germany that said infants didn’t feel pain. The nurses said, “Bullshit.”

I got involved in it with the American Pain Society and blasted the shit out of them. That’s me. I don’t care. I’ve made a lot of enemies in my lifetime—and if I hadn’t made enemies, I wouldn’t have accomplished what I did.

Such as?

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I made the federal law that you have to use an analgesic if you hurt an animal. It went out under the name of Bob Dole, which you wouldn’t expect. I said, “Dole, what’s your interest in this?” He said, “It doesn’t win me votes in Kansas—but it’s the right thing to do.” So it passed.

When I started teaching veterinary ethics in the vet school, I had some students come and tell me, “We start surgery in a couple weeks. It’s a three-week block.” I said, “Cool.” They said, “Not cool. They give us a dog from the pound and we have to do nine procedures in three weeks.” I said, “What do they use to control the pain?” They said, “We don’t think they use anything.”

I could tolerate being a range cow because they live in the conditions for which they are evolved.

I went over there. It was a scene out of Hieronymus Bosch. Animals whining and crying. I went over to the Dean and read them the riot act. In those days I could bench 500 pounds and I’m an angry New Yorker. We got them stopped. Nine procedures on the same animal. It’s inconceivable, isn’t it?

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While I was involved in writing that legislation, I also edited a two-volume book on animal research2 decrying that crap. It’s not 100 percent better now, but it’s better. Those rules typically don’t apply to animals unless they’re being used for biomedical research, though. If they’re being used in [agricultural] production research, they’re not always held to that. The big campaign I’m on now is to get pain relief used routinely.

Why is there a different standard for animals used in agriculture?

Some of it is tradition. Tough guy shit. Cowboys, in my experience, are the most husbandry-oriented of agriculturalists, but they have a split brain with the macho shit. Hence the rodeo. You go to a ranch and get a job as a cowhand and rope a calf the way they do at the rodeo, and they’ll throw you out in a minute.

My friend runs the National Western Stock Show in Denver. He’s said in front of the rodeo managers, “My daddy raised me to respect the livestock—and the way we rope them is not respectful.” People are very complex.

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Earlier you told me, “I was a big radical when I suggested that cows be given pain relief.” Are you talking about animals in serious pain?

Yes we are. They cut the tails of cows off with garden shears. The reason being that milkers don’t want to be painted with shit—so they lop them off. By the way, the tail is an extension of the spine. It’s not like cutting a nail. And one of the things people don’t know is that cows use their tails to communicate with each other.

In many cases tail docking isn’t even done by a vet. Not that it matters—brutality is brutality. There’s been a campaign against tail docking. My position is that if you don’t want to be plastered with shit, don’t be a milker. We went after it in Colorado. We put so much pressure on the dairy industry that to belong to their association you couldn’t be docking tails. But it took 20 years, because that’s how they are.

People are beyond belief. When I was fighting with the American Pain Society about anesthesia for babies, their guy said to me, “Weren’t you circumcised? Do you remember it?” I said, “No, I don’t.” He said, “Then it doesn’t matter.” I said, “That’s a stupid position. Follow them through life.” And—lo and behold—people who got open-heart surgery without anesthesia had a far greater tendency to develop chronic pain later in life.

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It was a scene out of Hieronymus Bosch. Animals crying. I went over to the Dean and read them the riot act.

Can animal production be done in a good way?

Sure. We did it for 10,000 years. It was called good husbandry. As it says in the Bible, you take the animals, put them in an optimal environment, feed them when there’s famine, water them when there’s drought, give them what help in birthing that you can give. If the animal is hurt, you hurt. This was a big deal for the Church. There were lots of sermons on husbandry. God is to us as we are to the animals.

My position is that you do what’s right by the animals. And if the meat costs more, tough shit. Don’t eat meat. Chicken, when I was a kid, was the luxury item. And now chicken is the cheapest meat of all. Why? Because we produce billions of them who are freaks. Turkeys can’t even breed naturally. We built them into something with so large a breast that they can’t copulate.

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They’re not built to live.

Exactly right. And dairy cows used to live for 15 years and keep producing milk for a family. They had names and were treated like somewhere along the line of companion animals. Old Bessie, that sort of thing. Now the average cow lives probably four years. Two lactations. It’s greed.

Is there a way to produce milk without taking baby cows away from their mothers?

There’s definitely a way—but it’s more expensive. God forbid it’s more expensive. To me, your fixed costs should include respect for the animal’s well-being. And if the product ends up being expensive, so be it. You don’t do it on the back of the animals. It’s jarring, because they’re so damn vulnerable.

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20% Chance of Flurries: This statute at Colorado State University, where Rollin taught for half a century, shows a cowboy saving a calf, an image Rollin loved.Photo by Jimmy Emerson / Flickr

Sometimes it seems to me that farmed animals, even those raised and slaughtered in “humane” ways, live in something close to hell. We’d never subject our pets—much less ourselves—to such a life.

It depends on which animals you’re talking about. I could tolerate being a range cow because they live in the conditions for which they are evolved. Those range cows have a life that is pretty much dictated by their biological and psychological nature. Their telos. That’s very different from how pigs are treated. A cow on a ranch is not that different in its life from what it was 100 or 200 years ago.

There’s a statute in front of the agricultural building at Colorado State University called 20% Chance of Flurries. It shows a cowboy surrounded by snow, the wind blowing his duster, and across his saddlehorn is a four-week-old calf. He’s gone out to retrieve the calf. I’ve been there. I’ve been in those conditions to retrieve a calf. And God forbid the horse throws you or goes lame. You’re in deep shit.

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Have you been in a blizzard in the West? We’re 40 miles from Cheyenne, Wyoming, and damn near every year you get these ground blizzards, snow driven by wind, and people pull off the highway and can’t see anything and make the mistake of getting out of their car. They can’t find their car again. Imagine going out on a horse in that. Yet that’s husbandry. That’s why the statue is up. Ask any of my rancher friends whether they’d go out to retrieve a calf and they look at you like you’re crazy. They’d say, “Of course.”

I don’t tend to think of cowboys and ranchers as being too friendly to animal rights activists. How do you do what you do, living where you live?

I started a course on animal welfare. The ranch kids were very congenial. They are taught the ethic of husbandry. We can argue about things like rodeo, and we do, but I’m a good enough teacher and dialectician that I get them to see it in their terms.

One of my students became the first beef extension agent in a place called Kiowa. It’s as redneck as it sounds. She invited me to talk to the ranchers. I said, “Did they invite me, or did you?” She said, “It’s the same thing.” I rode in at 6 p.m. The talk was at 7 p.m. There was a cop on the street. I asked him where to go. He pulled off his sunglasses and said, “Are you the speaker? The animal rights feller?”

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It was 160 ranchers and their wives. My student introduced me as the guy who teaches animal rights at the vet school. They proceeded to stomp their feet and boo and hiss for 90 seconds. I thought they would be cold, but this was active hostility. I said, “Have you read my stuff? Hell no! Have you heard me speak? Hell no! So you can’t know me. I think you’re looking up here, and you see this hippie Jew bastard commie, and that’s why you’re booing.” They applauded. I said, “In that case, it’s not professional, it’s personal. I’ll take you out one at a time and kick your ass.”

I worked for 10 years at Coney Island, which was a terrible place in the 1960s. I didn’t take shit. I’m ugly enough that it doesn’t matter if they mess up my face. There was a guy in the front row and I said, “How about you, fatso? You better kill me, because I’ll rip your head off and shit in your neck.” You could sell the silence. The Colorado silence.

So now I’m back on autopilot. “Do you guys believe in right and wrong?” I asked. “Hell yes,” they said. “Would you do anything to an animal to increase profit? Torture one with hot needles?” “No,” they said. So I said, “We’re just talking about price.” We went on for five hours. Afterward four or five followed me to my car and apologized. And that’s the ethic you get from cowboys, mostly. They’re very honest. They’re straight shooters. They know bullshit. And they appreciated that I didn’t bullshit them.

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Brandon Keim (Twitter / Instagram) is a science and nature journalist. He is presently working on Meet the Neighbors, a book about what understanding animals as fellow persons means for human relations to wild animals and to nature.

Lead image: Nacho Moran / Shutterstock


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1. Newby, N.C., et al. An investigation of the effects of ketoprofen following rumen fistulation surgery in lactating dairy cows. The Canadian Veterinary Journal 55, 442-448 (2014).

2. Rollin, B.E. & Kesel, M.L. The Experimental Animal in Biomedical Research CRC-Press, Boca Raton, FL (1990).

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