In the News: 2013

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Beast or Brother?

Date: 11/1/2013

Animals have complicated relationships with their human counterparts. Sometimes, they are treated as endeared companions that provide priceless emotional and physical support. Sometimes, they are test subjects for important research that helps save lives. In other settings, they become indentured servants, forms of entertainment or perhaps the evening meal. Whatever the arena — laboratory or factory farm, racetrack or home — how animals are used has turned into a growing source of controversy ... and a thorny moral dilemma.

In 1903, Thomas Edison famously challenged the safety of alternating current over his own invention of direct current by performing a simple experiment.

He electrocuted an elephant.

The bicycle-riding Topsy lived at the zoo on Coney Island and was on death row because she had crushed three handlers, including one who had tried to feed her a lit cigarette. Her owners wanted to publicly hang her, but that plan was thwarted by the objections of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). According to reports, Edison had already subjected stray cats and dogs as well as horses and even an orangutan to electrocution; Topsy was his coup d’état.

On the day of the execution, wooden sandals with copper electrodes were placed on the restrained elephant’s feet. While 1,500 spectators watched, a 6,600-volt AC charge coursed through Topsy’s body. The elephant toppled over in a haze of smoke and was killed within seconds, as footage Edison filmed starkly shows.

Nowadays, the macabre spectacle would no doubt raise a host of ethical questions. Did Topsy’s poor treatment by her keepers play a role in her seemingly brutish behavior? Was electrocution, used in human executions since the late 1880s, more humane than the proposed hanging? Should elephants be confined in zoos and circuses in the first place? And on and on.

“We’re dealing with a lot of controversial issues and strong feelings on both sides of the arguments,” says Dr. Donna Yarri, an associate professor of theology at Alvernia who has written extensively on animal ethics.

Whatever the arena — laboratory or factory farm, racetrack or home — how animals are used has become a growing source of controversy and moral concern. To get at some of the most pressing questions, Yarri created a new, thought-provoking course at Alvernia — “The Ethical Treatment of Animals: With a Gaze Toward the Animal.”

In the honors, seminar-style class developed with the backing of a faculty excellence grant, assumptions are challenged.

“What is it about animals that enables us to use them in a way we would not use humans?” Yarri asks her students. “Part of the enterprise of ethics is really to look at all sides of an issue. You need to understand the reasons for the positions people take.”

Should we eat animals? Should we keep them as pets? Should we use them in experiments?

>> Read the full story in Alvernia Magazine

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