To this day, I’m not sure. As a child, I liked animals. Growing up, I loved playing with our family dog. I wasn’t particularly interested in science and didn’t even want to go to college. I was planning on making it big as a rock musician, but in 1966, when my band broke up and a college offered me a generous financial aid package, I found myself a depressed, bewildered freshman at a university. I wanted to study music, but without classical training, that door was closed.
At the end of freshman year, my roommate told me about a great psychology course he was taking where he studied B. F. Skinner’s experiments with rats and pigeons. I was amazed that someone was actually able to predict and control behavior. Why people behaved as they did had always been a mystery to me. So I decided to take the course.
I was fascinated by one class lab where we taught pigeons to peck at a colored disc for food. In my junior year, I attended a class in which the professor made a compelling argument for conducting animal research related to punishment. He promoted it as having the noble goal of finding ways to minimize the use of punishment in humans while maximizing its effect. When he announced he was looking for a student to work in his lab for class credit, I took the job.
First, I had to learn how to shock a pigeon. A graduate student demonstrated how one person held the pigeon upside down while the other plucked out the feathers in back of its legs, cut two lengths of stiff stainless steel wire from a spool and pushed them through the skin and under the pelvic bones. The wires were then soldered to a harness placed on the pigeon’s back. The harness contained a plug that would be connected to a source of electric shock during experiments. No anesthetic or sedative was used.
One day, while programming an experiment, I accidentally touched the electrodes and got a jolting shock that numbed my entire arm. I was amazed that, according to my professor, the shock level was the correct one to use for pigeons. I told myself that pigeons must not feel pain as much as I did.
The pigeons lived in individual wire cages about a cubic foot in volume, in a bleak, windowless cinder-block room. I was told that everyone had to take a turn killing the pigeons after the experiments were finished. A graduate student showed me how to dump a couple of dozen birds into a clear plastic garbage bag, then pour a splash of chloroform on them and tie the bag shut. I remember the first and only time I did the killing; I thought the birds on the bottom were already suffocating because they were completely buried in other birds.
In graduate school, and later as a research technician, I also conducted punishment experiments on rats. The rats were deprived of food or water for 23 hours each day so they would be motivated to press a lever or lick a tube to receive a small reward of food or water. After learning that behavior, they would be shocked through metal rods on the floor for pressing the lever or licking the tube. We were recording how much the pressing or licking was suppressed by the shock.
Each year dozens of animals would be brought into the lab to live their brief lives suffering deprivation and shocks before being killed. At least in graduate school and as a research technician I did not have to kill the animals. There was a full-time lab custodian who took care of that.
As I look back on this nearly 50 years later, I am astonished that the daily grind of depriving, shocking and killing these animals did not move me to leave my job. My rationalization is that I was a student and young worker in institutions of higher learning, programmed to receive the wisdom of academia. I was studying how the science that supposedly advanced our civilization was done. Speaking of his infamous experiments in which human subjects followed orders thinking they were giving extremely painful shocks to other humans, the Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram said, “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.” I think that describes me pretty well.
After a couple of years, I left my research technician job, not for ethical reasons, but simply because I became more interested in computer programming. I said goodbye to the lab, absconding with one of my lab coats as a souvenir.
It was almost 20 years later that I finally had my awakening, at a talk about factory farming given by the social activist John Robbins. That powerful talk made me realize that animals, like us, are sentient beings who have intelligence and experience fear and pain. I became a vegetarian. I also started thinking about what I had done to those animals in the labs.
I had pursued two careers in tandem since my teens; one to feed my body, the other to feed my soul. My soul career was creative: I began as a guitarist, then transitioned into photography, then into art. In 1996, I experienced an art epiphany that inspired me to start creating works dealing with social and ethical issues.
With my former life as an animal experimenter nagging at my conscience, I wanted to open people’s minds to the cruel reality of animal experimentation without using gory, repulsive images. I thought, what if I reverse the roles? What if we humans were the animals being experimented on?
My lab coat, weighing on my conscience as it hung in my closet, appeared in my mind as the clothing worn by an alien scientist from an advanced civilization who comes to apologize for abducting and using us as experimental animals. A new artwork, called “We Are Sorry,” began to take shape in my mind.
I sat with a small notepad writing the alien’s speech as my thoughts drifted back to my days in punishment research. The words flowed in almost final form as I drew on my own rationalizations for my acts of animal torture. Tears welled up in my eyes as I wrote: “We now recognize that you, too, are a sacred life-form. We deeply regret what we have done. We ask forgiveness. We are sorry.”