The students were looking forward to my visit, the teacher revealed before their arrival in the classroom. They’d been studying the use of animals in cosmetics testing and education when she initially contacted me to ask about a guest speaker.
As a former teacher myself–and one who’s spent some time with 8th graders–I had judiciously inquired about the use of graphic images. The shocking side of animal testing for cosmetic use and vivisection can be too upsetting and graphic for this student group, she told me, mentioning their empathic natures. By the time of my visit, she explained, they’d have some idea about what goes on in laboratories anyhow. She asked if I could talk about how to change laws and educate others, what people are doing for animals, why we should care, and how students can take action if so inclined.
She ended with this: “I think it’s so important for the students to see and speak with local people who are working diligently for a cause that speaks to them: of course this is the bedrock for a functioning democracy.”
You gotta love that! I pulled together a 26-slide PowerPoint and then faced the usual challenge: fitting everything into a 50-60 minute period. When all was said and done, another 15-20 minutes would have been nice, but the message about animals, activism, and personal commitment had been conveyed, and the kids left the classroom in a shower of smiles and thank yous. Here’s the nutshell version of the program.
Are animals conscious?
I asked them what it means to be conscious, and they nailed it. Are animals conscious? The reply was an unequivocal yes. We looked back nearly 400 years to the time of Rene Descartes‘ influence (“the father of modern philosophy,” 1596-1650), when animals were considered nothing more than organic machines lacking consciousness and were, therefore, lacking the ability to experience pain and suffering. (Contemplating the horrific excesses of vivisection in those days makes for a gruesome exercise, indeed.) I wanted them to understand the thinking and beliefs that grew out of that dark history, some of which linger on in speciesist attitudes about nonhuman animal pain–that it’s not the “equivalent” of human pain (“sure, they feel pain, but not like WE do…”)–as if this might somehow matter.
I mentioned that sentient beings–all of us–value our lives and have an interest in living. At this point, photos of the four most commonly-used sentient nonhumans (rats, mice, guinea pigs, and rabbits) appeared. This was juxtaposed with all the cosmetic products of suffering we use on a daily basis–unless we buy cruelty-free.
Next up: Two statements on the fact that cosmetics testing on animals is not required in the U.S.–one from the pro-animal research American Physiological Society (“The federal regulations for the approval of new drugs or pesticides require animal test data, while cosmetic safety laws simply require that product safety be demonstrated”) and the other from the Humane Society of the U.S. (“The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act… prohibits the sale of mislabeled and ‘adulterated’ cosmetics, but does not require that animal tests be conducted to demonstrate that the cosmetics are safe“) (HSUS fact sheet).
Thousands of ingredients are already in use and proven safe. Cruelty-free companies can formulate new products with these proven ingredients or use alternatives to animal–testing on artificial tissue grown from human skin and corneal cells, test tube toxicity tests, doctor-supervised clinical tests on human volunteers (skin irritancy, e.g.), and others.
Which countries have banned animal testing?
These savvy students beat me to it and told me that the European Union–all 28 member states–had banned animal testing. Yes–in 2004, the E.U. banned the sale of finished products tested on animals; later it banned the use of animal-tested ingredients. Norway, Israel, and India have also put bans in place; India just strengthened its position by banning the import of animal-tested cosmetics.
I couldn’t tell these know-it-alls (I say that with total admiration!) anything about our own U.S. legislation–H.R. 4148, the Humane Cosmetics Act, “a bill to phase out cosmetic animal testing and the sale of cosmetics tested on animals.” Introduced by Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia (Democrat, 8th district) last March, the bill awaits a committee hearing with 55 co-sponsors thus far (54 Dems, one Republican as of this writing). Heck, I wouldn’t really be surprised if I learned that these kids wrote that legislation themselves!
Frog guts…real…and virtual
I only briefly touched on animal use in education, mostly because I wanted to tell them about Froguts Inc., a “bio-eLearning” company that creates virtual dissection modules for K-12 students (products include frog, squid, starfish, cow eye, and fetal pig). They already knew (ho-hum!) about student choice legislation, which gives students the right to refuse to participate in dissections and instead opt for an alternative. According to AnimaLearn, 18 states have enacted student choice state laws or policies. Our state (Montana) isn’t one of them–is yours?
A new concept…speciesism
I introduced them to the term speciesism by way of asking what racism is. A simple definition appeared on the screen: “Discrimination or prejudice based on race.” Now, defining sexism was easy: “Discrimination or prejudice based on sex.” Here’s where it got interesting: What is speciesism? They answered based on the previous definitions, but I could tell the cogs and wheels were spinning as they processed this new idea and–just perhaps–adjusted their schemas to include exploitation of animals along with the other –isms of discrimination featured in the broad struggle for social justice.
We wrapped things up by looking at activism and how those who hear the call can take action. Contact your U.S. House representative and ask for support of H.R. 4148 (check). Buy cruelty-free cosmetics and household products. Find the issue (nonhuman animal-related or otherwise) you feel strongly about and educate yourself first, then others. I had generated a substantial list of suggestions that ended with these two simple, personal actions: stop and think before you buy (was somebody harmed for this product?), and speak out against cruelty and exploitation (other than perhaps some courage, this costs us nothing!).
Two quotes wrapped it up–one from The Lorax, the other from Dr. King: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Find what matters to you, I encouraged them. When you do–when you truly care about an issue of injustice–silence is not an option.
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