Dispassionate books for compassionate readers. – Review

Dispassionate books for compassionate readers. – Review – book review

Joni Praded

The Scalpel and the Butterfly: The War Between Animal Research and Animal Protection. By Deborah Ruclacille. 390 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $25 hardcover.

To some, the battle between vivisection supporters and detractors seems black-and-white–a battle played out in a modern arena where research scientists stand on one side and the activists who raid their labs and threaten their lives stand on the other. But in reality the conflict is enmeshed in layers of gray and rooted in events that span 150 years.

The Scalpel and the Butterfly traces this debate back to its earliest roots with extraordinary scholarship, literary style, and journalistic integrity. Deborah Rudacille’s chronicle marries the last century and a half’s medical advances with the ethical debates that have surrounded them.

Is any amount of animal distress justified if it saves or enhances a human life? Is it ethical to use animals for research at all? Many animal advocates and scientists today, as throughout history, have vastly differing answers. It is these figures and their ideas that Rudacille brings to life. We meet early antivivisectionists, such as Frankenstein author Mary Shelley and Anna Kingsford, who studied medicine in order to make their voices heard. We meet Claude Bernard, who drafted the first scientific rationale for vivisection; Michel Foucault, the philosopher; and, among others, Hermann Goring, who banned vivisection during the Third Reich, threatening to banish to a concentration camp anyone found experimenting on animals.

We also meet contemporary figures espousing radically different approaches to the same problems–problems intensified by the advent of genetic technology. Rudacille portrays today’s prominent activists who want an all-out ban on animal experimentation, along with others–such as Andrew Rowan, Martin Stephens, Christine Stevens, and Cathy Liss–who’ve opted to work for reducing the numbers of animals used, improving their treatment, and encouraging nonanimal alternatives.

Rudacille makes it clear that her goal is to increase understanding of this complex debate, not to join ranks with either side. “Any critique of science that does not take into account the astounding advances in human health over the past 150 years,” she writes, “… must be viewed with suspicion. However, I also share some of the concerns expressed by those who assert that we have paid, and will continue to pay, a price for this knowledge, and that profound ethical and philosophical dilemmas pervade the enterprise.”

A. L. Kennedy set out to decipher the world of bullfighting just after she found herself on the ledge of her apartment building, taking her shoes off arid readying for a jump. The death of one lover, the betrayal by another, and her accompanying loss of faith had left the acclaimed Scottish novelist voiceless. She was a writer who wasn’t writing, and she was, as she puts it, “boring herself to death.” Then, from the street, she heard the strains of a song she’d abhorred since youth. To jump, she decided, to so laughable a tune would be to die without a shred of credibility. So she climbed back in–still depressed and ready to bore herself some more.

Soon after, someone asked Kennedy to write a nonfiction account of the corrida de toros, or traditional Spanish bullfight. She agreed and set off to explore the history, lore, and lure of one of the world’s most controversial spectacles.

Kennedy begins her immersion into the corrida sympathetic to the bulls tortured and killed in them and to the views of those ardently opposed to this most ritualized of blood sports. But she is equally drawn to the world of the matadors, who day in and day out risk their lives, and to the corrida’s roots in religious experience. As she drags her bags across Spain, she is a blank slate and as such delivers facts as she sees them, with a rare mix of eloquence and dispassion. She debunks what she claims are common myths about bull mistreatment but goes on to describe heartless abuses that routinely weaken the bulls and help seal their doom. She finds moments of beauty and art in rare performances, but she never loses sight of the gore. “In the corrida,” she writes, “excellence and tragedy go hand in hand.”

To those who care about animals, bullfighting is a gruesome phenomenon that should be relegated to the annals of history. That said, On Bullfighting could frustrate readers looking for a simple treatise on why the blood sport should be banned: this is a debate that Kennedy seems unwilling to interject herself into, but one that is informed by her work. In the end, the book is a hauntingly distant, often bleak, but highly intelligent arid beautifully written book that, oddly enough, will find itself on the shelves of animal activists and corrida aficionados alike.

Joni Praded is a contributing editor for Animals.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group