INTERVIEW WITH ANDREW KNIGHT, BVMS




Shakira Croce's Questions for Andrew Knight:

a. (Shakira): What are your reasons for being opposed to dissection in the hallowed halls of academia?

(Andrew): Most of all, because animals are usually being killed for these classes! These are other sentient beings with whom we share The Earth, and they are worthy of respect. They do not exist merely to be used as disposable teaching tools, or for any other human purpose. Like us, these animals have in interest in living and not suffering, and these interests should not be violated for human purposes, especially when so many humane teaching alternatives exist. Almost every study conducted has shown that such humane alternatives are at least as educationally effective, if not more so.

The killing of animals for dissection teaches that animals' lives are of little value, despite any verbal message to the contrary a teacher might give. Some students react by becoming desensitized to killing and animal suffering, an effect I witnessed on a large scale when I was in veterinary college, and which has been documented in several academic journals. However the most compassionate students are usually turned away from the life and health sciences altogether; yet it is precisely these students the professions most need.

Finally, it is particularly cruel to require a student with an earnest desire to become a healer to learn through killing. Many are not able to do it and are then denied their chosen careers. Others do what is asked and are haunted for decades by the memories.

b. How did you go about changing Murdoch University's policy on dissection?

After requesting alternatives from everyone within the academic "chain of command," with no success, I took my case outside the University. The beginnings of legal action and media coverage quickly resulted in the University restoring the marks I had lost for refusing to participate in certain labs.

At the same time, student representatives on the University's governing Academic Council proposed the establishment of a balanced University working party, with an independent chair, to examine the issue of conscientious objection by students. The University adopted all of its recommendations, including by passing in 1998 a formal policy agreeing to make reasonable efforts to accommodate conscientious objectors-the first at an Australian university. Since then, no Murdoch student who has requested alternatives to dissection or vivisection has been denied them.

And were you faced with much opposition?

Absolutely! The first person in a traditional veterinary college to seriously question the large scale harming and killing of animals for teaching purposes probably feels a lot like the first person in a military institution to oppose discrimination against homosexuals. Veterinary colleges are generally very conservative environments. In order to justify to their own consciences, all the killing they have been doing in their research and teaching, many faculty members depend on the belief that humane alternatives are inferior, and that there is no other way to conduct research, or to teach.

To suggest that there is another way means that much of this killing that they have often been doing for many years might not have been necessary, and, in fact, might actually have been ethically reprehensible. And many faculty react very strongly against that; surprisingly strongly to a student who has never said a word criticizing others, but has merely asked for humane alternatives for their own learning.

Other students may also react strongly to the unspoken message that the killing they are willing to participate in is both unnecessary and wrong.

A conscientiously objecting student in this environment must be strong. It can be an enormously beneficial personal growth experience to go through, if very little fun at the time.

c. The members of my high school club, Students Promoting Awareness of Animal Rights (SPAAR), have chosen not to dissect animals in biology class and rather participate in more humane alternative assignments. We are also educating our fellow classmates through library displays and discussions regarding their right to choose whether or not to opt-out of dissection and the consequences of their decisions. What advice would you give students who are having trouble opting-out because of adamant administrative intolerance to changing existing policy?

Most of all, I would advise them not to quit. Most students in America who have been strong enough to insist on their rights to a humane education have been successful. To my knowledge, no American student who has sued their school or university over this issue has lost. This is unsurprising, given that the US constitution contains some of the strongest civil rights clauses in the world.

Such students should be organized and professional. First, they must educate themselves about humane alternatives. Next, they must prepare a submission of suggested alternatives for their teachers. They should present this list with a written request for alternatives to every teacher in the "academic chain of command." If they are still unsuccessful, they should be prepared to speak to the media and pursue legal action.

They should contact both local and major national animal rights and humane education organizations such as Animalearn (info@animalearn.org, 800-729-2287) for assistance.

d. Do you perceive a correlation between the teaching of dissection and students' inclination towards lack of respect for life in general?

Absolutely. When we began our anatomy course in veterinary college, students were visibly affected by the profound experience of being presented with their first rat to dissect.

Within three months students were hacking away with abandon and throwing body parts at one another. There were never any signs of increasing respect for animals; on the contrary the desensitization towards killing and animal suffering was obvious over the duration of the veterinary course.

e. What other animal rights issues do you believe in?

All of them. That is-any issue that is based on the premise that animals DO have interests of their own independently of human interests, and that it is unethical to subjugate those interests to human interests.

My opposition to the subjugation of the interests of women to those of men, or of people of color to Caucasians, for example, is based on similar positions.

And often it is the most vital interests of animals-such as the interest in not suffering or being killed-that is being violated, to further the most trivial interests of human beings-such as the interest in experiencing the "taste of meat," or in using a particular brand of toothpaste that was tested on animals.

On very rare occasions the life of a human might require the death of an animal. But are the interests of the human worth more, just because they might be more intelligent? Not necessarily. A far more important quality than intelligence is the amount of good or harm a creature does to all of the other sentient creatures-human and nonhuman-with who we share The Earth. And in this case we humans, who decimate the environment wholesale and eliminate entire species every day, are at the bottom of the list.

However not all humans are the same. It is incumbent on all of us to try to do more good than harm during our time upon The Earth. This is perhaps the best measure that can be found of whether or not our lives have been worthwhile.

f. Are you a vegetarian and if so what provoked you to make that choice?

When I was eight I received a book about baby animals for my birthday. I looked at the pictures of fawns and other animals, and decided that there was no way I could possibly eat animals anymore. I announced this to my parents, who smiled, unconcerned. This would only last a week or so, they thought. Well that was in 1978, and barring a 6 month relapse when I was 18, I've been vegetarian ever since.

My girlfriend and I became vegans in 1993, when we were cleaning up various aspects of our lives in an effort to impress each other. Apart from having to actually live consistently with my beliefs, I had to give away my enormous and colorful sweet collection, which was very sad.

g. Did you have a role model or was there a specific event that inspired you to become so active in helping animals?

The front page of my book, "Learning Without Killing: A Guide to Conscientious Objection", is entirely devoted to this quote by His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama:

"It is not enough to be compassionate - you must act."

There was no particular person or event for me. I begun campaigning on human rights and environmental issues, and focused on animal rights only when I learnt that this is where the greatest amount of suffering lies.

Since then I have found that actively campaigning for a more compassionate, humane world has given me the most satisfying career I could imagine.

h. Do the majority of veterinarians share your beliefs in animal rights?

Unfortunately, no, although there are some wonderful exceptions, such as many members of the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights.

The veterinary profession has its historical roots in the farming industry. The primary role of the large animal veterinarian is to assist farmers or racehorse owners in maximizing the production of meat, milk, eggs, fiber or racetrack successes, from their animals. Whilst sometimes in agreement with good animal welfare, profit maximization is unfortunately often not so.

Whilst the majority of the profession has moved on from its historical roots, veterinary colleges can be very slow to change, and the old culture of animal exploitation is still very strong within most of them. These attitudes are indoctrinated into each cohort of students unwilling (they are certainly not unable) to think critically or ethically for themselves.

However, things have been changing for the better for a long time, and increasing numbers of veterinary students are unwilling to harm animals during their education, or, indeed, throughout their careers. Some even go on to become active animal advocates, which is perhaps most exciting of all.

i. Finally, what is your hope or vision for the future of humane education, and how do you think we can achieve this goal?

My vision is of a future in which no animals are harmed at any level of education-in which students no longer have to campaign on this issue- and instead can simply focus on becoming the best doctors, veterinarians, scientists and human beings that they can become.

Unfortunately, until we reach that stage, students will have to continue to campaign on this issue. Overall, students are undeniably the most powerful advocates for humane education. Unlike those campaigning from the outside, students have the absolute right-ethically, and, often, legally-to insist that their conscientiously held beliefs against harming and killing animals in their education not be violated. Unlike many of their teachers, most students are facing the terrible prospect of harming animals for the first time in their careers, and are highly motivated to find humane alternatives.

I and other students responsible for the elimination of many vivisection and dissection laboratories in campuses around the world have proven time and again that a student with a committed and professional approach can have a truly enormous power to achieve positive change.

*Originally published by Vegetarianteen.com*