“How would you feel about adopting a lab beagle?” my person asked me one night.
My first thought was of some sort of Labrador/beagle mutt, but then it clicked: he means one of the school’s beagles. One of the laboratory dogs kept for student training.
A freshman of Cornell University’s veterinary school, my person’s class had been introduced to the dogs earlier that day. I didn’t know how to respond to his question at first.
I’m the child of a biology and human evolution teacher. I have crafted my own taxidermy and have several specimens lovingly displayed around my home. I’m donating my body—once it becomes a corpse—to science. I am not a vegetarian. But something inside me still paused, startled, at this question. At this phrase: lab beagle.
The school uses beagles, he explained, for a variety of reasons. Beagles are small enough to kennel easily but still hearty and generally healthy compared to many other small dogs. They are usually less reactive than most other dogs when handled, poked, or prodded, and they have “good-sized arms with decent-sized veins,” he said. They are social and comparatively quiet.
“We don’t have to adopt one,” he told my considering silence. “We might not even get the chance. There’s more students than dogs, and lots of people get attached and want to adopt after graduation. By law, the dogs can’t work as lab animals forever.”
This mention of the students’ attachment and of the dogs’ “work” simultaneously comforted me and made me blink. It made me realize there was a strong argument that these beagles led a richer, happier, safer life in the lab than many pet-dogs do in the home. After all, they had a routine but also plenty of socializing, training, and playtime. They had a safe, clean place to sleep and diets that were carefully monitored. They were handled by people who earnestly did not want to hurt them, who cared about them. They were dogs with a job: to teach students how to hold animals for exams, how to draw blood, how to check teeth and ears and other crevices—and this job was given to the dogs with their unique needs and dignity taken into serious consideration.
During lockdown, my person joined a small team of caretakers for Cornell’s collection of retired sled dogs in The Vaika Project (a pack numbering nearly one hundred dogs at the time). The project is dedicated to studying the unusual aging patterns in sled dogs—that is, a pattern of maintaining excellent overall health and mobility well into old age rather than enduring a slow decline—and how this might be used to improve (or even prevent) the aging process for humans.
I once picnic-lunched outside the facility’s playground area and watched as a dozen elderly sled dogs chased a butterfly together over a hilly green the size of a football field.
All of this is to say, I believe strongly that there are ethical, even wonderful, ways to employ animals in scientific research. Yet what my mind first conjured at his question was something that exists at the polar opposite end of this spectrum.
“I can feel this body dying all around me!” cries the titular Last Unicorn, discovering that she’s been transformed from a unicorn into a human woman, a mortal. The now-classic 1982 film adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s 1968 novel is a haunting exploration of an immortal creature meeting Death for the first time. A once-timeless creature suddenly forced to reckon with the existential dread of not only her own end but of the potential extinction of her kind.
This film is a towering presence in my childhood. I still remember the first time I saw the unicorn transformed into a human against her will, the first time I heard her beg to have the process reversed. Yet it was only by rewatching this film during my person’s veterinary studies that I recognized this moment not simply as a bit of well-intended magic gone awry, but as a terrifying, fantasy-genre example of animal experimentation.
Oddly, the use of scientific (or magical) experimentation to force nonhuman creatures to reckon with the concept of Death is something that many children’s films have explored. We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story (1993) violently forces human-like cognition and behavior onto a variety of dinosaurs with the aim of trapping them in a post-apocalyptic petting zoo-like experience for human children to enjoy. And who could forget FernGully: The Last Rainforest’s Batty Koda (1992)?—a sweet bat who escapes a human lab but is forever changed and tormented by electric shocks to his brain. (His introductory song is quite something.) The Secret of NIMH (1982) is entirely—even titularly—about human experimentation leaving a community of rats with an unnatural form of intelligence that renders them ultimately haunted; their elder, Nicodemus, declaring, “We can no longer live as rats. We know too much.”
There’s a fly in the ointment of these films, however, and said fly is not “animal experimentation is actually a good thing”; oh no. These films are all too tragically correct that nonhuman animals are often subject to horrifying and deeply unethical treatment in the names of science and consumerism. No, the fly is this: the arrogant suggestion that nonhuman creatures necessitate human intervention to confront or understand the concept of Death.
Richard Adams’s gut-wrenching novels Watership Down (1978 film adaptation) and The Plague Dogs (1982 film adaptation) both consider the concept of death wholly from a nonhuman perspective. In Watership Down, a tale of rabbits seeking safety beyond humanity’s sprawl, the rabbits worship a god called Frith who brings the gift of death in the form of The Black Rabbit. The Black Rabbit is not regarded as a villain or an evil, but as a part of life, playing many different vital roles throughout the rabbits’ journey.
The Plague Dogs, as you might imagine, looks at death from a dog’s perspective. It tells the heart-wrenching story of two dogs, Rowf and Snitter, who escape a human-government lab in rural England and must survive in the wild alone.
(First-time viewers be warned: I often cry in films, but very rarely do I sob.)
The movie opens with the brutal drowning of Rowf as a pair of human scientists stand by and watch. The scientists exchange casual conversation as Rowf struggles to tread water, making note of how long he’s able to keep swimming before exhaustion takes him down. And so we learn the Promethean nightmare of Rowf’s life: to be drowned and resuscitated week after week.
“Why do they do it, Snitter?” Rowf asks weakly through the wire-mesh of their neighboring pens. “I’m not a bad dog.”
It’s immediately clear that these humans have operated on Snitter’s brain but not revealed until much later that it was in an attempt to switch his interpretation of subjective and objective realities. Haunted by the death of his original (and loving) human owner, Snitter becomes convinced that he is a bringer of death, causing human death wherever he goes.
The two dogs make their initial escape by hiding inside the lab’s incinerator, resting there for a time before escaping out its vent. In this way, right from the start, they are of Death’s breath, escaping as the smoke of corpses would escape, and not the least aware that they may also carry a terrible whiff of this breath with them in the form of bubonic plague.
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One of the strangest films of this ilk is Felidae. (It’s available on YouTube if you’re curious.) A 1994 German animated film (adapted from Pirinçci’s 1989 novel of the same title), Felidae is a noir-style mystery wherein our hero, a cat named Francis, must solve a series of grisly cat-murders in his new neighborhood.
Felidae makes it clear right away that this is not a film meant for children. Francis’s friend and partner is a cat called Bluebeard who introduces himself by bragging about getting more sex than Henry VIII. Bluebeard, a native of the neighborhood, is coldly hardened to the violence happening all around him. When the sweet housecat Felicity is found gruesomely beheaded, Bluebeard “comforts” the distraught Francis with the delicate words, “It’s sad but life goes on.”
As Francis investigates, he discovers a death cat-cult led by the cat-priest Joker. Incited by Joker’s sermons, various cats commit suicide before a crowd of their fellow cat-worshippers, throwing themselves into the crackling arms of a strange, electric current.
Bluebeard is not simply unimpressed by this discovery, he’s wholly unsurprised, assuring Francis that Joker’s cult is harmless; a red herring.
But eventually Francis finds something that takes even the jaded Bluebeard aback: a vast and very literal catacombs. An underground tunnel system built of cat bones and bodies. It’s here that our heroes learn the neighborhood cat murders extend back to something much older: a gruesome series of human experiments that have only grown fouler with age, curdling into a fully genocidal campaign led by a single cat bent on creating a “master race” of cats.
While this is clearly a story about the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany—complete with a bizarre nightmare sequence wherein Gregor Mendel capers about as a demonic, eugenics puppeteer who makes cat corpses dance upon his marionette strings—what remains truly unique about this film is how it keeps to a purely cat-crafted view of life, death, and the world in general.
These cats do not need humans—or “can-openers” as we’re called in the film—to help them understand or think critically about death. Death is shown as a simple and borderline uninteresting part of these cats’ everyday lives. It sometimes seems as though, if not for Francis’s can-opener annoyingly unpacking and renovating their new house, Francis may not have bothered looking into the murders at all.
Throughout the film, the cats display a pragmatic and even friendly relationship with Death. To relax himself one night, Francis goes hunting and kills a rat purely for the fun of it. Whenever the cats are shown eating, it’s never anything so innocent as kibble, but instead a butchered fish or hunk of fresh liver. When a pregnant cat, Solitaire, is found disemboweled with her fetal kittens spilt dead about her corpse, Francis (who’s panting after being chased) jokes that he’s not the only one who’s out of breath.
These films are all intense and disturbing in their own ways, and they all highlight a deep fascination that we humans have with nonhuman animals’ relationship to Death. But there’s something more insidious here than simple fascination, isn’t there? These films tug at the edges of a dangerous human jealousy: a belief that nonhuman animals are somehow innocent of Death, and aren’t they lucky? Aren’t they thus imbued with a kind of super power?—to have no fear or understanding of Death. And yet it’s this very “power” that makes them ripe for human exploitation and experimentation. After all, if we humans are the only ones who can understand Death, then we must be the only ones for whom Death matters.
Observing his fellow veterinary students handle their lab animals, it was clear to my person: Death matters for all the creatures in this room, all of them caring deeply about one another. In the end, we decided against adopting one of the lab beagles. Already happily serving as can-openers for two cats and a dog, we didn’t feel right adopting one of the beagles away from other, pet-less students who also adored them. Students who we’d both come to trust and respect. Students who understand the importance of safeguarding not only an animal’s physical health but their dignity as well.