Were animals the Colorado theater killer’s first victims?

By Alka Chandna

As our nation grieves the massacre at Aurora, Colorado’s Century 16 multiplex, the recurring question in many of our minds is, “How?” How could anyone be so cruel, so violent, so numb to the suffering of others that he could blast away unsuspecting victims in cold blood and not display a hint of remorse?

There is no easy explanation for such senseless violence, and there is never an excuse or justification for it. But a look into alleged shooter James E. Holmes’ history reveals that he was immersed in a field of study—neuroscience—in which violence against helpless sentient beings is deeply ingrained.

Neuroscience departments at universities across the country subject animals to painful, terrifying experiments. In a decades-long series of highly invasive experiments to study visual tracking, monkeys have coils implanted in both eyes; the tops of their skulls cut off so that electrodes can be inserted into their brains; and screws, bolts and plates attached directly to their skulls so that their heads can be bolted into place. The monkeys are then kept constantly thirsty so that they will cooperate for a sip of water. Experimenters call this “developing a work ethic.”

In other experiments, the tops of cats’ skulls are lopped off; solitary squirrel monkeys are locked inside steel cages, addicted to methamphetamines and cocaine, and strapped into restraint chairs and shocked; and baby monkeys are snatched from their mothers so that experimenters can measure the impact that this early-life trauma has on addiction in the monkeys.

In addition to likely being exposed to torturous experiments such as these, according to his résumé, Holmes participated in brain-mapping experiments on songbirds, in which it is likely that holes were drilled into the birds’ heads and electrodes implanted in their brains. Holmes also participated in the dissection of hummingbirds and mice—which desensitizes students to the sanctity of life and which, as research suggests, can foster callousness toward animals and nature.

How can being exposed to such routine cruelty and violence and being told that it’s “normal” do anything but erode a person’s ethics? Most people who cut into the brains of monkeys don’t go on shooting sprees at their local movie theater, but the violence of experiments on animals is so egregious and the suffering that they cause is so extreme, couldn’t exposing an emotionally disturbed person—as Holmes apparently is—to such violence be enough to destroy his or her last ounce of empathy for others? Every person who is forced to dissect, imprison, harm and kill animals in a laboratory must set aside normal feelings of empathy and compassion, which is its own kind of tragedy.

There is no reason to continue subjecting animals—and science students—to this obscene violence. Human clinical and epidemiological studies, human tissue- and cell-based research methods, cadavers, sophisticated high-fidelity human-patient simulators and computational models are more reliable, more precise, less expensive and far more humane than animal experiments.

We may not be able to stop all violent tragedies, but the tools to end senseless violence in laboratories are already at our disposal. We can—and should—use them instead of causing more innocent victims to suffer.

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