Skloot ponders animal ethics at Chicago Humanities Festival

When it comes to interacting with animals, “we wear some serious blinders.”

By Emily Conover

Human relationships with animals are fraught with contradictions and ethical complications, as journalist Rebecca Skloot demonstrated in a lecture at the Logan Center for the Arts on Sunday, as part of this year’s Chicago Humanities Festival.

When it comes to interacting with animals, “we wear some serious blinders,” she said, noting that humans eat some animals, keep others as pets, and sacrifice animals’ lives for scientific research to save human lives.

Skloot is the author of the best-selling, critically-acclaimed book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, in which she investigated the human story behind the first line of human cells for medical research, which were taken without consent from a cancer patient named Henrietta Lacks in 1951.

Interviewed by Northwestern University professor Katie Watson, Skloot discussed the work that led to her next book, which will focus on the human-animal relationship and its complications.

Skloot highlighted the complexities in human relationships with animals, which she encountered on a personal level during the 10 years she spent in veterinary medicine. In a particularly heart-wrenching tale, she told of the friendship she made with a dog in a research study, who one day was put on the operating table. That experience made her question the ethics of the research, which had the potential to save human lives.

“Where do you draw the line between the benefits of science and what you have to do to get there?” Skloot said.

The legal status of animals is another fuzzy quandary. Pets are legally considered property, yet humans have strong emotional relationships with them. This unique situation can lead to conflict, as Skloot discovered when a pack of dogs attacked her dog. The authorities were incapable of getting them off the street because there was no law covering the case of property attacking property.

Skloot observed that the discussion surrounding animal welfare is often very polarized.

“So much that happens in the world of animal welfare is very emotional,” Skloot said.

Through her work, she said, she wants to “take emotional reactions and complicate them.”

Skloot acknowledged her personal inconsistencies regarding animal ethics, describing herself as an animal-lover, a “failed vegetarian,” and someone who is anti-fur but wears leather. She pointed out that even the most extreme animal-rights activists she has met still use medical devices or medicines developed in animals.

“We all have these contradictions,” she said.