‘Le Petit Prince’: On mice

Nov. 17, 2022, 11:56 p.m.

Ben Marra’s column “Le Petit Prince” showcases a sensitive young man as he navigates social life and loss on a completely normal and functioning college campus.

Last Saturday, I worked for the first time at Oak Road Garden, about thirty raised plots and a small orchard between Sand Hill Field and the silent megamall which I’m told is Stanford’s medical campus. I was looking at the building which abuts the garden on the east side — a small, rectangular structure covered in dark wood paneling over solid concrete, like the back of a modernist beach house. It chuffed steam from two smokestacks. I asked a friend who’d been gardening there several times if she knew what it was. She was excited by the question and half-whispered to me it was the “mouse crematorium,” where animals used for various kinds of research on campus end up.

I was thinking about it all morning while we sowed buckwheat and moved soil.  A little body like a mouse’s probably burns in a short time. Its curled bundle — or maybe winged-out abdominally by the dissection — probably comes to dust quickly, as if it had never been anything else, no little light of consciousness. Or maybe it’s likelier that they are burned in large, conglomerated piles to save fuel, nearly indistinguishable as individual creatures by the end, but together, grouped with their organs amounting to some considerable final mass, which satisfied me a little more — that they would have weight, even some agricultural or industrial purpose after cremation. But the idea of such a place was disquieting, as I think it will be for most.

Medical testing, at least on small, “unintelligent” animals is regarded as a necessary evil by the majority with the exception of animal rights activists, a maligned and admittedly an often crazy fringe. It’s undeniable though that these activists respond to a duly upsetting side of modern life — whether industrial farming or animal testing — the animal side of industry is something most of us choose not to think of too often.

Another friend of mine, who has requested to remain anonymous, was involved in a Stanford lab over the summer, which tested the effects of chronic pain on mice. The lab used what he explained is a conventional method for inducing chronic pain in small animals: “tibial fracture,” a targeted damage to the animals’ leg bones by precise blunt force machines. The animals are restrained and, quickly and precisely, “punched” at specific points along their limbs. The mice then walk about painfully crippled for the remainder of their lab lives. They eat, socialize, all the usual functions, but for this experiment to be successful, they can never forget their pain.

His role in particular was euthanizing and dissecting them. I finally admitted to being aghast at this chain of events, which he assures me is quite typical, though he shared my pity for the mice. He said that though it was a sacrifice forced upon the mice, he would nonetheless thank them sincerely before injecting them. He told me that, in general, “Many scientists say they struggle less ethically in the handling of mice because they demonstrate less differential personality than other high-level organisms, like rats or monkeys.”

I wondered at the events that inspired that insight — how much death and gore and human remorse went into that idea. I imagine a rat which prefers peanuts to sunflower seeds — unwilling defender of his species. 

In western liberal society, animal testing in crucial fields like medicine is an exception we make to our general problem with utilitarianism because animal suffering is supposed to be of a lesser grade than human. Animal suffering is allowed to be outweighed by the human suffering it may prevent, because it is a different substance — optional whether we choose to take the epistemological step and acknowledge that it’s even there. “Rights,” then, as they always have, exist on a sliding scale, here from species to species, on the basis of a creature’s experiential consciousness and individuality. Usually, despite myself, I accept this, and callous over on the topic. But there are important moments when a callous is undone, and our bare sympathy is exposed again to a cruel, strange fact and then one can only think of how to recover, how to go on.

That morning was one such moment. That the delicate emissions of the crematorium may have been a product of some other process — a generator or some cleansing steam — did not cross my mind. They had already captured my heart. It was a bright day; the puffs were indistinguishable from clouds, they had no smell that reached me, no suggestion of darkness of death, dissolved at most twenty feet above the smokestack into thin air. The placement of the building next to the flourishing garden insisted vulgarly on rebirth and circularity, but that day felt brutishly superficial. I was aware that my life did not depend on the garden, and that the heavy citrus trees, edenic as they were, sustained no one. Likewise the pulverized and sublimated mice, their lives converted besides that column of smoke into one, perhaps two data points, served no purpose that my wounded heart could reach.

The Oak Road gophers, which feast on fruit and rootstock, enjoy the rich refuse of a mammoth civilization. Next door, their cousins lie flattened by one of its many feet. There is nothing to understand, the mind says, keep laying seeds.

But despite how jaded I am regarding trite varieties of outrage, my own vulnerability to moral friction arrived that day as a gift. Rarely is my problem that I am too attentive to life, its native or man-made tragedies. I sat with it a long time. 

I told myself that this was not related to that common case in which a person’s moral indignation divorces the world and takes on a life of its own, forming a closed ecosystem with blind narcissism. I care for suffering the most or I suffer the most and therefore I am the one. I think readers will recognize this personality.

I, if you’ll believe it, wasn’t the one; the mice were the ones — theirs, the short, poignant story. The sky was bluer for accepting its load of small souls, and the garden lusher for the unavoidable cruelty of its excess. There will never be a time in which death is not a tragedy, and there will never be a time without tragedy. I thank the mice too, sublimated and inert, because I have no answers for them.

My mom, a lifelong lover of art, visited Joan Mitchell at SFMOMA with a close friend last year. She told me afterwards that the exhibit was so beautiful it overwhelmed her, and she walked out with tears in her eyes. To the philistine hater of modern art, this would look ridiculous. Mitchell’s works are mainly abstract blotches of color on large canvases. None of them have “content,” conventionally the emotional heavy lifter in most art forms. It is, anyways, the great mystery of abstract art that we can feel so startled by bare color and shape.

I would argue though, that for even the stoniest disposition, there is always a reason to be moved. Even denying art, denying Mitchell’s genius, it seems to me nothing but sensible to cry at the settled matters of the world coming back to life again, a poignant blue revealed as if for the first time. 

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