Cruelty, wrote a poet, has a human heart. In some difficult instances, it could even have a humane heart. The killing of animals for the advancement of scientific, and specifically medical, knowledge is an area where the thinking has to be sensitive as well as nuanced, honed to particular contexts, rather than absolute and inflexible. The University Grants Commission has issued a notification to universities and colleges directing them to stop dissecting all animals (including frogs and fish) for zoology and life science classes at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. This is not only about being kind to all forms of life but also a recognition of the importance of biodiversity and ecological balance, which are topics the UGC wants introduced in these classes under the rubric of animal ethics. The UGC’s concern, and political will, is laudable and generally to be supported. Every institution should certainly stop to think before destroying any form of life for whatever reason, and such deliberation should not stop at animals but be extended to plant life as well. One does not have to be a 19th-century pantheist in order to value one’s feeling of unity with all other forms of life, and to act on such feelings would make an increasingly self-destructive planet a better place to live in.
Yet, animal ethics has to be seen in relation to other areas of ethical and scientific logic. Although zoologists have lauded the UGC’s move, agreeing that it is not essential to dissect animals for most branches of zoology, students and teachers of the veterinary sciences are feeling a little worried that they might lose out on anatomical and surgical experience with actual animals if there is a blanket ban on dissection. This, they feel, would affect the quality of skilled care they are being taught to give to the animals themselves. So, for every animal killed for the sake of education many more animals will be benefited in the long run. To not see this specific situation as a valid exception to the rule is to be absolute in a way that undermines the very principles enshrined in the ban. So, more detailed and rigorous thinking is required to make the ban ethically less narrow — for the sake of none other than the animals themselves. Generally speaking, though, it would be good to see this sensitivity extended to activities other than the academic in the country.