The Teen Who Just Said “No!”

The Teen Who Just Said “No!”

Interview by Roberta Kalechofky

How a 15-Year-Old
Woman Turned A
School System
Upside Down

“…the silence of the students is hardly less ominous than the perversion of the professor.”

So wrote John Vyvyan, in his classic study of the Antivivisection Movement, The Dark Face of Science. It was a comment on a passage written by Carl Jung, reminiscing about his days as a medical student at the University of Basle, in the 1890s. Jung described the lectures which included vivisection as “horrible, barbarous, and above all unnecessary”, and thereafter avoided those lectures.

At the Congressional Hearing before a Subcommittee of the House of Representatives on the subject of Humane Treatment of Animals Used in Research, in 1962, several students gave the following testimony:

“I attended Chicago Medical School last September. I withdrew of my own accord… One of the conditions which led to my contempt towards this school was the cruel treatment which was given to the experimental animals.”

“I am a student studying veterinary medicine. I was never and am not now in the employ of any humane society.. .This is a cry and a plea from a young person still holding on to a few ideals I have grown up to believe in – and I am beginning to wonder if there is any real humane goodness among humans. I am not a sentimentalist, a crusader, or a fanatic; but I cannot, under any code or way of life, condone what I, in a few short years, have seen.”

It is almost exactly a century since Jung experienced his revulsion towards vivisection, and a generation since these students testified before a Congressional hearing on the impact of animal experimentation upon them. In Jung’s case and that of the students, we have the testimonies of collegeage students, somewhat older that Jeni Graham, exposed to more advanced vivisection, but the problem has increased since their time and today permeates our school system.

Jamila Wideman and Andy Hayt; Photo Courtesy of WNBA

Companies that supply animals to classrooms for profit have rooms filled with every manner of creeping, crawling, wriggling, strolling, biting, buzzing, stinging creatures whose internal parts have been vacuum-packed, freeze-dried, framed, pickled in alchol or embalming fluid, or embedded in plastic. (PETA KIDS, Spring, 1988)

Once relegated to college biology classrooms, medical and veterinary schools, dissection and forms of animal experimentation on living or dead animals, now reaches to the high school and junior high school level. Jeni Graham made her first stand against dissection in junior high school, when she was given a calve’s brain and a sheep’s eyes to dissect. At that time, her refusal and her request to do an alternative project was accepted. Several years later, in 1986, when she was 15 and in high school, and refused to dissect a frog, she again requested to do an alternative project. Her request was refused. The principal of her high school, in Victorville, a small town in the Mojave desert in California, 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles, complained that if he made excuses for Jeni, students who objected to “gym and to running” might ask for an alternative to exercise.

Jeni was 15 at the time. Such adult responses must have struck her as most curious. “He didn’t see the point,” she said in an interview. The school informed Jeni she would have to take a “C” in biology – her major and a subject in which she is an “A” student. Refusing to accept this decision, Jeni’s battle to establish her right not to have to dissect an animal has acquired the classical outline of youth against hardened institutions who are protecting their institutional turfs. There was, for example, the snide editorial by Daniel E. Koshland, in the prestigious journal, Science, an editorial which qualifies for intellectual silliness, if not for something more serious:

“There are a number of instruments of torture far more inhumane than dissecting an anesthetized frog – for example, the mousetrap and flyswatter. These devices have no redeeming social value, such as advancing teaching or research.. .One could at least enact legislation requiring that flies be anesthetized before they are swatted.”

More important, however, are the letters of support Jeni has received, from practically everywhere in the world, from as far away as Iceland and South America, from boys and girls, from men and women. Many of these letters have come from older adults, some who are in their 70s and who still remember, as Jung did, the horrors of vivisection in their school programs. We began our interview with Jeni and her mother with that fact.

OTI: Do you think that many people have an instinctive revulsion to cutting up animals and that young people have a natural sympathy to animals that the educational system breeds out of them?

JG: Definitely. I was surprised by the many letters I got. Some people were so anxious to write to me, even though they didn’t know my name or address, they wrote on the envelope, The Girl Who Refused to Cut Up a Frog. The mailman knew who I was.

OTI: Did you get any negative letters?

JG: About two.

OTI: Only two, out of 300? That would suggest a pretty strong feeling out there against cutting up animals in school. So how come nothing gets said about it?

JG: I think the students must be afraid to speak out.

OTI: Do you think the parents know what is going on? Do you think they are aware of how much dissection high school students are doing, and how pained they may feel about it?

JG: No, I don’t think so. I think most parents don’t know anything about this problem. OTI: Why isn’t the problem discussed at PTA meetings?

JG: There wasn’t any PTA at my school, and I don’t know what happens at other schools in this respect. I suspect the students just don’t say anything, and the parents don’t know.

OTI: Jeni, many people are afraid of dogs, snakes and spiders. It’s hard for them to feel sympathy for crawly creatures, or animals they fear. What would you say to someone who says, “I don’t like dogs or frogs. Why should I care about them?”

JG: I don’t like frogs either, and I hate spiders. You don’t have to love an animal not to want to hurt it, or to believe that you shouldn’t hurt it. We don’t hurt people, whether we love them or not. And I didn’t refuse to cut up the frog, or to dissect the calve’s brain or sheep’s eyes when I was in junior high because I’m squeamish, because I’m not. I like horror stories and ghost stories. I refused because I believe you should respect life, all of life, even a frog or a spider, whether you like them or not.

PG: We believe that everything is here for a reason, whether we like that creature or not. We musn’t judge other creatures from an ego-human point of view. You can respect the life of a creature without loving the individual creature. What we respect is the life force that is in every living animal.

OTI: Pat, you are a theosophist. This is a society which has existed for over a century, but which traces its ideas through all religions and includes philosophy and science. How did you become interested in theosophy?

PG: I was in my middle 20s and I heard a lecture on the radio one night about theosophy. All my life I had been searching for something to make sense out of the universe for me, and this did. Thesophy is not a religion. The theosophical society is founded on the principle of unity in the universe. Everything is related, unity connects all of life from Adam to the galaxies in outer space, and this unity can never be understood by its parts. Theosophy also teaches that all of us have a responsibility to recognize the unique value of everything that exists. All my life I felt a kinship to animals that I could not explain, until I became a theosophist. For me, theosophy allowed me to become myself. I can’t say it changed me, but rather that it developed me.

OTI: Jeni, what other kinds of dissection were done when you were in junior high?

PG: They pitched frogs and then put the frogs in ajar with alcohol cotton balls. In junior high, the students paired off, two kids to a frog, so about 15 frogs were used. In high school, every student gets her or his own frog.

OTI: That’s an enormous number of frogs used, every year in just one high school. But if the schools didn’t do things like this, how would students learn about animal life? Do you feel students should be educated about animals by having them in a cage in a classroom, even if we don’t dissect them?

JG: No, I don’t believe in zoos or cages. Those are not natural environments for animals. I believe animals should live where it is natural for them to live. The schools should bring the students to where the animals are. We should go on field trips.

OTI: A Muslim writer, Al-Hafiz A. Masri, has called for “An international movement of children, such as ‘Friends of Animals’, comparable to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, to teach humane education. What do you think of this idea?

JG: I think it’s a great idea. I wish every school could start one.

OTI: I know you have been a vegetarian since the age of 10. Did you ever feel “left out of things” because you refused to eat frankfurters and hamburgers?

JG: No, not really. My mother never forced vegetarianism on me. She became one and then just asked me if I would like to become one. I was about eight or nine when I realized that the meat I ate came from animals, and by the time I was 10, I was glad to become a vegetarian.

OTI: But what about at birthday parties and cookouts. Did you ever feel pressure to eat what everyone else is eating?

JG: No. I just explain ahead of time, and people accept it.

OTI: I understand you want to stay in science professionally, to be a wildlife photographer or a marine biologist. Who are your heroes or heroines in science?

JG: Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau.

OTI: Jeni, has it been difficult keeping up with your school work and friends, with all this attention about your case?

JG: In the beginning it was very hard, because the cameras kept following me around wherever I went, and kids kept jumping in front of the cameras.

OTI: What do you make of all this?

JG: I don’t know. I can’t figure out why so much fuss has been made.

OTI: Some of the things that have happened must have been very gratifying, like the awards you’ve been given and the letters you’ve received. I understand that Congressman Tom Lantos has offered you an internship in his office, to study the legislative efforts that concern protection of animals on the federal level. Have you accepted?

JG: Definitely. I start this summer.

OTI: Jeni, a lot has happened for you in this year and a half. How do you think you’ve changed?

JG: I don’t think I’ve changed at all. I’m still the same person. I don’t know why so much fuss has been made.

PG: It’s changed my life a lot more than it’s changed Jeni’s life. I have had to change my lifestyle, my goals, the way I spend my days.

OTI: Do you feel annoyed by these changes?

PG: No, but I do have to learn how to adjust. I don’t feel annoyed, because I believe that what I am supposed to be doing with my life is to help people realize their true relationship to the animal kingdom. What Jeni did has changed my life more than hers, but I have to be responsive to mat change to realize this aim. Right now I am writing a book about Jeni’s experience. It is going to be for the teenage group, people about her age who can identify with her and with what she did. I’ve been approached by David Eagle, the producer, who is also an animal rights person. He wants to make a T. V. movie about Jeni’s story. We had hoped the movie would be out by this fall, but with the writers’ strike, it may be postponed. I’m also now involved with the Sierra Club. So, my life has changed quite a bit. You asked Jeni about all the letters she has received and the numbers of people who have told her how upset they were when they had to do dissection. David Eagle told me that when he was a youngster he had a pet frog he used to keep in a terrarium. He loved that frog, and was horrified when he was given a frog to dissect in school. We tend to love animals when we come to know them. If all we know of them is that they are objects to be cut up, what kinds of feelings can we have to the animal world by the time we are adults?

OTI: Pat, do you think there is a serious problem of teaching students to be cruel through dissection?

PG: Yes, I do. I believe it is a serious moral problem that your children are taught to cut up animals.

OTI: I understand there has recently been a law passed in California, allowing students the option to do an alternative project to dissection?

JG: Yes, but it’s not a very good law, because the teacher has to give approval. So the student is still dependent upon the teacher.

PG: Still, it’s a first step, and some people have said that Jeni’s case motivated the government to do that. The Peninsula Humane Society put the bill together and it was authored by Congresswoman Jackie Spiers.

OTI: An editorial by Juliana Texley in the publication of the National Science Teacher Association (December, 1987) in response to Jeni’s case, called for a reduction in high school dissection programs:

“For those of our biology students who went on to careers in the life sciences, dissection of preserved frogs and pigs was seldom the key to their success. More often it was logic, curiosity, and perhaps a bit of love for the surprises that organisms bring to the science laboratory. Most college instructors agree. So, with an entire biosphere of lively experience out there for teachers to offer, perhaps it’s time to cut dissection down to size.”

Do you find it curious to compare the editorial in Science magazine with this editorial on Jeni’s case? What do you make of such an editorial in a prestigious journal like Science?

PG: It’s reactionary fear. You know, the farmers in California were against the school dissection bill. Even they want to maintain the situation. They don’t want anything to change in the public’s relationship to animals, on the farm, in the laboratory, or in the classroom.

OTI: Pat, your book about Jeni is as much about a student’s right to speak out on moral issues as it is about animal rights. In the 1962 Congressional investigation into the treatment of laboratory animals, one witness said: “Our entire nation is harmed, as surely harmed as by radioactive fallout.. .by cruelty that has the appearance of social sanction and legal blessing.”

PG: Of course, I couldn’t agree more. We not only need the students to speak out, and to be encouraged and protected when they do speak out, we need parents to be informed and to speak out.

Postscript: In 1986, students at Leeds University, England, voted to invoke the World Charter for Violence-Free Science. But animal experiments continue at that school.

Roberta Kalechofsky, feminist, animal rights, civil rights and peace activist and vegetarian, is a writer, publisher, educator and lecturer. In 1975 she founded Micah Publications. Roberta is a Contributing Editor of ON THE ISSUES.

Editor’s Note: On August 1,1988, Federal district judge, Manuel Real, dismissed Jeni Graham’s suit against the Victor Valley Union High School District after the school agreed to let Jeni view photographs of a dissected frog that died of natural causes to identify its body parts. Jeni’s lawyers may appeal the dismissal of the suit, suggesting the problem of finding a frog dead of natural causes that would be in good enough shape to serve the purpose.