A Matter of Change

activist, author, former political prisoner

Don Barnes grew up on a farm in the 1940s and learned that killing animals was normal. In the 1960s, while studying for his PhD in psychology, administering electric shocks to his nonhuman subjects came naturally. Finally, as a US Air Force officer, he found himself conducting cruel and painful radiation experiments on primates for lucrative federal grants. He writes “As each day passes it becomes increasingly difficult to comprehend how I was able to close my eyes to the artificiality of the research I was doing.” By 1979, Don concluded that the experiments he conducted as a biomedical researcher were both scientifically invalid and cruel. The following year he sought out the anti-vivisection community where he would begin decades of fighting to restore the dignity of non-human animals. Don has been vegan for 35 years and just celebrated his 81st birthday on Friday. Taking a look back at his work now allows us an intimate glimpse into the mind of a vivisector.

by Donald J. Barnes
An excerpt from In Defense of Animals (Peter Singer)
Basil Blackwell, 1985, pp. 157-167

“Don,” an acquaintance of mine said recently, “I don’t mean to question your commitment to the principles of antivivisection, but you were a vivisector for sixteen years. What caused such a quick and radical change in your beliefs?” I have been asked the same question many times, and by one person more than any other . . . myself. The answer has changed as my values have changed, but consistently and in the same direction. Let’s take a chronological look at the evolution of my values in order to try to understand.

In early 1941, just a few months before my fifth birthday, my parents somehow managed to buy a 20-acre farm in Southern California. They had migrated with their two young sons from the rural south, where they themselves had quit school early to help support their families by labouring in the fields for as little as 20 cents per day. They neither liked nor understood city life, and our move to our own land promised security with independence.

The land fed us and clothed us. We grew our own fruit and vegetables and a surplus which we sold from door to door for maximum profit, as the large packers and buyers paid poorly for the products of small independent growers.

Animals were integral to our existence. We raised pigs, cattle and chickens for our meat, eggs and dairy products, churned our own butter and drank our milk as it came from the cow, without pasteurization or homogenization. We treated our animals with love and respect, but always in the knowledge that they were on earth not for themselves but to serve us. Butchering was accomplished as expediently as possible with a hatchet and a chopping block for the fowl and a well-placed bullet for the larger animals. Their deaths raised enigmatic questions in my mind but were soon accepted as necessary, for that was the ethos of the farm.

When I was about seven years old (and my brother nine), our father bought us a burro. We had wanted a horse for some time but had been convinced that a horse was economically unjustifiable, as it would contribute nothing but pleasure to the family farm. We had a tractor with huge metal wheels, almost an antique, so we couldn’t even use a horse for ploughing. We soon learned that our burro was not to be simply a plaything for us. As my father pruned the branches of the fruit trees or cut down the corn stalks from the field, my brother and I loaded them on the cart and hauled them away from the field or orchard. There is much hauling to be done on a farm, and before we knew it we were performing this essential function daily. Even so, the burro and I became close friends and we spent many blissful hours exploring the surrounding countryside together.

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