Mama Madison: Dealing with the PETA bus wrap

Introducing kids to painful issues

Late last week I got stuck behind a bus while driving north on Park Street. It was one of the more than 100 Madison Metro buses running a purposefully disturbing ad from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) calling for an end to the use of cats in UW sound localization research.

For those of you who haven't yet seen it, the eight-week-long transit campaign, placed both inside and on the outside of buses, features a photo of an orange tabby with a stainless steel bar drilled into its head accompanied by the line "I am not lab equipment. End UW cat experiments!" Just as PETA hopes, the image is shocking and demands an immediate response.

My immediate response was that I hope no young children see it. But many parents, unless they are able to completely avoid coming into contact with public transportation for the next few weeks, are going to find themselves in the challenging position of having to explain to their offspring -- on the way to gymnastics practice or preschool drop off -- why university scientists experiment on kitties.

My kids, now in middle and high school, are hopefully mature enough to start grappling with the complex moral issues that surround animal research. At 11, 14 and 16, they've taken enough science and social science classes to understand that if medical researchers are going to study a disease that effects people, they can't, for obvious ethical reasons, conduct the research on humans. Yes, it's absolutely going to bother my kids that experimentation happens on the types of animals we've kept as house pets for years. But I do think they will be able to comprehend, even if in the end they don't agree, why many people, including their mother, feel that animal research is warranted when advancing findings that may help alleviate human suffering.

But I don't think younger children are ready to wrap their heads around this complicated issue. Preschoolers and most elementary aged kids are governed by unbridled emotion coupled with a definitive, and understandable, soft spot for animals. Parents can explain until they're blue in the face that the research is being conducted in hopes of finding a cure for a devastating human disease or condition. But younger kids will just end up feeling that science is scary and that animal researchers are jerks.

And there will be nothing that parents can do to keep the inevitable nightmares from coming.

Is animal research an inconvenient truth? Absolutely. But it's a truth that kids have to be both emotionally and intellectually ready to handle. And I know, regardless of their children's ages, many parents would appreciate the opportunity to discuss these issues privately, especially if they know the child is going to become upset by the image. It's very hard to have a gut-wrenching conversation in the car while driving the hockey carpool. And it's even more difficult while riding with other passengers on the number 19.

PETA spokesperson Justin Goodman is quoted as saying that "the inside of buses is the perfect forum to let taxpayers around Madison know what the UW is doing to cats in their name." But it's not just adult taxpayers who take the bus. It's their children, as well.

Sure, PETA has a legal right to run these advertisements on buses. But I also feel that a parent should have the right to introduce difficult emotional material to kids on their own timetables. Not Madison Metro's.

Have your kids seen the PETA campaign yet? How have you dealt with explaining such disturbing images to them?

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