There’s nothing quite so clarifying as the unequivocal opinion of a clear-minded teenager. Years ago, sitting at our dinner table, my 14-year-old daughter listened to me describe a project that my firm was bidding on and might potentially be awarded. Her response was bracing.
For years, our firm had been wooing this client, one who did not fit our typical profile. The chase was all about proving that we would be a great fit because we had designed similar projects for other clients. Our firm was finally granted an opportunity to propose renovations to a building with laboratory and office space. Despite the short schedule, low budget, and challenging conditions (the building was a difficult space in which to work), we were eager to prove our value.
During a tour of the site, we came upon row upon row of animals in cages. Labs keep animals in cages for one reason only.
Years before, my partner and I had discussed what we didn’t want to design: Prisons. Private homes (“marriage counseling,” in my mind). We never spoke of animal testing. Throughout my career, the projects I’d been involved with focused on basic life activities — work, learning, commerce. This was death, and its presence was chilling.
Proponents of animal testing would argue that it saves human lives. I couldn’t get past its cloak of death.
The prospect of designing an animaltesting lab touched off a debate in our office. Since we had never designed such a facility, some cited practical considerations for staying away from the project. Others cynically offered: “Someone else will do it if we don’t.” Many of our staff asked us to drop out of the running; they made clear that if we remained in contention and were successful, they could not in good conscience work on the project. Their passion was real, and it was compelling.
I began to think about the implications of removing the firm from contention. Would it put us at a disadvantage for future work? When you refuse a project, do clients come back? Was it a hollow gesture? Would doing so change anything?
We decided to pull out of the competition without issuing any grand statements. Nor did we try to make a larger point about the ethical treatment of animals. The project was ultimately designed by another firm. It would be a decade before we were awarded a project with this client, and this time, there was no animal testing. There were no rewards for what we did, nor should there be.
But I will always recall the talk around the family dinner table during that time, conversations with my children that revolved around our own dog and all the animals we loved. I also had silent inner conversations about the many ways humans are cruel to animals; wondering if society would one day be able to consider animal testing as a barbaric relic, unnecessary and hopelessly archaic. Most of all, I’ll never forget my daughter’s voice stating simply, quietly, and clearly: “You’re not going to do this, are you, Dad?”