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Doing What Light Does

An interview with Theo Capaldo on the psychology of compassion.

Fauna Foundation, used with permission
Source: Fauna Foundation, used with permission

Dr. Theodora Capaldo is Chief Executive Officer of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS), a not-for-profit founded in 1895 whose mission is “ending the use of animals in research, testing, and science education and replacing them with modern alternatives that are ethically, humanely, and scientifically superior.” She is also a licensed psychologist in practice for over 35 years. Here, Theo talks about how she brings psychology to NEAVS' national and international animal protection programs.

Theo, to start off, how does psychology play a role in in your animal work?

TC: Psychology doesn’t just play a role – it frames my entire work. Remembering that psychology was originally defined as “the study of the soul,” at its heart, psychology is a practice rooted in compassion. I don’t look at issues from a species perspective. When I look at an issue or meet someone, I ask, “What do I want to see happen for Homo sapiens, animals and the Earth?” My overarching goal is to support the continual evolution of our species toward a more compassionate sensibility. Once someone embraces this heart and mind set, they understand that compassion is not something you can compartmentalize. You just can’t. If you do compartmentalize, then it is not true compassion. It’s something else - either a short-lived emotional impulse or some narcissistic projection tailored to the giver not the recipient.

True compassion has no boundaries. True compassion does not discriminate. Every living being – whether a human child, an insect, a dog – is magnificently important and integral to the natural order. Nature has a plan grander and more sophisticated than that of humans. But our species takes it upon itself to impose our value system on all of nature. We position ourselves at the center and demand that everyone else be in our service. The question it is not, “Which species are worthy of consideration?” nor is it, “How much more can we extract from the Earth to make more and more money?” The real question we desperately need to be asking is quite simply answered and is described beautifully in a poem by Gillevec, Voir, (translated by Denise Levertov): [1]

Il s'agit de voir, tellement plus clair, de faire avec les choses comme lumière [It’s a question of seeing so much clearer, of doing to things what light does to them.]

J McArthur/NEAVS, used with permission
Source: J McArthur/NEAVS, used with permission

In other words, awareness, consciousness – taking off the blinders society wraps around us. Committing to seeing what really is. I see people everywhere trying to make this shift. For example, when people see a photo of the horrific research to which laboratory rats are subjected, I see their compassionate reaction. They feel the suffering, the fear and they want it to stop. I see how in the face of the truth – not the commercial, self-protecting, self-serving version of it – I see someone’s compassion. Compassion that is all embracing is the central philosophy in my work.

In addition to your work as a therapist for humans, you have, as a part of NEAVS’ efforts to retire and ban the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research, spent a lot of time with great apes in trauma recovery. Can you talk about these individuals, their experiences as biomedical subjects, and some of those who have been rescued and went on to live in sanctuary?

TC: Yes, here are a couple of examples. I was talking with a sanctuary founder. She was deeply concerned about many of the chimpanzees she had rescued who had spent decades as research subjects. Because I am a psychologist, she wanted to talk with me about their mental and emotional distress and their associated symptoms. She told me about the residents - Jeannie, Rachel, Pepper, Tom and the others – and their struggles to overcome the shadow of their traumatic past.

I heard about Jeannie, a female chimpanzee, who - no matter what was offered, no matter how safe the sanctuary tried to make her feel –continued to cling to the enclosure bars or huddle on the floor just as she had in the lab. Like other chimpanzees from the lab, Jeannie had lived alone in a tiny 5’x5’x7’ cage suspended by bars. She was literally hung in the air on a long line from which the other single-caged chimpanzees hung.

Every time a chimpanzee was readied for an experiment, he or she would first be anesthetized with a dart gun. As the chimpanzee saw someone approach, she or he would scream and bang around the cage to no avail in a frantic attempt to avoid the sharp projectile metal and drug. They were engulfed with terror. The entire row of cages would shake as if the earth itself was quaking. At these times, Jeannie learned to cling to the floor-the only semblance of safety she could find. When I was told about how she rejected warm comfy blankets and would only sleep on sheets of cardboard in the sanctuary, and how terrified she was to be with other chimps, I blurted out, “my god, if Jeannie was a human woman and not a chimpanzee woman, I would diagnose her as suffering from severe complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (c-PTSD).” Their physical and emotional suffering is the same as ours. No different than a Vietnam veteran or a survivor of sexual or physical abuse at the hands of the very same people on whom they depended for life [2,3,4]

Fauna Foundation, used with permission
Pepper at LEMSIP Lab.
Source: Fauna Foundation, used with permission
Fauna Foundation, used with permission
Pepper in sanctuary.
Source: Fauna Foundation, used with permission

All of the lab chimpanzees exhibited this kind of agitated vigilance and fear that resulted from the sheer terror and barren isolation of their lives. They responded no differently than a human who has been subjected to prolonged, inescapable abuse, forced to live in a world of constant fear and loss of all control. Then there was Rachel who self-mutilated and would erupt into self-directed bursts of aggression violently hitting her own head. Rachel had been raised as a human little girl, complete with bubble baths and a place at the family dining room table. When she became too big and too strong to handle, she was taken and left at a lab. This was a common occurrence. Private “pet” owners and animal trainers dumped their chimpanzees at any lab that would take them.

The chimps’ stories echoed what I had heard on so many occasions when a patient, broken and in pain, entered my office and wanted my help to heal. No different. And similarly, although there was healing, it was not possible to erase all of the psychological scars. However, because of the sanctuary director’s unfailing commitment, Jeannie, Pepper, Rachel, and the other chimpanzees showed incredible progress. Each eventually arrived at a place where it became obvious to them that their world was now safe. Each arrived to a space where life was finally worth living.

Most all researchers who use primates, rats, cats, dogs, rabbits, and other nonhuman animal subjects – so called animal models – in research do so because these species share with humans comparable brain structures and processes that govern cognition emotions, and consciousness. How is it, then, that they are able to, as you put it, “draw the line”, [5] continue to use animals in experiments while knowing how much their subjects suffer?

TC: Sadly, I think it is the numbing effect of the existing paradigm and the way in which scientists are educated. Callousness and indifference are fostered under the guise of “objectivity.” Cruelty does not come naturally. It has to be taught. For example, veterinary students begin with high levels of compassion toward animals that diminishes by the time they complete their schooling. Similarly, studies show that medical students entered their terminal dog lab experiences with regret and hesitation, only to emerge convinced they had participated in a sacred and privileged opportunity despite the animal suffering and death. They are taught that animals are necessarily sacrificed to achieve a noble end. Researchers who experiment on animals have stopped seeing the pain and fear in the animal’s eyes or just ignore it. But things and people are changing. There is an increased effort to replace the use animals with superior, humane science. We are at a point where we can assuredly say: the animal model will be put to rest. Ethics will win over greed. The old school of thought is dying. Professional schools in all disciplines are showing a new way of understanding that is changing scientific and educational policy and procedure significantly.

You have started a new initiative, “Common Ground.” What are its goals and how does it reflect your “psychology of compassion”?

TC: A lot of animal organizations are “accused” of not caring for the plight of fellow humans. I don’t think this is actually fair. More than any other sector, nonhuman animals are provided with the least protection and until very recently, there has been virtually little to no legal recourse for preventing abuse and neglect. This has motivated our work in anti-vivisection, ending animal testing, and so on. We speak for the voiceless, as all good people have in diverse social movements. But as I have described, animal rights relates to everyone on the planet. NEAVS initiated a Common Ground program that reflects the recognition of a connection among animal abuse, human well-being and the health of our environment. Historically, concerns about the environment and those of animal protection have been separate. But this makes no sense. We are all related, we are all suffering from humanity’s excesses. Take Flint Michigan. What politicians have done to the water system, the ecosystem, is killing fish, birds, humans and all other organisms. Toxic waste goes beyond boundaries! And so our compassion must follow beyond those same boundaries to correct or mitigate the harm, wherever it goes.

NEAVS, used with permission.
Source: NEAVS, used with permission.

Here is another example of this interdependence - one of Common Ground’s initial three educational outreach campaigns - “Horses & Hormones”. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is often prescribed to increase estrogen levels to treat menopausal symptoms, post-hysterectomy and transgender patients. Because of its high estrogen concentration, urine from pregnant mares is a key ingredient in many popular HRT drugs.

On pregnant mare urine (PMU) farms, female horses are confined to tiny stalls. They are fitted with urine collection bags that chafe and cause painful lesions and they are denied free access to water to increase estrogen concentration. Female foals replace their mothers, or are sold at auction for slaughter along with male foals and “spent” mares. None of this is necessary to support human health. All kinds of plant-based and synthetic HRTs exist with similar benefits as PMU.

Further, and something that most people do not realize or ask, “Where do the tens of millions animals used in research, testing and education go after they are used up, killed or die from their use?” Every animal used in laboratories has to be disposed. That means that all those little and large bodies go right back into the environment as bio-hazardous or even toxic waste. The use and abuse of animals is so widespread and commonplace that people rarely even consider the consequences of using frogs for dissection in classrooms – that to date staple of science education.

J McArthur/NEAVS, used with permission
Source: J McArthur/NEAVS, used with permission

Frogs, worms, cats and others are the usual first step in teaching budding scientists that animal life is expendable. The dissection of a frog includes the dissection of the human psyche. When we do this, we are cutting ourselves off from life and contributing to the obliteration of frog populations worldwide – forgetting how important this keystone species is to the natural world, is to us. The domination of one human group over another and the exploitation of non-human animals and the earth share similar psychological roots. Acknowledging this connection - working together toward shared social justice goals- is key for the success of the animal, women, and environmental movements. Just like the famous quote, “when one man is enslaved, no one is free.”

Related, you’ve also started another project directed at bringing more women into science?

TC: Yes, together with our sister organization, the American Fund for Alternatives to Animal Research (AFAAR), we have started a post-graduate fellowship grant for women committed to developing, validating, and using alternatives to animal methods in the investigation of women's health or sex differences. Medicine and biomedical research is still male dominated and this has created not only fiscal and professional inequalities but health problems. For one, there is increasing evidence that research on men often fails to apply accurately to women. Clinical trials traditionally use males to avoid liability for affecting possible pregnancies. Women are also excluded because the researchers have worried that hormonal cycles interfere with results, despite this being an important factor in determining whether drugs are safe.

As we learn of more consequences of biological sex differences, such as different drug reactions or susceptibility to various diseases, it becomes problematic – even unscientific – to rely on data derived mainly or exclusively from men. Women are underserved, even endangered, as a result. Our fellowship is aimed to bring greater representation of women in research that will also stimulate new ways of thinking and approaching issues. Statistically speaking, women are also the greatest allies for animal protection, specifically in ending their use in science, so it makes sense to support women who are fighting for human health and that of other animals.

NEAVS, used with permission.
Source: NEAVS, used with permission.

You recently published a special issue on Women Heroes in Animal Protection where you featured some thirty women who have been leaders in the fields of animal advocacy, sanctuary, science and so on.

TC: It was really a celebration. I wanted the women who have been such pioneers, such ground-breakers in the animal movement to see themselves reflected in each other. They are all practitioners of the “psychology of compassion.” It was an opportunity to appreciate how much the movement has depended on that so-called feminine energy – that female Bodhisattva, Kwan Yin, Goddess of Compassion – who vowed to not rest until “all beings were happy.” Such deep compassion tempers the ego, the dominating aggressive energy that we see so often and that can be so destructive. The women featured in the issue have moved mountains because of that compassionate warrior spirit they share. It does not mean that men have not done incredible things, but in almost all cases, these women have accomplished what they have without a big salary, without being the head of some company, and they have all done so against all odds.

Animals Asia, used with permission
Source: Animals Asia, used with permission

Take Jill Robinson, who founded Animals Asia. She found herself in China, found out about bile farming of Moon Bears, that terrible torture in which bears are kept in “crush” cages and subjected to excruciating extraction of bile for traditional medicine. And, once she found out, she could not leave without doing something. So she stayed and started what is truly a cultural revolution. It will not be long before the practice will be ended and she has accomplished this is such an amazing and gentle way. Through hard, respectful work, she has managed to change a thousands-of-years old cultural practice and she has done it in a way that leaves her admired and loved.

Then there is Gloria Grow who, around her 40th birthday, opened the first and only Canadian chimpanzee sanctuary. Many of the chimpanzees who she welcomed were infected with HIV having been inoculated in U.S. experiments. That didn’t stop her. Can you imagine? There was no manual on “How to” as this was among the very first laboratory rescues of chimpanzees. And she, unlike so many costumed in face masks, goggles and gloves, did not see the chimps as untouchables. Gloria figured it out and made it work. Knowing her led me and others in my field to look closely at the profound psychological trauma and recovery of another, non-human species. It helped us challenge that whole erroneous formula that ran: because chimpanzees are so like us genetically, we needed to use them in research to benefit humankind. This “necessity” argument simply ignores how like us they are emotionally, cognitively, socially, which had become an inconvenient truth to researchers.

NEAVS’ Project R&R (Release and Restitution for Chimpanzees in U.S. Laboratories) challenged the science behind the over inflated, unfounded belief that chimps would be a magic bullet in so many areas of human biomedical disease research. And, our work with Gloria presented unarguable evidence that their psychological suffering is no less than ours. We turned that paradigm upside down. And doing so played no small part in reaching NIH’s recent announcement that it saw no reason to continue funding chimpanzee research and would instead retire all of its chimpanzees to sanctuary. Jeannie, Rachel—all of them we came to know—helped drive this victory for all the rest of their distant relatives and friends still held in U.S. labs.

Others, like Birute Galdikas, Jane Goodall and Diane Fosse were mentored by a man, Louis Leakey, who knew that it would take a woman to successfully sit with, befriend, and protect great apes –orangutans, chimpanzees and gorillas, in their natural world. He knew what they would be able to do through nurturance, patience, observational skills and willingness to learn. Diane was a real fighter. Lots of people die for a cause, and sadly she did. But she left an incredible legacy and if it was not for her, it is doubtful gorillas would be alive today. So when you look at the women we celebrated, you can see they are true heroines, many of whom are not frequently enough acknowledged.

NEAVS, used with permission.
Source: NEAVS, used with permission.

During the development of our newsletter, we asked each woman “why do you think there are so many women leaders in the animal movement?” Shirley McGreal, whose network in helping primates extends to all corners of the globe, answered: “They told me I needed a man to head up my organization. But I was too stubborn and just did it myself.” April Truitt perhaps said it best: “Why do we do it? Because we can.”

Each of the women started something new and visionary. Each did what they did without any predecessor. We know the strength of that female warrior spirit. We have all heard stories of a seemingly small and delicate woman, who does something beyond heroic, like lifting a car to save her child. The chimps, bears, rabbits, turkeys, guinea pigs, and elephants, and, and…deserve that same gentle but ferocious protection.

I will forever kneel to this amazing female power that manifests against the odds of social, and often personal, oppression. These women and the many we could not include, have achieved amazing feats for animals and the Earth – and they did it themselves.

Acknowledgments: Nancy Finn, for assistance.

Literature Cited

[1] Guillevec, E. 1969. Selected Poems. Translated by Denise Levertov. New Directions.

[2] Bradshaw, G.A., Capaldo, T, Lindner, L & G. Grow. 2008. Building an inner sanctuary: trauma-induced symptoms in non-human great apes. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation. 9(1); p. 9-34.

[3] Bradshaw, G.A., Capaldo, T, Lindner, L & G. Grow. 2009. Developmental context effects on bicultural post-trauma self repair in Chimpanzees. Developmental Psychology, 45, 1376-1388.

[4] Capaldo, T. and G.A. Bradshaw. 2011. The bioethics of Great Apes: Psychiatric injury and duty of care. Animals & Society Policy Series.

[5] Drawing the Line. Interview with Theo Capaldo. Gooseberry Films.

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