Tag Archives: critical analysis

Felicia the ferret: animals and science

Felicia the ferret. Image taken from Fermilab.

Scientific knowledge comes from inquiry into the natural world.  It is a valuable and important part of human existence.  As we learn and invent, it is equally important that we constantly reflect on how we do science — it is just as important to refine — to do science better.

I believe that using animals for experimentation is unethical.

I have a brief pause, reading the old articles about Felicia the ferret, who helped to clean the tubes at the National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois.  There is something sweet about Felicia’s work that belies my understanding of animals in research laboratories.  Here are a few examination of the 1971 newspaper descriptions of this ferret used for science.

1. Natural aptitude

It seems as though each article describes the natural skills that make Felicia the ferret particularly capable of the tasks she is given (running a string through 300 foot tubes).  David Anderson’s article highlights the role of Robert Sheldon, the scientist who suggested that the lab try a ferret.

Being British, Sheldon remembered the use of ferrets by poachers who sent them into burrows after rabbits on English estates. Gamekeepers could hear the shooting of guns, but never the silent ferrets.

“Felicia is ideal for the work,” Pelczarski said. “The ferret is an animal filled with curiosity and seeks out holes and burrows. Its instinct is to find out what’s at the other end of a burrow, or, for that matter, a tube or a pipe.”

via Fermilab History and Archives Project | Natural History – Wildlife – Felicia Ferret.

2. Feminizing Felicia

Felicia the ferret is feminized at a number of points in the articles. Consider Peter Vaughn’s Minneapolis Star essay.  The introduction begins:

It is one of those success stories you read about: A small-town girl fresh off the farm finds fame and fortune.

Well, Felicia, who spent her early years on the farm of Stan Fredin near Gaylord, Minn., isn’t the average Minnesota farm girl.

In the first place, her hair is three different colors – brown, white and black.

Also, she is small as Minnesota girls go, barely topping 4 inches when on all fours.

Felicia is a ferret and left Fredin’s farm early this summer for a job with the National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, IL.

via Fermilab History and Archives Project | Natural History – Wildlife – Felicia Ferret.

Several of the articles suggest that Felicia be rewarded with a mate — each time the suggestion was denied because if she became pregnant she might not fit through the small holes she was being trained to run through.

She has her own special set of weight watchers, including Sheldon, who just doesn’t intend to let her get too big for the job.

Asked why there was only one ferret, Sheldon laughed and said, “If you think she needs company, you’re not really thinking ahead. We have to. Motherhood might just put her out of a job. Her career depends on her size. She’s important to us, but one is enough.”

via Fermilab History and Archives Project | Natural History – Wildlife – Felicia Ferret.

3. Memorializing Felicia to justify the use of animals in science.

Many of representations in these four articles are justifications for breeding, enslaving and using an animal for someone’s gain.

Part of the problem is that Felicia is a particular case — her work didn’t involve being cut open or enduring a painful series of experimental drugs.  Everyone can be sold the bogus particular story of a cute rodent running through the tubes bravely helping the scientists.  Contrast that to the 13 million animals being used in research.  The American Anti-Vivisection Society note that most of the test subjects are mice, rats and other rodents . . . like cute little Felicia!

Though the scientific value and ethics of animal research are increasingly being questioned, it is estimated that over 13 million animals are still being used in a wide variety of research projects every year in the United States. Purpose-bred birds, rats, and mice, as well as fish and other cold-blooded animals, make up the vast majority of the animals used in research (over 90 percent), yet are specifically excluded from the Animal Welfare Act. As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not keep records of the use of these animals, nor is there any legal requirement to afford these animals even the minimal standards of care provided by the Animal Welfare Act.

via Animals Used in Research – The American Anti-Vivisection Society (AAVS).

Which makes the particularizing and justifying of this individual animal’s story so worthy of amplification.  Kathryn Winslow’s plaintive profile of the ferret is a pretty stark contrast to the usual life of a ferret in a research laboratory.

Felicia turned out to be a virtuoso at her work. She carried whatever was fastened to her harness for long distances, sometimes around many obstacles on the course. Those working with her were so pleased that they wanted to reward her at the open end of her journey, but they could not find a tidbit she particularly longed for. She was happy enough to see her cage at the end of the journey, the only lure that was ever used to bring her out at the other end.

She was soon famous. She has been talked about on radio, seen on television numerous times, and been written up in magazines and newspapers with national and international coverage. She stars in a television film to be released soon in Europe. Her personal “manager” at the laboratory is Walter Pelczarski, who lives in Clarendon Hills.

via Fermilab History and Archives Project | Natural History – Wildlife – Felicia Ferret.

This particular article notes that Felicia became famous for her participation in the cleaning of the tubes — an animal celebrity.   Why would this ferret get it’s own movie?  From an anthropocentric perspective this cute furry animal that solves a little problem in this giant scientific endeavor grounds the abstract science in a narrative that is comfortable.

Felicia didn’t want to go through those tubes, she was bred and raised particularly for this task.  She was trained and rewarded, and of course kept in a cage for most of her life.

When Felicia’s job running a string down the particle accelerator tubes was given to a small robot, the romantic save-the-particular-animal trope becomes more visible.  Again Kathryn Winslow in the Tribune:

This good life may soon end for Felicia. The laboratory scientists have designed and built a mechanical ferret, a device activated by compressed air and controlled by wires. They don’t need Felicia anymore. This was always the plan, with Felicia to be used only temporarily, while they built her robot.

But now Felicia is famous and she has a following of people concerned for her welfare; people who do not want to see her sent to a museum as an exhibit, which is what the laboratory may do with her two weeks from now.

They are thinking of sending her to Oak Ridge, Tenn., where there is a live museum of animals and creatures that have made a contribution to science. There are mice, guinea pigs, and snakes there, among other exhibits.

But it’s no place for Felicia, who is a pet and needs the affection of human beings. Will it take an act of Congress to save Felicia?

via Fermilab History and Archives Project | Natural History – Wildlife – Felicia Ferret.

Here is to an act of congress that frees all animals in captivity being used for experimentation.  If it’s good enough for Felicia, I bet it’s good enough for the ferret getting injected with Influenza virus down the road.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for the link to the Fermilab history and Archives project!)

Leave a comment

Filed under Animals, communication, juxtaposition, memorial, nature, representation, science

Frank Ocean (and Malcolm X) read disrespectfully

Two things about my bias on the topic of Frank Ocean fighting Chris Brown:

1.  I’ve been on team Frank Ocean for a while.

2. I think Chris Brown is a douchebag.


Thanks to missinfo.tv for the nice graphic.

In the days following the fight between Frank Ocean and Chris Brown a lot of discussion about both of the artists were made visible in the commentary about the fight.  One of the most interesting to me is the January 28 MissInfo report on the disagreement.  Shortly after this post appeared, Frank Ocean chose not to press charges and forgave Chris Brown, but for a day in January 2013, the hip hop world thought Frank Ocean was snitching.  When the reports came out that Frank Ocean was going to press charges, MissInfo authored a funny send up of the New York Post’s coverage and added her own humorous image seen above.

It is worth taking time to talk about Missinfo’s choice of representation.  I assume that this graphic suggests that Frank Ocean took it too far — fighting for a parking space.  A tactic to minimize the significance of the violence and in particular associate the violence with the parking space rather than . . . say . . . anti-gay slurs.  MissInfo explains why she asked her friend to make the parody image of Frank Ocean as Malcolm X:

At least that hogwash about this being a “hate crime” got kiboshed. That would have been absurd. Correction…more absurd. This whole thing is already all the way Absurdistan.

In reaction to the story, I asked my buddy Phil to create a parody-homage for my instagram.

via MissInfo.tv » Frank Ocean Wants To Press Charges Against Chris Brown, Says L.A. Sheriff.

The image of Malcolm X has such an amazing history — it was taken during the under-discussed late years of El Hajj Malik El Shabazz where he was actively struggling with the Nation of Islam and building a new organization all while under heavy government surveillance.  Death threats, shootings and the 1965 firebombing of his house (almost killing his family) are necessary context for this image itself.  Separate the visual from the history or context and it becomes malleable, able to be bent to the representation at hand.

(I wonder if MissInfo thinks that the armed Malcolm X is absurd, or is this just one more heavily armed person taking it too far and fighting over a parking space?  If it is Malcolm X in this parody — reduced to someone who is a stand-in for armed extremist then we cut out a serious political history — sanitizing Shabazz.  If this is a comparison intended to mock Frank Ocean’s choice to press charges — in essence anchoring the act of violence to the parking space.  “Defend your parking space.” then the seriousness of Malcolm X is used to trivialize Frank Ocean.)

Today’s lengthy piece on Frank Ocean in the New York Times magazine gives a slightly more journalistic edge to the history between Chris Brown and Frank Ocean.

A feud with the notoriously violent and thin-skinned singer Chris Brown began on Twitter in June 2011 and included a couple of Brown’s associates following Ocean’s car after he left a studio. They posted footage of their interaction — the cars side by side, threats being hollered through open windows — to Worldstar Hip-Hop, a Web site that does many things but mostly hosts videos of fights. Ocean made an oblique mention of that situation when we were together, but I thought it was over. Then last month, the feud boiled over again, with conflicting reports that agreed on one thing: There had been an altercation between Ocean and Brown and a few other people on the street in Santa Monica.

via Frank Ocean Can Fly – NYTimes.com.

I’m pretty sure that last sentence is the best the New York Times editors feel safe releasing — without knowing more they don’t make a claim about what caused or what happened.

TMZ got a copy of the police report, and we get a slightly more direct choice of representations here.

Our Investigation revealed Victim Breaux, a music artist also known as Frank Ocean, was battered by Suspects Brown, Omololu, and Glass due to an apparent argument over a parking space.

The victim was initially uncooperative and did not want to give any details of the fight at the location of the incident, except for saying that he was assaulted.  The victim also refused any medical treatment for a cut to his right index finger and minor cut on his left temple.  The victim went to Cedars Sinai Hospital on his own and agreed to talk to us once at the hospital.  Therefore no arrests were made at the time of this report.

Once at the hospital, the victim told us Suspect Brown, also a music artist, was parked in the victim’s assigned parking spot at Westlake Recording Studios.  he walked to Suspect Brown in the lobby of the Studio and told Suspect Brown that he was parked in his parking spot.  Suddenly, Suspect Brown punched the victim on the side of his face.  Thereafter, suspects Omololu and Glass jumped in to help Suspect Brown beat the victim.  The victim fought back to defend himself as all three suspects pushed him into a corner and attempted to kick him while on the ground.  The entire fight lasted 1 to 2 minutes.  The victim believes he might have heard someone yell, “faggot!” but was unsure, who if anyone, made the statement.  After the beating, Suspect Brown said, “We can bust on you to! “Bust” is a slang term sued on the street to mean shoot.  The three suspects left the studio in an unknown direction.


There is a lot in this segment of the police report to contrast against MissInfo arguments.  Layer the police report against her choice of language to describe the fight.

Late last night, our worlds were rocked by the outbreak of violence between two sweet R&B crooners, Chris Brown, of the Greenish-Yellow Locks Vs. Frank Ocean, of The Exotic Headband. The two bumped heads (and a finger) after an argument in the parking lot of the Westlake recording studio. There were reports that Frank was upset over Chris parking in his space, and that Chris was blocked from driving off, and that Chris attempted a handshake, but then the scuffle popped off between the stars and their crews…and then doves cried.

via MissInfo.tv » Frank Ocean Wants To Press Charges Against Chris Brown, Says L.A. Sheriff.

There is a sexualized tone to her trivializing writeup in the choice of “sweet,” “bumped heads,” and “doves cried,”  to describe the fight.  And of course the notion that the fight is about the parking space instead of perhaps the long-standing disagreement that the New York Times was unable to uncover, or the refusal of the offered hand shake.  (I dunno, would you shake Chris Brown’s hand?)

Mostly MissInfo is enforcing — quite effectively — the ideology of no snitching.  She writes: “Frank Ocean doesn’t care about your silly “code of the streets”…He wants JUSTICE!”

And the funny part of this is that Frank Ocean has embodied the same code.  The police report makes this clear: “The victim was initially uncooperative and did not want to give any details of the fight at the location of the incident, except for saying that he was assaulted.”

And regardless of the cultural impact the fight and the representation present in MissInfo’s blog, Frank Ocean never did actually press charges.  Not only does he stand firmly with the wave of no snitching, but he recognized the intense negative public relations effects of being the person who testified sending Chris Brown to prison would have on his career.

Isn’t that how abusers often get away?  Relying on the fact that it sucks for any survivor of violence to have to deal with the police and courts.  It is totally unfair to suggest that it is Frank Ocean’s responsibility to press charges. I don’t know and can’t begin to judge.  But I can be sympathetic to the forces at work triggered by this sublime moment of violence.  And I suspect that most people would do the same thing — and like any other survivor of violence whose perpetrator is not in any way accountable — live with the conflicted reality of that choice.

As an anti-violence educator, I always make clear that the choice of violence is in the hands of the person being violent.  You don’t blame domestic abuse on survivors of domestic abusers.  The choice and responsibility for violence is solely — and intensely on the shoulders of those who choose violence.

It might seem like nit-picking, but I think it is fruitful to look at this one moment and the choices of this one hip hop intellectual (MissInfo) in her choices in telling the story of this fight.


Leave a comment

Filed under communication, Gay, hip hop, juxtaposition, media, music, police, propaganda, representation