Coffee And Conversation, $20. A Story About Ethics, For Claire!

Message to FitOldDog from Claire on Facebook

FitOldDog’s translation: “You were clearly an American-o-phile early on. Interesting to learn about what you did before you became a mouse assassin.”

FitOldDog's response to Claire.

FitOldDog’s response: “Well, it was the mice or my children.” [This kind of comment makes me wonder about ethics, and our speciesist, homocentric view of the Biosphere, and how best to handle it.]

I entered myDefinition of assassin career in Toxicology (the Science of Poisons), to become a ‘mouse assassin’, as a direct result of a desire to master the French language. I struggled hard with the ethics of any animal experimentation, until I saw my first case of human thalidomide toxicity. As a reward for my efforts, I’m now being ‘Taunted some more” [to quote Monty Python) on Facebook by my very French friend, Claire. At least it keeps me thinking in French, just a little. Did I master French? No! Does anyone truly master any language? I suspect not, but many better than I, I’m sure! At least I tried. N’est ce pas, Claire.

[quick clarification for Claire: like many English children born during or just after World War II, I was raised to be biased against Americans, by the following phrase, repeated over and over: “The problem with the American GIs is that they are overpaid, over-sexed and over here.” Then I became an American, much later, and I wouldn’t go back. I love living here – work hard and you can do OK, with a little luck.]

Cider House Rules

This fascinating book deals with the ethics of abortion. I know of no ethical dilemma that is truly black and white – there are always shades of grey, even if you haven’t thought of them yet. Stands to reason.

Most of my life I’ve had a job, and for some of those jobs, ethics was a critical issue.

Having been born in post-war England, money and other resources were in short supply, so earning money was essential if you wanted to buy anything. I worked wherever I could, but now I’m self-employed, and my mind comes up with the oddest ideas for the improvement of my revenue stream, as making a living from writing will take many years, that is clear.

This morning, mainly in response to the comment from Claire on Facebook, featured at the top of this post, oddly enough, my brain said, “How about, Coffee and Conversation, $20.” I think it is time for a story, don’t you.

How FitOldDog Became A Mouse Assassin in 1975

I like living with animals, and now I cannot imagine not sharing my home with at least a couple of dogs and a cat or two. My greatest love as a kid was to visit the local ponds, scoop up green, slimy, water, take it home, and study the many fascinating living creatures in my ‘jam jar,’ with my microscope. I loved watching tadpoles turn into frogs in our aquarium. I always let them go, later. For some reason, Biology, both plants and animals (and fungi!!!) have interested me, which took me into veterinary work, then sheep diseases, and finally to a career in Toxicology. But I had no desire to kill rats for a living, as they are the most delightful creatures. But I did like to eat steak & kidney pies, regularly, with little thought for animal rights at the time. I had yet to develop the circuitry of more advanced personal ethics, which I think must evolve throughout one’s life.

Drawing of monocular microscope.

A microscope just like the one FitOldDog had as a teenager in the 1950s, in Bristol, England. Image modified using Alien Skin software.

I became a rat assassin, but I didn’t like killing rats. In fact, when I had a cell culture lab., I didn’t like killing the cells, either. I thought they must enjoy some level of self-awareness, as they sure look motivated in time-lapse movies (boy, that was fun) – I will remain convinced that that is the case, until it’s proven otherwise.

So, being bored with diagnostic work, and needing a change from sheep diseases, I decided to move on. But to what? I thought about it, and, like most decisions in my life, there was a random component to the decision. My mind said, “Kevin, you loved learning French in school, so why not live in a French speaking country?” My family (wife, three young kids) was fine with the idea, so I applied for any job I could find in the French speaking world, including Canada, North Africa, France, and Switzerland. I got a job in Geneva, Switzerland (not the job I applied for!), doing scanning electron microscopy, IN FRENCH. I had the time of my life, but I also had to kill rats. Believe it or not, as a veterinarian in general practice, which I was for three years, you spend as much time killing animals as saving them. Old dogs! Cattle that you cannot cure. Foot and mouth disease, under the slaughter policy in the UK (yep, did that), and incurable cases of canine (doggy) distemper. You become used to it, not that you like it. So, killing a few rats to save people’s lives, whilst not being a vegetarian, I could handle, but I didn’t ever come to really accept it.

Pest mouse

How can anybody want to kill a lovely, little, curious, mouse, like this? But do you want them in your kitchen, and scurrying in the walls? Ethics! Not easy.

Finally, many years later, I migrated to applied mathematics, which could actually save the lives of millions of laboratory animals (and cultured cells) through the avoidance of unnecessary experimentation. Selling this idea was not easy, but my ‘soul’ was happy.

Think more, experiment less, is my mantra, today.

Was I a mouse assassin? Yes!

Was it easy? No!

Is it necessary? Yes, but less or none would both be good.

Are there easy answers to chemical safety?

Absolutely not, but trying to avoid the 1/1,000,000 risk is crazy – we really need to focus on avoiding a repeat of thalidomide, but that’s another story.

Life is full of hard choices. I said to Claire, “Well, it was the mice or my kids [you have to test the dangers of things, somehow].” Her reply, “The kids of course!” Langue dans la joue, I’m sure.

PS It is easy to have a black and white attitude to difficult ethical issues, if you don’t want to think about them deeply. Everything we do is a tradeoff, to some extent.

Choose wisely, Claire! Come by for coffee, and we can talk about it. Only $20!


FitOldDog, with his kids, when he became a mouse assassin. What to do?



  1. So as a matter of black and white all is grey and no issues are black and white?

    • No! There are black aspects, white aspects, and grey aspects, according to the consciousness making the judgement. So, somewhere out there are some of each.

      • Claire Cubells says

        Tu m’as bien fait rire, avec ton excellent extrait des Monty Pythons!
        Et pourquoi donc avais tu décide que tu voulais travailler dans un pays francophone?
        Mon appellation ‘assassin de petites souris’ était un clin d’œil : je me souviens qu’un de mes frères et sœur je crois, t’avait demande ce que tu faisais comme boulot, et tu avais répondu, avec un charmant petit accent anglais/British ‘: ‘moi, je suis tueur de petites souris’.
        A part ca, je n’ai pas grand chose à dire sur les questions éthiques que tu soulèves ; pour ma part, je travaille avec des gens, et la question des animaux et de l’expérimentation est assez loin de mes préoccupations.

        En ce qui concerne le choix de vivre aux US ou en Europe, nous avons clairement fait des choix différents ; je mentionnais à Meghan et Duncan dans un post , que j’écoutais France Inter ce matin en allant au boulot ; Wim Wender y était interviewé (au sujet de son film documentaire sur le photographe Sebastao Salgado, qui d’ailleurs a fait de somptueuses photos d’animaux). Wenders donc, disait qu’après avoir vécu 15 ans aux US, il était rentré et s’etait rendu compte que sa ‘patrie’ était l’Europe . Il insistait sur le fait qu’il se sentait européen, et non pas allemand. C’est un peu pareil en ce qui me concerne ; quand on est rentres à Paris après avoir vécu en Californie , je me suis dit que c’était en Europe que je me sentait bien ‘en profondeur’ ; j’aimerais découvrir l’Amérique latine, j’imagine que la bas aussi, je pourrais me sentir bien.Voili-voila, c’est tout pour l’instant,
        Bise, claire
        Ps : j’ai pas compris l’histoire des $20???

        • Les vingt dollars, c’est une blague. S’ll faut l’expliquer, ca ne marcherait plus.
          Nous nous some rentrees en Suisse, apres deux ans en Arkansas (ou j’ai fais ta connaisance; quelle bonne chance); avant trois semaines d’arrivant a Geneve, c’etait evident que les Etats Unis nous manques. Ice, c’est chez moi, maintenant. Il y a de la place, c’est tous. Bises, kevin

      • Sounds like you are being black and white with this reply to me!

  2. I dont like any creature to be killed and did try to save, err, get out of the house, the mouse my cat brought indoors for his amusement.

    • Hi Marsha! We were infested once – it was terrible, and there was no choice. The whole house smelt of methyl acetamide (aka ethenamide), the lovely smell of mice. Droppings all over the place. I tried live traps, took them miles away, and more came in. We had no choice, especially with the risks of hantavirus, but to have them exterminated. They got the message, never (so far, 5 years later) to return, but I hated doing it. They are really cute, intelligent creatures, unlike humans, I guess. Cheers, Kevin

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Disclaimer: As a veterinarian, I do not provide medical advice for human animals. If you undertake or modify an exercise program, consult your medical advisors before doing so. Undertaking activities pursued by the author does not mean that he endorses your undertaking such activities, which is clearly your decision and responsibility. Be careful and sensible, please.