In Memory of Donald J. Barnes
I am writing this memorial tribute in honor of Donald J. Barnes, who died in Texas on May 10, 2019. Don was a key figure in the animal rights movement in the 1980s and 1990s. He grew up on a family farm in Southern California where, as he writes in his biographical essay “A Matter of Change,” “I learned early to kill without guilt.” He went on to become a psychologist in the US Air Force, where he conducted horrific experiments on monkeys to determine the effects of radiation and electric shock on them as models for war.
He began to question the utility of these experiments. As his doubts grew, so did his empathy for the animals, as portrayed in the movie Project X (1987) which is based on Don’s Air Force career. In the 1980s he left the Air Force and ultimately headed the Washington, DC office of the National Anti-Vivisection Society. He debated vivisectors cleverly and brilliantly, with brio. I visited him often in his cigarette smoke-filled office. Don taught me how to use a computer, and I ran the early 4-page black & white copies of Poultry Press on his copy machine. He arranged my earliest speaking engagements, including a debate featuring him and me versus two representatives of the Ayn Rand-inspired Nathaniel Branden Institute on the pros and cons of animal rights.
In “A Matter of Change” (In Defense of Animals, ed. Peter Singer, 1985), Don raises the question of how he could do such terrible things to animals. He says, “I represented a classic example of what I choose to call ‘conditioned ethical blindness.’ My entire life had consisted of being rewarded for using animals, treating them as sources of human improvement or amusement. There had not been a single person with the temerity to challenge my behaviour towards other animals. Of course I was kind to animals; of course I loved my pets; of course I would tend to a sick bird, rabbit, dog or cat without question. On the other hand, I would belie my tenderness a moment later by eating a chicken, or a rabbit or a squirrel, or part of a steer. That was different in my mind; that was ‘meat.’ The word ‘meat’ is a means of distancing ourselves from the animals we eat, just as ‘negative reinforcement’ is a means of distancing ourselves from electrically shocking a creature who feels pain as much as, if not more than, we humans do.”
Don learned to cook delicious vegan dishes and he loved being in the
kitchen, making his creations for his friends. I am honored to have known
Don and to have learned important things from him at every level.
– Karen Davis