Guest blog: Are we doing more to protect potential aliens on other planets than animals here on Earth?

Posted by David Eicher
on Wednesday, July 26, 2017

This guest blog comes from Paul Shapiro, the vice president of policy engagement at The Humane Society of the United States. You can follow him at

By Paul Shapiro

A dog dressed as Alfa 177 canine in an episode of Star Trek // YouTube
 Before departing on their 1975 voyage to become the first spacecraft to land on Mars, the Viking 1 and 2 landers had one final task: they had to get baked.

No, I’m not referring to a final going-away party for the billion-dollar machines. Rather, they were put in an oven for nearly 60 hours to destroy terrestrial microbes before being blasted into space and landing on the Red Planet.

In doing so, NASA complied with the United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967, requiring space-faring nations to “avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies” and similar procedures are still in place today. Our inanimate interplanetary emissaries undergo daily alcohol and hydrogen peroxide treatments to kill any bacteria their scientists may leave behind, and engineers wear full-body protective gear when in the same room as their equipment.

Similar to Star Trek’s Prime Directive that prevents Captain Kirk and crew from harming local inhabitants as they travel the Cosmos, NASA has its own Office of Planetary Protectionand its Captain Kirk is a remarkable scientist named Cassie Conley. She’s tasked with protecting potential alien life from the onslaught Homo sapiens may bring with us. As Wired notes in a stellar (literally) profile, “Conley’s office serves to prevent NASA from doing to Martians what European explorers did to Native Americans with smallpox.”  (Such protection is important both for the alien life and for the integrity of our own scientific exploration.)

It’s impressive the extent to which humans take extraordinary precautions to avoid harming living beings we may find elsewhere in our solar system. Yet it raises an uncomfortable question: If we’re so concerned about protecting alien life, what about the living beings with whom we share our own planet?

If we do find life on Mars, it’s possible we may not share any DNA with them (if they even have DNA). Yet right here on Earth, we abuse animals with whom we have common ancestors —and who can suffer— often without consideration of their most vital interests. For example, we beat elephants and tigers into submission and force them to perform for our amusement in circuses. We subject animals like rats and rabbits to painful experimentation to test new cosmetics. We even tear apart wild animal families by trapping them in steel-jaw leghold traps to kill them and sell their fur.

But perhaps nowhere is our disregard for life on Earth as stark as in our food system. The egg industry locks birds in cages so small they can’t spread their wings — ever. Meanwhile, chickens raised for meat languish in the physiological cages of their own bodies, genetically manipulated to grow so big so fast that many can barely even walk. And since the USDA doesn’t include chickens under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act — despite being nearly all of the land animals we eat — these birds are routinely killed in ways so violent that few would want to bear witness.

Going beyond the individual animals in the food supply, our meat-heavy diet is a leading cause of wild animal extinction here on Earth. That’s why the Center for Biological Diversity launched its “Take Extinction Off Your Plate” campaign urging consumers to prevent the eradication of earthly wildlife by simply reducing our meat consumption.

We humans are amazing animals. Our potential to empathetically consider the welfare of others is so great that we take monumental precautions to leave as minimal a footprint on other celestial bodies as we can. And our relationship with other animals on Earth isn’t all bad, of course: millions of us peacefully bird watch, whale watch, and rehabilitate injured wildlife.

Yet our capacity for callousness and cruelty is seemingly just as vast, as evidenced by how little precaution we take to prevent even the most heinous abuse of our own planetary brethren.

So far we’ve not found life anywhere else, but we do know one place it exists: right here on Earth. Perhaps the rest of us can learn a lesson from Cassie Conley and the folks at NASA: if they take such robust measures to pose a minimal threat to life elsewhere, maybe we can each adopt a similar mentality and do as little harm as possible to animals here as well.

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