In the great myth of Noah's Ark the elephants went aboard two by two, and so did the little pandas and the cobras and scorpions and hornets. An obvious purpose of the myth was to explain the presence of animals on earth after a flood that destroyed terrestrial life.

But also implicit in the account is the determination of God that fleas should not vanish from the earth. All life, in this myth, has a divine warrant.

As it has all worked out, when we read the story we are likely to notice the divine vengeance on mankind, all of whom were killed except for Noah's family. We pay attention to the human part of the story, but the animals are just as much protected as man.

Once we attended a cocktail party given by a couple who were potters. My wife took a sip of her gin and down went a cockroach, barreling full steam to her throat. She could have spat it out when she first felt it, but one of the hazards of the genteel class is fear of spitting. She said excuse me and marched off to the john, by which time it was too late to save the cockroach. As a point of interest, roaches have sharp little feet. The throat was made extremely sore. Had to see a doctor. (Who, as usual, said open wide and my, my.)

At the same party was a woman from India who explained her gauze nose veil as a device to prevent the accidental slaughter of innocent gnats by breathing them in.

At the time, as we were not Hindu, we thought it somewhat silly or excessive. But after the roach, I know one woman who considered switching faiths.

Another time a moth flew into my ear with such vigor he could not be got out. The next day the doctor extracted delicate opalescent wing fragments. My original concern was for my ear, of course, but when the shattered wings were pulled out I could not help mourning the useless death of a beautiful creature.

Nature, in short, abounds in hideous examples of animals (including us) dying in terrible ways. No torture of animals by man exceeds the torture of animals by nature.

Then why are we so disgusted when a laboratory team at the University of Pennsylvania laughs when a monkey is catapulted into a wall in the study of head injuries? Think how much can be learned from such an experiment. We now know that primates fare ill when banged into a wall at 30 miles an hour. Such is the marvel of science. Such is the intellectual sophistication of a lab team. Thanks to rigorous training, the lab students will someday make $350,000 a year, probably warning their patients not to slam into walls.

The argument is that only by experiments on animals can we advance in the treatment of sick humans. It is just plausible enough to be widely believed. The argument goes on that animals are treated humanely in laboratories, given good food and housing, given anesthetics and a humane death.

Sure. Try watching the University of Pennsylvania film.

The former secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, heard of a project to study high-velocity rifle wounds by shooting dogs suspended in nets. "Not on my watch," he said and the project was abandoned, to the disappointment of some. You might think, if you were just a dumb layman, that we had had enough wars around the world that by now we actually have a good pool of soldiers and civilians with excellent wounds.

Or you might think, as the secretary possibly did, that since Cro-Magnon days the American notions of ethics have changed somewhat. The connected nature of life is more widely acknowledged today than it was a century ago, though in all generations there have been people who sensed that truth. Witness the Genesis myth. Martin Luther, to bring in a Protestant, thought dogs had souls. Jane Goodall, to bring in an expert observer, is convinced chimpanzees have whatever we do in the way of souls, whatever a soul may be.

Aesthetically, as well as ethically, it is no longer thought amusing to watch an animal being slowly and painfully killed. I except, of course, the lads at Philadelphia.

This Sunday morning some people will meet at the Ellipse and will march at noon to the Capitol in support of legislation on behalf of animals. Specifically, they want pending bills passed to overturn the present Lethal Dose 50 test, in which the poison level of consumer products is established by giving the poisons to a group of animals in increasing doses till half of them die.

Also endorsed by the marchers is the veal calf protection act, which would overturn the current practice of raising these meat animals chained at the neck and raised their entire lives in boxes as small as 2 feet by 5 feet.

Also endorsed is a bill to prohibit commercial and pleasure killing of animals in the nation's wildlife refuges. These were originally intended to be inviolate sanctuaries for the animals but more than half of them are open to hunters and 86 are open to trappers.

The march is approved by what are said to be literally thousands of humane and animal-rights associations, and an assortment of celebrities is supposed to be present.

But however many or however few people turn out, there is no doubt in my mind that the gulf between "animals" and "humans" is narrowing in a remarkable way.

It's dandy to think of old Noah, that disgusting drunk favored of God for reasons unclear to me. He saved two dogs, two fleas and two of everything else. How fragile the garland of life is may be gathered from this myth. Except for two, there would be nothing. Hurray, I say, for Noah drunk or sober. Hurray for fleas.