Below is an account of how one researcher (Scicurious from the Neurotopia blog) views her animals, and the lengths she goes to ensure their welfare. Although such relationships vary from researcher to researcher, this account is almost certainly one which many researchers and animal care technicians will sympathise with. Scicurious (blogging pseudonym) is currently a grad student working towards a PhD in Physiology. This piece was originally posted as a post within a post on Neurotopia, and has been reprinted with full permission from the author.
Every day, at the lab, I head up to the animal colony. It’s my responsibility, and even though it’s work that, as a grad student, I probably shouldn’t be doing (I should be concentrating on other stuff and leaving this to the techs), I enjoy it. I have to sacrifice animals in my line of work, and taking care of the breeding colony, bringing new animals into the world, helps me feel a little bit better about it.
It’s more than kindness that makes me want to treat them well. Sick, uncared-for animals do not produce good data. It pays to have an animal caretaker that works well with their animals, as scared animals also do not produce good data. They benefit, and I benefit.
And the world benefits. Many people do not understand the value of animal research in neuroscience, the important things that can be learned from animals and applied to humans. Animal tests for anxiety, depression, addiction, or OCD may not be perfectly analogous, but they can tell you a great deal about how these diseases work. We can develop new treatments and cures. Progress is slow, but it’s essential. Once you have seen some of the people suffering with anxiety, depression, or addiction, looking entirely normal and yet completely unable to live their lives, you cannot just turn away. You want to help. These issues are not just problems of willpower, or problems of just needing to cheer up or relax. These problems originate in the brain, and in order to come to an understanding and a cure, we need to do research. And research into neurotransmitters, protein and gene expression levels, transporters, and signaling from one area to another is something that can still only be done in animals.
I work with animals. I am there for them rain or shine. I hike in to work to care for them when the roads are impassable with snow. I race in to work to make sure they have heat or cooling when the power goes out. During one paradigm, I did not get a day off for almost six months, because I had to care for them every day and no one else could replace me. Some people have it worse. I have heard heroic stories of vet techs remaining during a mandatory hurricane evacuation, stringing battery powered Christmas lights up in the rooms, and feeding and watering the animals every day, sometimes with water they had to beg from the Red Cross. I have heard stories of students, post-docs, and techs staying up all night to care for a sick or injured animal, working insane hours to preserve something as small as a mouse. And I have seen some of these same people near tears when an animal is put down. Even when the animal is put down for research reasons, it doesn’t stop us from caring.
I work with animals and I care for them a lot. As far as they can, they care for me as well. They don’t bite unless they have good reason. They cuddle in my arms, snuffling into my armpits where it’s warm. When they have injuries, they let me help them to the extent that I can. The species I work with doesn’t have a reputation for being very friendly, but we work well together.
Birth and death, I am there at every single moment in the life of my animals. I help sometimes to bring them into the world. I help to raise them, especially if their parents cannot do it very well (due to genetic issues or temperament). I feed them, I clean their living spaces. When they are young, I play with them. When they are adults, I do my experiments, treating them as gently as possible, and never forgetting that they are living beings worthy of respect and care. When they are older, I care for them, and make their lives easier. And when it’s time for them to go, I am there for them, too, to make it as painless and quick as possible. Can everyone say the same of their pet hamster or the burger they ate?
Many of the students, techs, and PIs that I work with have expressed similar feelings toward the animals they use. We respect them for what they can teach us, and we treat them well. But other people do not understand. And sometimes, they may understand, and they don’t agree. And that’s ok. I took my qualifying exams while people protested outside my building. But there’s disagreement, and then there’s…something else.
The other day I got something like this in my inbox:
“I hope what you do to animals is inflicted on your children”.
Just looking at that sentence makes my heart rate speed up, and my mind almost reels. I couldn’t get it out of my head. For several nights after that I dreamed that people were threatening me, entering my house, hurting my pets. The last dream I had involved an activist holding a gun to my head. Nights like those you don’t get a lot of sleep. I started checking my locks three times or more.
And this is nothing compared to what the bigger fish at my MRU get. I have heard of death threats, threats involving their children and noting where they go to school. At other institutions, people’s cars get burned, their houses get torched or flooded (or something their neighbors do by mistake), and fake or real bombs are dropped on their doorsteps. We are scared to communicate what we do to anyone outside of science. People ask and I say I’m a chemist. We fear the hatred and the accusations.
We are not monsters. We are the people trying to find the cures. Most people who go into biomedical science do it partly out of interest and partly out of a sense of duty. We see problems and we want to solve them. We want to help people. Many of us go into certain disciplines due to personal experience (could be very personal, friends, or family) with the problems involved: alcoholism, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, depression.
We are trying to help. That makes these threats hurt even more. The very people we are trying to help sometimes hate us for what we are doing. Sometimes, this makes us angry and cynical. Right now, it just makes me sad. And always, it makes us afraid. These people could destroy our lives, and the lives of our families, they could destroy our work, and they could hurt our animals.
And this is why its so important to speak out about our research. We need to tell people what we do and why we do it. We need to make it something that is understood, not feared, and understood to be necessary. The more the public knows and understands what we do and why we do it, the more they will help us. They will see the threats that some people are making as the actions of those too blinded by their views to keep to an open, legal protest. If we can get the public on our side, we may not feel like we have to hide our professions. We may feel that we can work without fear. ‘Til then, I’ll keep getting emails. And keep having nightmares. And keep on going. My work, and the animals I care for, are more important than fear.