A Curious Tale: Researchers and their Animals

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.

Scicurious

Neurotopia Blog

17 responses to “A Curious Tale: Researchers and their Animals

  1. “With regard to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and cancer (etc.), I am suggesting that if we do not have the means to study these diseases without causing serious harm to others then we simply do not have the means to study these diseases….full stop.”

    I think that’s were you start to loose most people. Most patients know that research on these diseases involves animal research and continue to support it. For me question is not our approach to research done decades or centuries ago in societies that are duifferent to our own but what our attitude to the medicines being developed now is.
    Your view would deny patients treatments that they want and need, that is the important opoint, not whether you or I take a treatment that was developed a long time ago using methods that we might not approve of.

    “Cancer in particular is largely a preventable disease being largely attributable to diet and living in a toxic environment…perhaps we should focuse on an ounce of prevention rather than a pound of cure…as they say”

    The evidence for the toxic environment argument is pretty weak, sure there are some examples of populations where the incidence of particular diseases has increased due to exposure to fairly high levels of toxins but a lot of the arguments for wider effects on the population are poor, and usually confined to the extreme right and left-wing pseudoscience sites and journals*. Take smoking and lung cancer, possible the clearest example of a link between exposure to a source of toxins, yet about 10% of long cancer cases occur in people who have never smoked.

    While it would certainly be possible to reduce the incidence of cadriovascular disease and some cancers significantly through people adopting healthy diets and exercising more, but even if we could halve the incidence of these diseases there would still be a great need for effective treatments.

    I’m often struck by an implication in some comments by AR activists that people whose diet isn’t so good and who don’t exercise enough don’t have the same moral worth as people who do, it seems a very narrow and unpleasant view to me.

    *there are exceptions such as bisphenol A, but of course a lot of the evidence for the low dose toxicity of bisphenol A comes from animal tests.

  2. Jack –

    What do you do when useful discoveries are made as a result of unethical experiments conducted on humans…do you suggest people reject such knowledge because of its tainited origin or do you advise that we use such knowledge knowing full well that harm has been done?

    Case in point: J. Marion Sims, the so-called father of gynecology used unconsenting slave women as subjects yet his accomplishments are significant and continue to benefit current patients.

    The Tuskegee study also produced a lot of new information regarding syphillis…yet it was clearly unethical and yet we don’t close our eyes to what was learned.

  3. Jack Demolay

    Why would the researcher volunteer? We believe in using animal models. Once again the AR side shows it’s hypocrisy! You don’t see anything wrong with taking advantage of the medical procedures developed through research but want it stopped. Classic. I’m done with you. Clearly you’re an idiot.

  4. Animals are not moral agents…we have found a point of agreement!

    It is probably a matter of semantics whether we want to then suggest that they are inherently innocent (without moral culpability…like an infant)…or whether we want to say that neither “innocent” nor “guilty” is applicable.

    But the fact remains that we subject them to a fate that most of us would not endorse for moral agents who are guilty of the most heinous crimes.

    With regard to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and cancer (etc.), I am suggesting that if we do not have the means to study these diseases without causing serious harm to others then we simply do not have the means to study these diseases….full stop.

    Cancer in particular is largely a preventable disease being largely attributable to diet and living in a toxic environment…perhaps we should focuse on an ounce of prevention rather than a pound of cure…as they say.

  5. What on earth does innocent mean with respect to an animal? If one animal kills another is it guilty? Shall we put the killer whale that killed its trainer in jail? Animals are not moral agents – they cannot act on right and wrong in the same way humans can – they do not act upon a system of morality.

    By calling for a banning of animal research you are condemning Parkinson’s patients, Alzheimer’s patients, many cancer patients, and HIV+ patients, a life of suffering – endured by them and their families. Is that your version of compassion?

    Having a neurodegenerative disease, by its nature, does not make it easy to refuse treatment.

  6. Activists argue against the use of innocent parties for invasive and deadly research….it is vivisectors and their defenders who believe such exploitation is appropriate, so it would be more reasonable for them to volunteer.

    Regarding the suggestion that activists refuse treatment….I don’t necessarily think anyone is morally required to refuse treatment from unethical experiments conduct on humans or nonhuman animals.

    That being said, I would still likely refuse treatment for the neurodegenerative condition that I have should one be obtained via animal research.

  7. You cannot cite the number of people suffering from Parkinson’s and then suggest that anything goes. Researchers who inflict mice with Parkinson’s add to the number of individuals suffering from this disease and then the media publishes celebratory headlines that get people’s hopes up prematurely (at best).

    When such studies are conducted the suffering is certain and the chance for a cure or serious treatment being discovered is exceedlingly low.

    But if the suffering of mice doesn’t count for much in your calculus then I guess it strikes you as a good deal.

    It’s like gambling with someone else’s money – if you nothing to lose, the odds don’t really matter.

    • Jack Demolay

      So we should just let people suffer with Parkinson’s and tell them “you’re out of luck.”? Real compassionate of you.

      • No – we should just tell them that we sympathize and that is why we are busy inflicting the disease on others…

      • Jack Demolay

        So you’re saying we should inflict it on humans and spare the animals? Do you volunteer to be the first test subject for that? Surely the animal rights activist will be the first to step forward and volunteer to take the place of an animal in medical research.

        You still haven’t addressed my comment about forgoing any and all treatments or medical procedures learned from animal research. Will you?

  8. Considering the number of people (not to mention their families) who suffer from Parkinson’s it seems a very compassionate act all things considered.

  9. Jack –

    As you know, enough is published in readily available journals and databases to support my claims. Furthermore, even video footage taken by vivisectors themselves (not undercover footage that you might question the authenticity of) is available online.

    Heck, the mainstream media publishes enough to support my claims…in today’s Omaha World-Herald there is an article about researchers who inflict mice with Parkinson’s…

    To breed animals for illness is hardly a very compassionate act.

    Researchers can’t have it both ways: claiming to be transparent but then accusing anyone who hasn’t spent time in a lab of being completely in the dark as to what goes on.

    • Jack Demolay

      There’s enough information out there in legitimate media describing the deceptive tactics of PETA and the HSUS too, yet people still believe they do good work. Look, if you don’t agree with animal research that’s fine,but you have to refuse any and all advances made through such research. Otherwise you’re just another idiot with no credibility. Funny how when that type of decision is placed in front of animal rights radicals they suddenly find all kinds of reasons to not have to do that. You can’t have it both ways either.

  10. Another interesting post today by Mark chu-Carrol on the “Good Math, bad math blog” this time concerning the limitations of computer simulations of living systems.

    http://scienceblogs.com/goodmath/2010/03/_in_my_post_yesterday.php

  11. Jack Demolay

    Gerald,

    I guarantee that the level of compassion that research animal caretakers provide their animals is superior to the level of care PETA and the HSUS gives to the animals they “rescue”. I think both of those organizations euthanize upwards of 90% animals they get. The same can be said for ALF who release animals into the wild that haven’t a clue how to fend for themselves. How long do you suppose a white mouse lasts in the woods before it’s hawk food? Of course ALF doesn’t worry so much about mice because they don’t elicit the cuteness factor they’re going for. They are bravely “liberating” the 2% of laboratory animals that aren’t rodents. Very big of them.

    I’m assuming you’ve never actually been to an animal research facility so you have no basis for your comments. The animals could all be in the facility watch WWE on Pay-
    Per-View for all you know. If you’re going to come on here and make ignorant statements about the level of care or compassion at least know what you’re talking about.

  12. Laboratory equipment also often requires extensive maintenance…giving animals the level of care necessary to get the desired data is not a sign of compassion.

  13. Speaking of pseudonomous bloggers, Orac has another great post up on the Respectful Insolence blog about responding to the “scientific” arguments of animal rights activists.

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2010/03/answering_scientific_arguments_of_an.php