A Very British Story

It is rare in the US that anything about the benefits of animal research makes the national newspapers. In the UK such stories do appear more often, and have contributed greatly to the general change in opinion surrounding the animal research issue. Saturday, December 4th, provided a wonderful example in The Guardian newspaper (a British national paper).

Experience: I’m proud I worked in an animal testing lab

It was a surprise to me that I ended up working in an animal testing facility. I’ve been a vegetarian most of my life and I wanted to be a teacher when I was younger. Animal testing wasn’t something I saw in my future.

I’ve always cared deeply about animals. My parents stopped eating meat because they disliked the way animals were farmed and slaughtered, and I felt the same way. Then I met my partner at university and when we graduated, he started working as a toxicologist, testing drugs that might potentially go on to be used for humans.

I was interested in his field of work; the more he told me, the more I understood and believed in it. My partner qualified for a Home Office licence, so he learned to handle animals in the right way and cause the least amount of trauma possible.

When a job came up, I applied. They checked me out thoroughly to make sure I had no affiliations with antivivisectionist groups. I started in a technical role away from the animal facility, preparing doses and equipment for clinical tests on humans.

After a few months, I asked to see where the animals were kept. In the back of my mind I saw the grainy black and white pictures of cats and monkeys in agony that appear on antivivisectionist stands. I was curious but reluctant, particularly to see the dogs. It was so hard to think of them in that environment. But they were bright-eyed and pleased to see us. They were kept in a different building from the rats, rabbits and mice, so the barking didn’t disturb them. The animals were behind strengthened glass, not unlike you see in a pet shop. Everything was clean and they all seemed content.

You couldn’t walk the dogs outside because it would interfere with the research, but there were play areas with toys. The husbandry staff talked to the animals and petted them. Seeing them reinforced my opinion that I was doing the right thing for the right reasons.

After a few years, I moved to my partner’s department, assisting research scientists with paperwork. It was like any other company, once the doors were shut and you’d passed security. People socialised, just like any other workplace.

I was fairly comfortable telling close friends where I worked, although initially I told only people I thought would be sympathetic. As time went on, I became indignant about having to be defensive and got more relaxed about who I told. People sometimes pulled faces but often they just wanted to clarify what was involved. Many people think cosmetics are still tested on animals, so they’d assume we squirted perfume into rabbits’ eyes.

I had to be more careful with people I didn’t know well. My partner and I had cover stories. Most people did, for self-protection. You wouldn’t call it a secret identity, but we gave people ideas that weren’t exactly accurate. We kept it general and vague. I’d say I was an administrator. I was quite adept at sidestepping the conversation to avoid getting too deep into telling lies. I didn’t get any thrill out of being secretive.

Our employer was happy to do as much as possible to protect us. An arrangement with the DVLA let us register our cars at another address so the plates couldn’t be used to trace where we lived. Protesters often followed or photographed cars. A group of people rolled up every week to protest – security sometimes knew when to expect them and circulated advance warnings. They’d stand outside the gates shouting “Murderer!” and lie down to prevent people’s cars coming out.

I stopped worrying about them – they were more of an inconvenience. It was sometimes scary wondering what they’d do, but they didn’t throw bricks at our cars, they usually just shouted abuse. In some ways, they won simply by making us paranoid. I’d be much more fearful outside work, but I got used to it.

Having a bunch of people so set against you can make you become more determined. I thought: “You might not agree, but I’m doing the right thing.” I was proud of my contribution, helping to test out potentially life-saving drugs.

Leaving was never about the work or the company – I moved away for family reasons. I work in administration now. It’s a relief not having to hesitate or look around before saying what I do, but I was proud to work there and I’m always looking for that same sense of satisfaction.

It is honest, heartfelt stories like this which help change the minds of ordinary people who had not previously considered the role of animals in research, but hear only the shock stories from groups like PETA.

There is, of course, only one flaw with the story. The author has chosen to remain anonymous, which may serve to perpetuate the idea that speaking out in favour of research will lead to them being targeted. This is not the case. Animal rights activists target a very, very small minority of researchers – this is usually on how prolific their research is (and how easily it can be misconstrued) and irrelevant of how outspoken they are about their research. In fact, those who are more pro-actively vocal about the benefits of their research are often left alone as a “hard” target by animal rights activists who prefer to simply scare a researcher into providing them with a successful “I quit” story.

It is up to people, like the author, to speak up, through all avenues available, to explain the benefits of animal research; there are many misconceptions about testing – it is up to researchers to face these misunderstandings head on.



2 responses to “A Very British Story

  1. That awful argument needs to be repudiated. In fact, the case is stronger for vegetarianism for scientists who use animals in their research. Since the moral argument for the latter is premised on distinguishing “justifiable uses” from non-justifiable, it is hard for many opponents of animal research to take seriously scientists who consume animals for non-necessary purposes and enjoyment and yet claim to be reliable in their judgments as to whether or not the use of animals in research is “necessary.” One might argue that scientists using animals in research have a stronger moral obligation to repudiate non-necessary and entirely unjustifiable consumption of animals in our diet.

    Well, I can’t hope for that sort of progress, just stopping the stupid argument that you can’t rationally be (or have reason to be) a vegetarian while using animals for medical research and at least the irrationality in the world would decrease a bit.

  2. Although I’m far from convinced with the ethics of animal research, at least this goes some way to dispel the ridiculous argument that I’ve heard by various scientists I used to work with suggesting being vegetarian and pro-animal research are mutually exclusive.