Summer research

“Imagine aliens came down to our planet,” I said, proposing a scenario to one of the researchers who is working on a project that I am assisting in this summer. “And they look at this. They see all this, all these racks. They see us with our gowns and bonnets and face masks, every inch of skin covered. Then they look into the cages and see all these animals locked in there, squirming around in these tiny spaces, trying to make some semblance of a home out of pieces of bedding shoved up against the plastic sides of the cages. They looked back and see us holding one of the mice, poking it and prodding it, shoving into tubes. Then they look to see another researcher sticking a needle into the heart of one of the animals to drain it of all its blood. What do you think these aliens would think?”

I ask myself that question a lot: what would aliens think? To me it attempts to provide an unbiased approach, assuming aliens are child like I guess. It attempts to get me out of the equation.

I applied to work with this research project in the spring and was quickly thrown into it to replace the graduating assistants. Initially, I was very excited to have earned the position and to have something to occupy me this summer and strengthen my resume. It seemed like an awesome experience. I would get lab experience as well us much needed research experience if I had any intentions of attending a school of medicine such as Carillion in Roanoke, Virginia which emphasizes medical research.

But my excitement soon dissipated. In training, on the first day, I accidentally sprained one of the mice’s legs trying to draw blood. She was euthanized shortly after to demonstrate the “cardiac puncture” which you can imagine without me having to describe. I understand that most people hate mice because they are almost always pests whenever we encounter them. But don’t fool yourself, a lab just down the street tests little furry cute bunnies. Next door to that lab they have cages full of dogs. If you think they give them hugs and kisses and kongs full of peanut butter then you are very mistaken. In reality, there is very little differentiation between animals in the research field. If it will potentially benefit a human or may harm a human, to the researchers it is worth testing on animals.

This research is fairly relaxed. We don’t inject the animals with cancer cells or give them some interesting virus. When we are done using them, we think we are doing a great thing by transferring them to another project rather than killing them the second they are no longer of use to us. So to have difficulty with this project would sort of highlight all animal testing as inhumane because this testing is so noninvasive.

To me there are different levels of testing. There are the for sure, definite, no question no-no’s like trying to find out if this new lipstick will cause the user to have their lips disintegrate into a pool of blood and decaying flesh. The make-up industry has been painting their animals pretty for longer than I have been alive. When the animal’s face falls off or boils up with pus, the researchers go back to the drawing board. Obviously this is inhumane and senseless. Girl, you are beautiful. You don’t need all those dead monkeys to make you purty. I wish I could say that I am innocent but I am sure that this deodorant keeping me nice and fresh probably went through a dozen trials with horribly disgusting consequences to the animal.

Then there are the more easily supported forms of animal testing: medical research. This group splits strongly into two categories in my opinion. First, we have the chronic illnesses, the ones that come late in life and may have something to do with the end of your life. In this group fall dementia, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, cancer, and many other diseases known well to the older population. To me the animal testing to benefit the cure of these diseases is wrong. People, settle down, let me explain myself. We are all going to die. Life is finite and to me the attempts to cure these illnesses are attempts to cure death. Death is not a disease. And besides, dementia was not even a prominent illness until we started living to eighty years. What happens when find a solution to dementia and begin living to 150 years? Some new and exciting disease will come along to take its place. The longer we live, more of us is going to degrade so do we continue to search for solutions to each and every issue that faces us? Maybe. If you believe so, then this form of animal testing probably is not questionable. However, I think we should accept and embrace the brevity of our existence rather than actively seeking solutions to these chronic illnesses.

But if we did not do that research, would we be living as long as we are today? Probably. That is because most of what has led us to such long lives is due to research on acute illnesses. This leads us to our next form of medical testing. Testing on acute illness is more invasive and typically pretty brutal for the animal but produces much more powerful results and is not ongoing. Take polio for example. Polio spread like a wild fire in the 1950s. We stopped it with a vaccine that originated from animal testing. This sounds like a heroic story of human achievement, but we still have to recognize that thousands of animals died painful deaths because of this. However, hundreds of thousands if not millions of humans including children survived because of that vaccine. Does that make it humane? I would say more so than research on animals for a select group of people who will most likely die soon anyways. However, why, if those patients have already contracted the disease and would most likely die anyways would we not use them for testing? I know that makes most people cringe, but it seems much more logical, if still being cold-hearted, to use subjects that already have the disease rather than injecting healthy subjects with it.

The research I am working on right now falls into the chronic illness category but does not involve injecting cancer cells into the animals or shoving a cigarette down their throat to see how long before their lungs fill with tar. It is fairly simple and non-invasive but still the animals are caged and their bodies are treated less like lives and more like tools. That is because to the researcher, they are exactly that: tools for a better understanding of this disease for human benefit.

There is a governing body that oversees all the animal research in the nation known as the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee or IACUC. IACUC makes sure we do not stray from what we are saying we are doing and makes sure the researcher is not some sick weirdo torturing animals. They also have to approve any proposal for research on animals and have every right to refuse the researcher from conducting the research. While this definitely ensures most animal testing is more humane, the whole concept of this governing body frustrates me. The officers for IACUC act like valiant soldiers against animal cruelty. They treat every stray from the protocol with homicide case-like seriousness. To me this is just to justify to themselves and to the nation that what we are doing is right. But the plain and simple fact is that coating a turd with sprinkles does not make it delicious. They say that the animal comes first and that the animals health is of first concern. I have been lectured on this a dozen times but I don’t see any freeing of these trapped animals. It is a prison, but not only that, a prison of torture. If we were concerned for the mouse’s health, our testing would not involve giving them heart disease or diabetes.

I questioned this research and still am so much that I consider quitting. I have never been a proponent of quitting and thought about how I wanted to at least tough it out through the end of the summer. I signed up for this position and they need me. This is my job and I am important and essential. But what I realized is that this form of thinking may be why animal testing is still considered humane. I put myself in the position of a Nazi officer and realized I would justify my actions with similar statements. It disgusted me and scared me. Is what I am doing synonymous to that comparison? Of course not. But to fall anywhere close to those attitudes of superiority is troubling. I realized that I could not have any attachment to the research beyond education and to determine where I stand on this debate.

I am torn every day wondering what the answer is. If I determine that this rather simple and non-invasive form of animal testing is inhumane then only testing on acute illness will remain in question. My proposed career in the medical field would become very limited, if not non existent. My intake of complex drugs would cease and my selection of deodorants,  lotions, and shampoos will be much more limited. There are serious implications of this decision that will effect my life forever and what better way to be fully educated than to handle the animals and test on them myself. But it saddens me the difficulty I am having with making this decision. Mice have suffered immensely in my care and are continuing to do so every day that I hesitate to make a decision.

Some people in the lab avoid confronting this problem by not thinking about. I instead want to struggle with it so I know for certain what I believe. So many people adopt a blind attitude of superiority that they never question. They think that just because they are capable of doing something, that they should do it. There are a lot of meat heads in this world who would think I am a hippie who would respond with disgustingly power hungry attitudes to my belief. But this world is a very small finite community. It is not everything there is and humans are not all there is. We are minuscule. To a mouse, I am three thousand times bigger but to something, I am three thousand times smaller. To realize that, and accept that there is something way larger to me, something that could see me as I see a mouse, is very humbling. So what would the aliens think? They could be the size of blue whales and have intelligence way beyond our capability. They could lock us in cages and run tests on us. They could think of us as lesser and justify their testing because of our stupidity and size. Or they could come down and being capable of much greater empathy, would be disgusted with the cages and the testing. Either way, I don’t see us as the superior being. An unlikely situation in my lifetime, I still do wonder what the aliens would think.

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