In my tenth grade biology class, we dissected fetal pigs. It was near the end of the school year, the last couple of weeks of May, so it was really hot. The combination of stifling heat and formaldehyde fumes was exceedingly unpleasant, but I came to class excited to learn and investigate the inner-workings of the body. My partner and I received the pig we would be working with, and we had to decide between the two of us who was going to make the first incision. My partner was about to throw up, so I gladly grabbed the scissors and forceps. I loved animals—I still cry at just the thought of the end of Homeward Bound—and yet I had no qualms about cutting into this pig. “This is for science,” I thought to myself. “How else am I going to learn?”
After school that day, I began to think more about whether or not this pig deserved to die for the purpose of my education. I ventured into the local library and picked out the book Eating Animals by Johnathan Safran Foer, an author that I was already familiar with, and started reading. I finished the book that evening, and the next day was my first day as a vegetarian. My parents were absolutely against it, convinced that I would surely die without animals as a source of protein, and also convinced that this was just a phase that I was going through. Well, it’s five years later and I am both still alive and still not eating meat, so there’s that. In fact, I’m a vegan now.
But in the last five years, my initial questioning about my own feelings on using animals for science remains. Actually, it seems to have only gotten more complicated and muddled after three years as a neuroscience major. Over the summer I worked in a neuroscience lab where I conducted behavioral animal testing on mice; the bulk of it consisted of them running around in a box and occasionally playing with different toys while I recorded videos of them. At the end of the study, they were sacked (which is the neuroscience word for killed). It was quickly and relatively painlessly, but did I feel great about this? Obviously not. But I still worked there.
In order to have access to working in the animal facilities, I was required to go through hours of training that taught me about the history of animal research and the ways in which rules, regulations, restrictions, and policies aiming to reduce animal suffering have impacted the field. There are agencies in place to look over the design of animal experiments in order to ensure that the least amount of pain and suffering is inflicted as possible. The “three Rs” of animal testing urge reduction (using only the number of animals needed to significantly verify a finding), refinement (using the most humane and least painful and invasive techniques available), and replacement (seek alternatives to animal use whenever possible). Adhering to the rules of these overseeing agencies is not only necessary to maintain operation of labs, but also for gathering accurate results. This is not to say that all researchers in all facilities truly have the well-being of the animals that they test at heart, but at least in the place that I worked, I was comforted to know that animals were being housed properly, treated well, and cared for by a competent team of scientists, animal care staff, and veterinarians.
Am I citing all of this to ease my guilt and help me sleep at night? Honestly, probably yes. Insert some psychological terminology about cognitive dissonance here and you’re probably right on the money.
The reality of progress in science and medicine is that you cannot and should not use human subjects. And despite my summer research, I absolutely do not think that it is morally right or ethical to use animals for experimentation either. There is no reason for humans to think that we are somehow a superior species at the top of the hierarchy and use this as justification to exploit animal suffering in order to further our own agenda. This kind of ideology that values one life over another is inherently problematic and contributes to societal structures of inequality and oppression. And yet, when I think about the fact that so many of our tools of modern medicine, knowledge about learning and behavior, and standards for food safety and nutrition have only been made possible through animal research, it is difficult for me to demand that it should be ended in its entirely. We could certainly stand to reduce, refine, and replace a heck of a lot more than we are currently. But should we just stop trying to understand how the brain works in order to preventatively address certain illnesses? Stop developing new, better pharmaceuticals? Is an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s worth the lives of countless rats and mice? What about cancer? What about a cure for Ebola in the midst of the outbreak among thousands of people?
I care a lot about animals, but as someone who wants to work in medicine, I also care a lot about people. In theory the lives of all organisms on this planet should be “worth” equal value. But I still struggle with the idea that the life of, say, C elegans (a type of worm) is just as “important” as the life of a human. Maybe this makes me a terrible person, but that’s where I’m at right now. While I am against animal research in theory, I do not think that I can currently say that I am against all animal research as a practice. My reasons for being vegan are multidimensional, but it comes down to the facts that this lifestyle is better for animals, better for the environment, and better for my own health. Although, perhaps more importantly, I am able to be vegan because I am privileged enough to have access to a system of food production and distribution that allows me to still be healthy without harming animals. For people who depend on meat and dairy to provide the calories necessary to survive, this is not the case. Similarly, I think I have come to accept that in the present state of neuroscience and medicine, we have not yet developed the technology to entirely eliminate a dependence on animals, and our ability to reach that point requires their continued use. I am cautiously hopeful that, with further implementation of reduction, refinement, and replacement—such as culturing tissue in a dish or computational modeling—eventually we will progress toward a future in which animal research is no longer necessary.