Recently, one of my beloved SciBlings, Janet, was one of the speakers at a UCLA Dialogue on the ethics of animals in research. Although I was more than a little afraid for her (of course her name, address, email, and phone were instantly posted all over the activists websites), but Sci's fears turned out unfounded and the dialogue apparently went off very well. You can see a full video here. Everyone remained respectful, the session was carefully moderated and educational for everyone.
Well, almost everyone.
Fast forward to last night, when I found out that one of the speakers, Dario Ringach, a neurobiologist, was being harassed again. Again. Harassment before got so bad that he stopped performing primate research in 2006. But he came out to speak, in a respectful dialogue about animals in research. He's a brave man. And for his reward for his respect and his willingness to engage, he got this:
As the pictures indicate, neighbors came out from many of the near-by houses, took leaflets and talked to activists about how much they hate their neighbor Dario for doing "hellish primate experimentation." One, in fact, gave an activist the name of the school one of his offspring attends! Activists plan on legally leafleting the school in order to educate fellow students what their classmate's father does for a living.
They're going to target his children. What they are doing is technically legal. They are going to frighten the crap out of his kids, possibly make them lose their friends, all because their DAD used to do primate research and SPOKE UP IN A DIALOGUE. Nice people. They've already done it before, banging on the windows of the house at night and scaring Dr. Ringach's wife and kids. Ringach already has to have a hired guard outside of his house. This sort of thing makes Sci so angry that she's almost incoherent. The very hypocrisy of it all makes me livid.
First of all, why researchers? Why not, say, protesting outside of a McDonald's or a Burger King or a pet store or a puppy mill? Animal rights activists decry these things, too. Why doesn't the CEO of McDonald's get his car bombed? Why doesn't that guy over there eating a burger get red paint thrown on him? WHY US?
There are several answers to this. First, researchers are easy to get to. We live in your neighborhoods, in your apartment buildings. Our kids go to your schools. The places where we do our work are very easy to see, they are often affiliated with the very hospitals that treat us all. It's not like with slaughterhouses, where you probably have to go substantially outside the city. It's not like with cattle yards or poultry farms or puppy mills, which are in the country. We're right there, and we're easy to get to.
Second, we are relatively unprotected. Some of us are comfortable, some of us are poor, but very few of us are rich. We don't come with bodyguards, our houses often don't have gates. Most of the time, we don't have the money to buy the protection we need. We don't have the fame and recognition to get others mad on our behalf. We're right among you, but we're someone else. All this is happening to someone else, not you, and not a famous figure you recognize.
Third, animal research is scary. It's unknown. Most people don't know how it works, and that ignorance inspires fear. When protesters carry frightening signs with pictures of research that was done decades ago, it's not hard to imagine why people react so badly. And the fruits of animal research are not made public. Few people know of the dogs and pigs and cows that provided the first insulin allowing diabetics to live their lives. Few people know of the mice that are even now helping find treatments for cancer. What people see are the drugs on the shelf, in the syringe, the techniques at the hospital. No one thinks of where they come from. And so, out of ignorance or out of ethical disagreements, many people say that animal research is not necessary.
Many people like to say that animal research is not necessary. We have computers and cells, now, we don't need animals! They are very wrong. First of all, a computer can only model the information we put into it. It can only represent and work with things we already know. And we know so very little about the human body, particularly the brain. If the calculations we put in are wrong, or even off by just a hair, the computer is going to give us the wrong answer, and lives could be at stake. As for cells, cells need medium in which to grow. That medium is provided by animals. Synthetic mediums simply do not work as well. And those cells have to come from somewhere. Not only that, cells in a dish cannot tell us everything that is going on in the body. A cell in a dish may say one thing, but a liver in a body may say something entirely different.
It's not that cells and computers are entirely useless. It's merely that they give limited information (though hopefully this will improve with time). We simply cannot use a computer or a dish to mimic something as complex as the human body. In order to understand a system as complex and responsive as an organ- say, the brain or the heart, cells in a dish just don't cut it. Heart cells don't pump blood in a dish. Brain cells in a dish can't form memories and retrieve them. We can only understand events like this if we look at them in the context of their role in the body. And the more we understand these systems, the more good we can do when something goes wrong. But we just can't do it without working with a whole system. And a whole system requires a whole animal.
Without whole animals, there would be no such thing as a pacemaker. The brain is incredibly complicated, but thanks to animal research, we have drugs that can treat brain tumors, drug addiction, ADHD, and depression. Animal research has allowed us to find these treatments, and animal research is helping us find better drugs to treat these diseases, as well as many more. And you should never underestimate the role of basic research here. Our ability to help people depends on our ability to fully understand the system and what goes wrong with it. Very few drugs are the result of serendipity. The vast majority are the result of years of careful experimentation.
So I think animal research is very necessary. It is necessary not only for an increased knowledge of the human body and knowledge of human disease. It is knowledge that can be used in animals as well. When my old cat was trapped in a car fan-belt and had his back legs crushed, it was animal research that put pins in his legs and let him walk for 17 years. It was animal research that treated his diabetes and his arthritis, and helped him lead one happy, healthy, and chubby little life with a little girl who loved him dearly.
But that's not to say that animals do not suffer, and should not be treated with the best possible care. The animals we work on are very important to us, both from a research perspective, and an emotional one. I have never met someone who went in to animal research just to hurt animals, and if I ever met such a person, I would consider them to be just as disgusting and vile as we are commonly painted. On the contrary, I have seen amazing sacrifice on the part of people working with animals, to keep their animals healthy, happy, and comfortable.
So below I'm going to include an essay. It's an essay on animal research that Sci wrote a few months ago. But she was afraid to post it, afraid to speak up about what we do and why, and about how we care for the animals we work with. But I'm done with that, and here it is.
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.
People are entitled to their opinions. Many people DO disagree, believing that animal research is ethically wrong, no matter what it may provide for humanity, and that's fine. Their opinions are as valid as mine. There is no problem in disagreeing with what we do, and asking us to change what we do and how we do it. Protest, change laws and legislation. Enter into a dialogue. There are many people who disagree and do so in a way that harms no one, and that certainly doesn't go after someone's children. Some tactics are too much. No child should live in fear because of what their parents do for a living. Our hiding needs to be over. We shouldn't have to do our work in fear of threats, intimidation, and severe bodily harm. We need to speak up. We cannot hide anymore.