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Animal Ethics

Why I think we need to show the public what we do instead of hiding in the Ivory Tower

I've been doing animal research for five years now--not forever, not even a huge part of my educated life, but enough time to have my own observations and opinions on the work. Admittedly, I've only worked in rodents, and maybe I'd feel differently working in non-human primates or rabbits or pigs. (The thought of working with a dog or cat freezes my blood. Very few labs do it nowadays, though.)

My point in saying this is to say I'm no noob, and making an amateur mistake is embarrassing. The mistake was small enough, posting a picture of a (closed-head) rat surgery on Twitter in response to some friends, but the consequences that someone saw were potentially large. I tried to take it with good grace--I thought about not posting it, but I figured that the lack of blood/etc might be okay--because I knew the person telling me to remove it was right. (And yes, it's gone now.) I feel embarrassed and uncomfortable about the situation, because I know better.

But it also made me realize something: I don't agree with it being a mistake.

Much like HIPPA is meant to ensure patient confidentiality, IACUC is meant to insure humane animal research. IACUC stands for the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, and every university in the United States that does any vertebrate animal research has one. IACUC has strict guidelines it follows from the National Institutes of Health and enforces that on research labs. The idea is that IACUC makes sure animals being used for research are treated humanely--no unnecessary pain or tests. Unfortunately, IACUC more often than not slows down the progress of science without changing the animal's treatment, rather than make sure of their ethical use.

I'm not going to lie: animal work is emotionally hard. It's taxing to come in and put a rat in a box, even though that might be all you're doing for the day. It's hard not to giggle when the rat crawls up your sleeve and settles there. It's hard not to find them cute. And it's hard to kill them.

Every time I euthanize any animals, I make sure to do it myself and to watch myself do it. I feel like I owe it to the animal to thank it for its contribution and to honor its death. It's sentimental and has likely contributed to my increasing reluctance to continue my research. But I do it, because I believe to not do so would be irresponsible.

Animal research has saved human lives, extending them and fetching them from the brink of death. Animal research is why we have vaccines that work. It's why I have medicine to regulate my moods. It's why we can tackle antibiotics with known side effects. It is no exaggeration to say that animal research has increased our lifespans as a species.

In doing any animal work, the researcher accepts the inherent assumption that human life and need is greater than that of the animal's. It is a selfish assumption, a baseless assumption, but one nearly everybody makes. It's not just in choosing to eat animals, but to domesticate them. To tear down their habitats and build our own. To go to the shelter and pick out the puppy sitting in its crate. That's not to say we don't treat animals fairly or lovingly--although, of course, we could talk about that, too. But that's not my point. My point is that when you step into an animal facility, you are saying to yourself, My work is more important than this animal's life.

Fortunately, perhaps, animals in research are treated extremely well. Their cages are cleaned regularly, and they always have food and water. Even experiments involving food deprivation has limits set by IACUC. The facilities in which they're reared are disease-free, and the general rule is if an animal is in pain from a procedure you do, you euthanize it rather than force it to suffer through.

It rubs people different ways when I say that I do concussion research. They make jokes about it, asking about helmets and hitting rats on the head. Yeah, that's what I do right now. It used to be satisfying, important research to me, but lately it just feels like it should be someone else's job. That's a tangent and unimportant to this larger story.

My work, theoretically, could lead to a better understanding of how multiple concussions affect brain pathology, why athletes kill themselves in their fifties, why victims of domestic violence have early-onset dementia. These are important questions, and the hope is that work like mine will one day answer them. Maybe if we know, we can figure out a treatment. Maybe if we know, we can help people.

My mistake was to post a picture of how I give a rat a concussion on Twitter. It was in a larger context that takes too long to explain, but the gist of which I was showing non-concussion scientists what my work looks like. But Twitter is a public forum that anyone can access. I didn't put any hashtags on it, but that didn't mean it couldn't be found. Someone in my lab, and I suspect I know who, saw it and informed the postdoc that works in both our lab and another. Why the person didn't talk to me themselves, I can only speculate, but that's beyond the point.

The postdoc didn't yell, nor did they phrase anything harshly. Very civil, and I explained my thoughts and said it would be taken down. It didn't bother me that they had told me off. It bothered and embarrassed me that I had made a mistake that I had been taught not to make--to never show the public, or sometimes fellow scientists, the animals with which I work.

Here is where I disagree with it being a mistake: I think people should see what I do. I think the general public, and not just scientists, should have access to my work, and your work, and the next person's work. I think a lot of anger and hatred comes from misinformation. Not that sharing pictures of rats getting concussions will get everyone to agree with animal research--likely the opposite--but sharing the pictures, explaining our work, and not making everything so magical would ultimately do the world good. It might make us look human.

Science is seen as a cold field, a distant field. Science is for "smart people." Scientists will "solve the world's problems." (Ironically, the politics around science is far outside our grasps, the decisions made for us instead of with us.) But listen, I'm a pretty average person. I went to a really amazing college where I did okay, and an okay graduate program where I excelled. I'm going to an excellent second graduate school, where I will undoubtedly be the small fish again. I got a C+ in the class that my boss taught. I still don't understand mechanics, notoriously the easiest physics course. My best grades were in English and creative writing.

This used to bother me, but it doesn't anymore. I'm happy to not be the smartest person in the room. I'm glad there are lots of things I don't understand. I no longer pin my worth on my academic self (another story). My point is for some people, science takes no energy, and for others, it's a bitch and a half. Not every scientist is a genius. Not every scientist will save the world.

The longer we stand up in the Ivory Tower, the more we propagate this false notion of intelligence. (Howard Gardner would scream!) We tell others to leave things to us, because we want to be the heroes. Some scientists want to propagate their own egos, but many others have a genuine desire to do good in this world, whatever that means.

Many people are opposed to science because, quite simply, they don't know what we do. They don't know why we do the things we do. And what people don't know often scares them.

If I could post a picture of my rat and explain what I do and how it will help people, sure, a lot won't like it. But many might find it interesting. Many might step forward with concussion stories of their own. Many might now understand what happened to a friend or loved one. Many might realize a lifelong fascination that they never thought they could pursue because no one showed them how.

So I took down my picture of a rat, and I will follow the rules, because I know better. But I don't agree with them. I think we can treat animals with dignity by showing what we do to them, and to make people realize that it's not easy work. It's emotionally exhausting. But we do it because we're thinking of other things, and we can honor the animals we work with by sharing what they do, too.