I want to share a personal perspective. I’ve lived my whole life caring for pets: cats, turtles, frogs, a praying mantis I found in the backyard. I wrote a rock opera about my sister’s hamster. In my professional life, I work with zebrafish for research. In short, I’m a vegetarian who believes strongly in the ethics of animal research. In this column I want to share stories of working with animals, its joys and frustrations, and pay some small tribute to the animal lives that make it possible for me to live so long, and in such extraordinary health.
Working with animals can be emotionally hard. Sometimes it’s hard even to watch, the way surgery is hard to watch – a part of me knows the higher purpose, another part has a hard time ignoring a knife that cuts into a person’s chest. In the same way, in research, I see the kindred spark of life in every mouse I’ve ever held, and when they pass through that thin boundary between living and dead, I feel it. Here’s why I keep doing it:
We need animals because they’re simpler than humans
Animals are much simpler1 than we are in certain ways, and that’s an incredible advantage for research. The human body is convoluted – it’s a problem that’s too hard to untangle without solving an easier one first. If you wanted to learn English, you wouldn’t start with the triple puns of Shakespeare. If you wanted to understand how a car engine works, you wouldn’t start with a hybrid electric Prius. But you can learn a lot from an old Toyota engine, and from there, understand how the hybrid engine builds on that idea with new layers of complexity. Animals are that gateway into understanding the human body.
Here’s my favorite summary of criticism against animal research. I found it on a bumper sticker:
If animals are like us, animal research is cruel;
If animals are unlike us, animal research is useless.
It’s incredibly pithy, but it falls into that logical fallacy of the “false dilemma:” it’s either one thing or the other. Our world is more complicated. Because animals are simpler, things that cure cancer in a mouse aren’t guaranteed to work on us. But it’s precisely this simplicity that allows us to get a foothold. I was surprised to find out that we can even learn about mental health from animals. One classic experiment for mental health involves letting a mouse swim around in a pool and see how long it takes to give up. It’s hard for me to say what goes on in the brain of a mouse when that happens, but the drugs that make the mouse try longer are antidepressants in humans.
Animal research is more carefully controlled than any other use of animals
Working with animals does not mean we can do whatever we want. Every experiment must be approved by a committee consisting of scientists, vets, and a member of the community. The ethical review process considers the potential benefits of the research and questions whether they’re justified. At every decision, research decisions are driven by “The Three R’s:”
- Replace animals with non-animal alternatives. Don’t use “higher” more aware animals like mice when we can use fish, don’t use fish when we can use fruit flies, don’t use flies when we can use yeast.
- Reduce the number of animals used in experiments – use just the minimum we need to convince us that we’re looking at a real effect.
- Refine scientific procedures to minimize suffering. For example, animals are euthanized with anesthetics so they don’t feel pain.
These measures are far beyond the standards of humanity’s much larger intersection with the animal world: the meat industry. To give a sense of the current state of affairs, a California law scheduled to take effect in 2015 proposed increasing the size of chicken cages to 200 square inches. This would allow chickens to turn around, and increase egg prices by about half a cent. This move is considered contentious, and representative Steve King amended Iowa’s farm bill to prevent that increase. Research mice are housed with enough room to play, form social groups, and are given enrichment to build nests. Mice must be euthanized with minimal pain using anesthetics. Chickens are not covered by the humane slaughter act.
Animal research is more ethical than the alternative
I would argue that animal research is more ethical than not doing animal research. But I want to be clear about some assumptions that this argument is making: human life is worth more than animal life. It is worth sacrificing the lives of animals to obtain information that would save and improve the lives of future humans, as well as animals, provided that we can minimize animal discomfort, and there is no better way to obtain that information.
It may not always be this way. Scientists are working towards the goal of replacing animals with computer simulations, or even lab-grown clusters of cells, called organs-on-chips. I’m personally looking forward to that day when we can grow artificial meat and I won’t be a vegetarian any more. But right now those systems don’t work well enough, and animals are our best hope. I can wait for my hamburger, but not for a chance at treating Alzheimer’s.
It’s no exaggeration that I am alive today thanks to animal research – I would have likely died at age five from an athsma attack that put me in the hospital, where I was treated with medicine that was developed with animals. Animal research helped double human life expectancy over the last century, and continues to bring us life-saving breakthroughs like the insulin that kept my grandfather alive for decades. For that, all I can be is grateful to research, and to the animals who made that research possible.
1. ↩ “Simple” is surprisingly complicated to define. More on this later.