The true champions of biomedical research

By Sean Kearney

Historically, Thanksgiving has been one of my least favorite holidays. I love to eat, but I’m vegan and it can be really unpleasant to be around carnivorous family members constantly remarking on my dietary restrictions, saying, “Life would be so much easier if you just ate butter.” I often feel like a maverick, the Lorax, if you will, proclaiming, “I am the Sean and I speak for the animals!”

In reality, I don’t speak for the animals, and I don’t think there are many people who do. Despite our technological advancement, we’re still so barbaric and, in a sense, backwards that we forcibly impregnate animals, steal their babies, and use them for whatever purposes we see fit. It’s especially poignant in scientific settings, where we not only forcibly impregnate animals, but also then use them to test the effects of drugs or to see how we can reverse cancer or fend off infections that we gave them in the first place. We may have come a long way in being more conscientious in our care and use of animals, but in many ways the scale and scope of animal experiments only makes it more likely that we’ll inadvertently or, in some cases, intentionally harm or misuse animals just to please an intractable reviewer.

We’re often at a distance from the animals in our lives – it’s easy to view the hamburger you’re eating as never having been an animal who lived, breathed, experienced pain, joy, frustration, and ultimately death. With lab animals, we remove this distance. We interact with them and sometimes get to know them. But with large experiments, the interactions become more transient, and I think it’s easy to become complacent, to view the animals as objects of a research goal rather than the enablers and, really, champions of science they are.

I’ve wondered if we could honor experimental animals by recognizing them more explicitly in papers; in addition to mentioning (n=5) the animals used in successful experiments, also recognize the others that died only to produce inconclusive results. If nothing else, it may encourage authors to reconsider whether they need 100 mice for an experiment that only calls for 10. When we acknowledge the contributions of animals in our work, we stop perpetuating the notion of animal as object and encourage stewardship and respect for the lives of others.

I’ve worked with experimental animals – as much as I hate to admit it, certain scientific questions are today (and maybe for a long time) impossible to answer without the use of animals. I love animals, and I’ve never felt more uncomfortable or conflicted than when working with lab animals. I still haven’t found a way to justify using them in this way, and I don’t think I ever will. But I’d rather the people doing these experiments today are the ones who really care about animals and care that the work they’re doing will make it so that we don’t do these things to animals in the future.

As biomedical scientists, we’ve committed ourselves to bettering the lives of others. We should keep this commitment in mind and treat animals as the living, feeling beings they are.

References:

Lappe, Frances Moore. Diet for a Small Planet. 1971. Ballantine Books.

Safran Foer, Jonathan. Eating Animals. 2009. Little, Brown, and Company.

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. 1906. Doubleday, Jabber, and Company.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. 2009. HarperCollins.

Image credit: 23 and me