Facing the truth: animal research

Scientific discoveries have compensated for the pain we impose upon research animals.

Almost every MIT student has conducted a scientific experiment on an animal — ranging from dissecting a frog in middle school to studying the behavior of conditionally trained mice in a UROP. At some point, many of us have probably found ourselves questioning the ethics of using animals for research. Though I was vaguely aware of this debate, it wasn’t until I took my first Institute lab that I finally understood the purpose of using animals in scientific pursuit.

By the time I was half-way through 9.02, Systems Neuroscience Laboratory, I had watched dozens of vivacious critters be reduced to lifeless, anesthetized specimen; I witnessed the profusion of two mice; I winced in shock when a guillotine fell on a frog’s neck. For the first seven weeks of class, I had actively managed to avoid handling the “bloody” parts of the lab. I observed my TA’s, professors and classmates intricately poking needles and digging scalpels into the flesh of lab animals. I, in turn, buried my head in my lab notebook and deliberately looked away from the animals who had given their lives to our experiments.

Much of what we know about biological life has emerged from experiments on animals. In fact, the majority of major medical breakthroughs over the last century wouldn’t have happened if not for these animals. Such research has led to the creation of vaccinations against smallpox and tetanus, the development of antibiotics and insulin and the advancement of organ development technology. And that is only scratching the tip of the massive, and continually expanding, iceberg. Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to touch the animals at our lab station.

When I turned to my philosophy professor for advice, his words to me were simple: “to live lovingly is to live truthfully.” In Gandhi’s teachings, he explained, the way to live most lovingly towards all conscious beings is to live with a constant and willful acknowledgement of the truth. Take for example food: we don’t actively acknowledge the fact that the chunks of meat on our plate were once a living animal. When shown images of butcheries, we shamefully avert our gaze. To live with firmness in the truth, we are forced to face the truth of its origin.

As I prepared for class one afternoon, I thought, “If I cannot slaughter a cow myself, I can choose to not eat beef.” Meat isn’t a necessity, and it’s not an act that particularly enhances my well-being or aids humanity. But what about the killing of laboratory animals to acquire knowledge — knowledge that can better mankind? When I read textbooks, or attend lectures of neuroscience, I’m overcome by sheer fascination with myriad groundbreaking scientific discoveries; but hardly ever would I stop and think about the lives of rats, mice, cats, chimpanzees and many other species that went into generating each piece of empirical data. It was time, I realized, to stop looking away from the truth.

I walked into lab that day to see an anesthetized rat lying at our station. It suddenly occurred to me, “for me to truly appreciate the sacrifice this rat was offering us, I had to be the one with the scalpel in hand.” To my classmates’ surprise, I volunteered to conduct the surgery this time. I made an incision in the rat’s head and drilled a hole into his skull. I saw blood stain his pristine fur. I saw chips of his skull fly off. Through the frequent pangs of my heart-wrenching guilt, the truth finally sunk in: this is animal research, and I owe so much of my knowledge to it.

When we actually collected data from our rat, I was overwhelmed with gratitude to him. I had not felt such a strong emotional reaction towards the lab animals who I had refused to touch. When I forced myself to deliver the incision, I did not look away. As a result, I appreciated the invaluable knowledge we collected from out animal infinitely more.

After coming back from lab, I opened my neuroscience textbook to a section addressing the use of animals in scientific research. I was surprised to read that the number of animals used for biomedical research accounts for less than one percent of the number of animals used for food alone. Scientists adhere to a strict ethical code monitored by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee; I remembered the lab manager explaining this to us at the beginning of the semester. While I felt a sense of relief, I also became conscious of the heavy moral responsibility we take on.

Laboratory animals offer us the gift of knowledge. As fellow inhabitants of Earth — not only as scientists — it is our moral obligation to appreciate every part of their sacrifice and utilize their gift for the benefit of both mankind and animal-kind.

Erika Trent is a member of the class of 2014

Anonymous about 10 years ago

Interesting. So do you also approve of experiments performed on poor people in Africa by pharma giants? If not, why?

Anonymous about 10 years ago

Anything to justify the abuse of one who can't resist. Please examine your dark impulses and the joy you found in cutting and killing. Those are the real truths here.

Anonymous about 10 years ago

Experiments on poor people in Africa? I serve as a non-scientist volunteer on a University Institutional Review Board; twenty of us meet monthly, and devote a lot of hours and thought to painstakingly examining every clinical trial that is proposed, to be sure that it is beneficial to and safe for the study participants. Our word is Law; if we say the trial cannot proceed, it does not; and we have done that; more often we demand changes--and those changes take place.

But nowhere do we look more carefully than at "experiments on poor people," whether in Africa or in Appalachia. We have stringent guidelines and an acutely suspicious nature and lots of diversity on our IRB. Abusive experiments do not occur. Period.

Anonymous about 10 years ago

Thanks for sharing your evolving thoughts on this important issue. They reflect a compassionate, curious and intellectually mature individual who now understands that "living in the truth" is the only way to live. I say this as a scientist who uses animals in research, a member of multiple institutional animal care and use committees whose job it is to ensure the highest quality animal research, and an omnivore dedicated to the humane care and slaughter of animals used for food.

Anonymous about 10 years ago

I whole-heartedly agree with your point of view, Erika. Thank you for sharing your experiences. Each animal gives us precious information. If you disagree, please stop taking any and all medication, going to the doctor for vaccines and procedures or consenting to any kind of life-saving surgery. These animals have given their lives so that you may live longer and healthier.

Anonymous about 10 years ago

As a member of the laboratory animal care field, I am grateful each day for the gifts these animals give us. My number one job is to ensure that our animals receive the best and most humane care we can give them. Anyone who does not agree, think about the things in your everyday life that you can not live without. Medications, cancer treatments, insulin; a good majority of them were made safe and effective with the help of our animals. Even our pets live better lives because of these amazing creatures.

Eric Mills about 10 years ago

Ethics aside for the moment, let's be clear: research animals don't "give" us information, nor are they "sacrificed" (love the religious overtones!). Rather, the information is garnered from their (usually) dead bodies, lives we took from the unwilling victims. And much suffering is involved in a considerable number of the experiments. Most lab animals have zero social interactions with others of their own kind, and few every see the light of day, or set foot to earth. The Animal Welfare Act has NO effect upon the experiments themselves--it merely regulates housing (sterile), food (boring) and vet care. Nor does the AWA cover the huge majority of research animals, exempting rats, mice, birds, fish, farm animals, etc. Some "Act"!

That said, there are plenty of alternatives to the use of animals in research. Let's use those, and continue to seek others.

In my opinion, ALL invasive animal research is unethical and immoral, regardless of the information gained. And for what? Homo sapiens is the ONLY over-populated species on the planet, the most destructive, and the only self-destructive. This at a time when we're reportedly losing an estimated 30,000 species of plants animals every year, thanks not to normal evolution, but to human impacts. Ugh.

As George Bernard Shaw wrote, "Anyone who doesn't hesitate to vivisect, won't hesitate to lie about it."

Vegan Rabbit about 10 years ago

A labratory animal "offers" scientists the "gift" of knowledge like a rape victim "offers" his or her rapist the "gift" or sexual gratification.

Vegan Rabbit about 10 years ago

And about pharma testing on people in Africa, I think commenter 1 is talking about things like this: http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2011/01/deadly-medicine-201101

Sue Marston about 10 years ago

It has been said many ways by many brilliant individuals, but I will choose this quote by Dr. Anna Kingsford: "The spiritual malady that rages in the soul of the vivisector is in itself sufficient to render him incapable of acquiring the highest and best knowledge. He finds it easier to propagate and multiply disease than to discover the secrets of health. Seeking the germs of life, he invents only new methods of death."

Anonymous about 10 years ago

Erika - Excellent article. Thank you for being brave enough to share it with the masses including those who do not agree with animal research, some of whom threaten the scientists and their children with retaliation and physical harm. Regardless of our position on animal research, I suggest we all think of the animals that contributed to the development of that pill we take, the vaccine that is administered or the surgical procedure that will be performed on us, and pay respect and appreciation to them. If we believe animal research is truly wrong, then perhaps we should refuse to partake in the medical discoveries that have been possible by research animals as a testament to our convictions.

Alfredo Kuba about 10 years ago

Doing experiments on non compatible species in not only fraudulent and deceptive but immoral and unethical. Those who seek answers through the violence, torture, and murder of helpless and defenseless creatures will not hesitate to do the same to their fellow men. And when profits are at stake, men without conscience will stop at nothing, lie, deceive and murder. There is only one thing that can be derived from experimenting on animals, callousness! "If we cut up creatures simply because they cannot prevent us and because we are backing our own side in the struggle for existence, it is only logical to cut up imbeciles, criminals, enemies or capitalists for the same reasons." C.S. Lewis

"Ask the experimenters why they experiment on animals, and they answer: "Because animals are like us." Ask why it is morally OK to experiment on animals and they answer: "Because animals are not like us." Animal experiments rest on an irrational and contradictory premise. Professor Charles Magel.

"Vivisection is a social evil because if it advances human knowledge, it does so at the expense on human character." George Bernard Shaw.

"If you can not attain to knowledge without torturing an animal, you must do without knowledge." George Bernard Shaw

"The worse sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them. That is the essence of inhumanity." George Bernard Shaw

Britt Lind about 10 years ago

Vivisection is a trillion dollar industry of Big Pharma. It continues because it makes money for all of the people, institutions and businesses involved. All species are different physiologically and metabolically from each other. That means it is scientifically impossible to extrapolate experiments from one species to another. Vivisectors know this. They admit it in their own protocols; "These are only experiments on dogs (cats, rabbits, horses, mice, etc.) so we have no idea of what the results on humans will be." They not only admit it in their protocols, they often admit it in the media. Sadly; frightened, ignorant people fail to see the truth because they so badly want vivisection to find them the "magic cures" to diseases which will allow them to continue to live the destructive lifestyles they refuse to change. Vivisectors, like the one who wrote this article, have a vested interest in seeing that vivisection continues. The writer and all her co-horts are socio-paths who find pleasure in torturing and killing animals and insist they are doing it for the greater good. To also insist that they appreciate that the animal they are torturing is giving them a lovely gift is typical of sociopathic behavior. Yes, it is indeed like rapists who insist that their victims loved having sex with them. It is not only delusional thinking, it is evil to the core.

Liz about 10 years ago

"We don't like what we don't understand". From some of the comments, it is clear some people do not understand science and scientific research. It is amazing how people will twist the truth for their benefit. The Animal Welfare Act is clear. If farm animals are used as research animals, they are covered by the AWA. Research animals are born with a purpose. Their purpose is to save lives by bringing about new information. If you have trouble understand this then please stop seeking medical attention or getting breast implants.

Erika, thank you for being brave enough to write this article. Searching for the truth isn't always an easy ride. Whether people like it or not, knowledge is power and will save lives. I think it is important to listen to people like Alan Alda. Alan Alda made a request to scientist years ago imploring them to educate the general public. When advancements surpass what the general public understands then conflict become the norm and criminals are set free. Education of all is the only way to move forward.

Stephen Campbell about 10 years ago

Vivisection or research using animals' only real "accomplishments" are to ruin the good character of those who go into it unwittingly, or to give lucrative employment, bad ego gratification, false power, and a furtherance of their mental disorder to deranged and sadistic individuals. It is not science to apply results from other species to humans, it is madness; coincidental similarities are used as justification, while ignoring things like Vioxx which killed many thousands of people after showing promise and harmlessness in several animal species. The Vigor study warned of the serious risks for people, but the insanity of vivisection led people to rely on the animal results instead, and that is just one (prime) example of how wrong animal testing is even if one doesn't care about animals. But any human being who doesn't care about animals is not quite right, as empathy for other sentient lives is a vital human quality. It's time to end the madness, the sadistic cruelty, the lack of scientific merit, the danger to people, of "lab animal" usage.

Anonymous about 10 years ago

When discussing animal research we must first remember one thing: those who most vigorously defend animal research are usually profiting from the performance of animal research, as are those who are on the committees who supposedly enforce the "ethics."

Recent USDA reports for MIT discuss "water regulation" in projects involving primates, this is a euphemism for water deprivation. Recent publications from MIT research protocols discuss attaching head posts to the skulls of macaque monkeys as well as confining them to restraint chairs. So much for the ethics at MIT.

Another lab near MIT, Harvard, has been cited by the USDA for multiple negligent deaths of primates of causes such as dehydration.

According to USDA reports thousands of animals are used in painful experiments without benefit of anesthesia every year. This is exemplified by the well known Battelle Memorial Research Institute, a facility who was also recently cited by the USDA for killing a guinea pig by leaving the animal in a cage during the sterilization process.

Charles River laboratories, in Massachusetts also routinely uses hundreds of animals in painful experiments without anesthesia, socially isolates hundreds of primates, and has been cited and fined by the USDA for multiple negligent primate deaths.

If the staff of labs like Harvard can't remember to give primates water, and the staff at Battelle can't remember to take the guinea pigs out of the cages before they are sterilized, then why should we believe they are capable of doing science?

The reality is that animals in labs are considered to be little more than part of the laboratory apparatus. They are taken apart and disposed of at will. Their pain is ignored, their environmental needs are not met, and they are routinely killed through negligence.

Animal research has far less to do with science than with either the publish or perish mentality of universities or their drive to obtain federal funding.

And anyone who tells you differently, is probably being paid to do animal experimentation.

Anonymous about 10 years ago

Vivisectionists' Talking Points:

1. If opponents use legal arguments, tell them they don't understand science.

2. If opponents use moral arguments, tell them that the animals are specifically born to be killed. We aren't taking their life! We are continuing their species which would die without us!

3. If opponents use scientific arguments, tell them they do not value knowledge and education enough.

Paris about 10 years ago

Why not use the multiple alternatives to immoral and speciest animal testing?

Listed here: http://www.neavs.org/alternatives/in-testing

and here: http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-experimentation/alternatives-to-animal-testing.aspx

"I am not interested to know whether vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn't. ... The pain which it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis of my enmity toward it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further." Mark Twain

M about 10 years ago

I commend this author, who obviously believes in animal rights, but also in the importance of animal research in the advancement of human health, animal health, scientific advancement. As a former scientist, a coordinator for an institutional animal care and use committee at a University, and a lover of animals, I thank Erika for writing about this subject while looking at ALL sides of this debate and being honest about them.

C about 10 years ago

Thank you Erika for sharing your thoughtful reflection on animal use in training and science. Both science and animals used will profit from your recognition of the importance of research and each individual contributing. Well done!

Mich about 10 years ago

Erika- thanks for showing how tough it is to do research. As a lab animal professional everyday is full of tough decisions. Those with careful thought and ethical thinking keep the best facilities up to snuff. To those who are opposed. YES there are some crap facilities. BUT- I ask you to examine your lives; If you are vegan, take no medicines developed in animals- especially those invented since you were born- such as flu shot, contact lens, birth control pills, ADAH medication. Then you are entitled to the opinion. If not please put your money into non animal alternatives -so some day I will be out of a job.

Anonymous about 10 years ago

Thank you for sharing your experience with others and expressing a caring hand of a scientist.

Joe Erwin about 10 years ago

Let us be clear. We have much more to learn from other animals than what can only be learned from them in studies that include their deaths. Ethically, it seems to me, we have an obligation to respect and be considerate of other beings. I advocate learning more from each one, humanely, of course. An integration of knowledge from living individuals with the knowledge obtained during or after death is a challenge we should take seriously.

Anonymous about 10 years ago

Thank you for this. As a laboratory animal veterinarian, I applaud you and your strength. Animal welfare is critical in our field and the knowledge gained is invaluable. The regulations are there for a reason and the scientific advances have increased our longevity and knowledge.

Pcuvie about 10 years ago

Your repeated euphemisms reveal that you have not accepted the truth of experiments on other animals; animals who had given their lives to our experiment, to truly appreciate the sacrifice this rat was offering us, Laboratory animals offer us the gift of knowledge and it is our moral obligation to appreciate every part of their sacrifice and utilize their gift .

The animals dont give their lives, they make no sacrifice, and they offer no gifts of knowledge. In fact it is just the opposite; their lives are forcibly taken and sacrificed against their will. Any gifts of knowledge you obtained by experimenting on them was over their objections to being held captive and subjected to pain, which you had to conveniently ignore. All of your rationalizations could just as easily have been stated by Nazis who experimented on Jewish people. The fact that you feel the need to rationalize your participation is evidence enough that you do not want to accept the truth.

Tom about 10 years ago

You bring up the Nazis as if these animals are humans. If it is indeed the holocaust you seem to think, should we be locking up cats to stop them killing local wildlife (in much larger numbers than research). Should we prevent tigers from chasing prey?

The difference is that in labs, animals are treated humanely and in accordance with the principles of Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of animals research (3Rs)

Mike about 10 years ago

First off concerning the Nazis, the entire reason they experimented on Jews was due the fact the Hitler was an Animal Rights Activist/Extremist and demanded humans be used not animals. It is because of the Nazis and Hitler that we are required to test all surgical procedures and all medications on at least two non-human species before testing moving the surgical procedure or medication to humans.

I appreciate that some believe the human race has become too large and doing anything to alleviate pain, suffering, or death in the human race is a bad thing; you are allowed to have that belief. However the lies and propaganda used by the animal rights extremist always shocks me.

Animal research is tightly regulated in the USA. All animals are socially housed unless there is a very good scientific or welfare reason to not socially house. The vast majority of Animals used in research live a much healthier and less stressful life then they would in the wild, remember the main biological/natural purpose for rats and mice are as a food source for other species.

Yes we do experiments on different animals and in some cases where it is scientifically necessary the animal will experience some pain and discomfort. Many of the examples used by the Animal rights activists are from decades ago and are not applicable to todays standards.

Overall this was a very well thought out article meant to stimulate debate and make us think about what we are trying to accomplish when we use animals for research.

Anonymous about 10 years ago

I think #26 clearly illustrates the superiority-of-humans mentality which pervades most people who support experiments on animals. According to them, humans own the earth, and any enterprise that we take up (even if it is short-sighted or plain wrong) is justified -- because we rule this planet.

If the Nazi medical experiments had yielded success on malaria etc., the scientists would have been patting each other's backs. Is any one arguing here that the only thing wrong with the Nazi experiments was that they were not "scientific enough"? It's amazing how so many scientists will justify murder and cruelty as long as it gets results. It is debatable if the vast majority of animal experiments have yielded such improvements in human health as its proponents boast of by listing some big successes. We are supposed to believe that these successes just could not have been achieved any other way.

27 -- Pray tell me, is animal research as tightly regulated as pharma companies in general? Because that is one industry which is not nearly regulated enough.

Mike about 10 years ago

Many pahrma companies subcontract their research out to Universities; Pharma companies that do animal research in the USA must follow the Animal Welfare Act and are regulated and inspected.

The vast majority of medications and surgical techniques are developed at Universities under very tight regulations. Now-a-days private Pharma generally buys the rights to the drugs after they have passed phase 1 trials in humans. Most medications owe their existence to animal research and today it is illegal not to test in animals before moving to human. One note is a drug can be tested in animals for a purpose other than what it is eventually used in humans, for example was test as a blood pressure drug not an impotence drug when going through animal testing.

Anonymous about 10 years ago

Thank you Erica for your genuine and compassionate post. There is no honest way to deny the value of biomedical research to humans and animals. It can't be done because the benefits have been documented for 300 years. It is ok to have strong feelings about animal rights, but please start with a legitimate argument.

K about 10 years ago

As someone who has been in the animal research field for over a decade, and who is now intimately involved in oversight and compliance for others using animals in research, I thank you for sharing your insights.

One note, you have a typo - it's PERfusion, not PROfusion ;)


Tricia about 10 years ago

The claim that pro-vivisection people constantly bring up to support their position usually revolves around some variation of "ends justifies the means", or, look at all the fabulous benefits vivisection has brought us. Many of these claims are false, from the discovery of penicillin to the development of the polio vaccine. Discoveries are made despite vivisection, not because of it. Furthermore, medicine might have taken a different turn if we hadn't fallen into animal usage.

I've been observing an animal care and use committee at the Univ. of Washington for a year now, and a friend has been observing for over 20 years. Everything requested is approved, sometimes with some changes, but always approved. Consequently, I find these claims about the efficacy of animal use committees unsubstantiated.

Finally, the use of language by this writer and other vivisectors is interesting - animals are always "sacrified" not "killed" (implying a higher purpose). As previous posters have pointed out, these animals are not offering us anything; we are taking from them without their consent. The "knowledge" gained from student vivisection is already known and can be obtained without harming animals (like computer simulations). The only thing student vivisection does is deaden a person's sensibility to suffering and the taking of life - as happened with this student. As well as develop the accompanying rationalizations.

Anonymous about 10 years ago

Fantastic! As you can see - you have plenty of support. Personally, I also welcome opposing views as they keep things real. The debate is a healthy one.