Home Science Communication Reconciling science with caring about animals

Reconciling science with caring about animals

by Eva Amsen

I’ve been telling people that one day I’d try to put in words how I could work in a field that uses animals for research, but be vegetarian at the same time. I don’t experiment directly on animals myself, but I do use cell lines and antibodies a lot, and they come from animals too, eventually.
I never could write down properly how I felt, because I would end up angering either the vegetarian community or the scientific community, or both.

Nature now has a segment on researchers feelings about animal research, and how hard it is to reconcile science with caring about animals. It’s not always directly about curing cancer, which is what makes it so hard to defend. The article refers to an August 2006 piece in The Guardian, where Sophie Petit-Zeman defends her position on being a vegetarian and animal researcher. I don’t do the kind of animal experiments she does at all, but I agree with this statement: “I can survive perfectly well without eating meat (and so can you) but we can’t get far alleviating illness and disease without research using animals.”
On the other hand, it’s about curing disease again, and sometimes it’s not directly obvious that you might be doing an experiment that will lead to the kind of information that may be helpful in the future, together with other data, to better understand a disease. It really is a very grey area.

You can’t just dismiss investigative research for the sake of knowledge, because you might learn something new and valuable that, yes, could prevent disease, even if it wasn’t what you were out to search for in the first place. But couldn’t you get the same knowledge another way? Probably not. Could you get somewhat equivalent knowledge through non-animal experiments that could eventually lead you to the same conclusions? Maybe. But doing both experiments supports and strengthens your conclusion.

And consider this: You can predict whatever you want through countless models, simulations, and even cell lines, but eventually somebody is going to bring up the extremely relevant point that all your models are based on a small system, and not on an entire body. Does it really work that way? You have to use an animal model to test. But now the other side of the argument: Who cares how it works in mice or rats – we’re curing human disease, and this is not the human body. There is a good chance that the model is valid for humans as well, but what if it isn’t? Is it worth the work (and animals)?

It’s true that animals are treated better, hurt less, and even used less than in decades past, but some animal activists tend to be a bit behind, and that makes discussion a drag. Take for instance the Nalgene boycott. The gist is: you shouldn’t buy Nalgene water bottles, because they also make devices used in animal research. Nalgene is not a “Water Bottle Company” hurting bunnies on the side. Nalgene is a company that makes high-quality plastic products for use in all kinds of lab research, that noticed that they could also enter the consumer market by selling water bottles. They make what researchers need, and while a boycott may be bad for their image, they won’t go under if you don’t buy their water bottles, because labs all over the world need their beakers and cylinders, even for their animal-free experiments. Not buying water bottles is not helping at all.

Being able to see both sides of the story is more a burden than a gift. It would be so much easier to immediately wholeheartedly agree with animal testing and not care about it, or to be able to follow PETA without thinking. Instead, many people like me are stuck in between, trying to reconcile research with caring about animals.  We’re forced to kind of agree with both sides of the story, but fear that neither side will be open to each other.


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1 comment

Shelley December 17, 2006 - 10:02 PM

The majority scientists I know are much more like you in attitude, looking a both sides and being somewhat divided in opinion about animal work rather than whole heartedly agreeing that animal work is totally necessary. And I know a lot of in vivo researchers, both large animal, small animal and human. It’s a difficult area and in the end each person has to reconcile their work with themself as best they can. Personally I think this is a good thing, continual debate and second guessing is necessary when something so important (i.e. lives) are being used. Still, you’re right in that it would be a lot easier to just decide it’s all fine (either way) and forget about it. But then there’s a reason why PETA followers make crap scientists, too much blind faith and lack of critical thinking is totally not condusive to good research.

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