Thursday, November 18, 2010

Eff PETA, Support Animal Research

Rebekah over at Dusting Myself Off (otherwise known as My Oldest Friend In The World, Because She Was Born Twelve Days Before Me and Our Parents Were Friends) wrote a post yesterday about PETA's ad that plays off of the new TSA scanners. While I have many many bones to pick with this particular ad (and other PETA ads that body snark about how vegetarians are thin and more fit than omnivores), I was reminded that I've been meaning to write a post here about a topic close to my line of work: PETA and animal research.

I'll start, first, by telling you how much I love animals. All of my life, I have had animals. We had our dog Arthur since before I could remember. After he died, it was a string of other dogs (Hershey, Ezra, Joy and Jill, Oliver, Heidi, Dr. Octopus, now Annabelle and Al Godfrey). Many of these were strays who wandered into our yard, some of them old and decrepit. Dr. Octopus, my favorite, was obviously abandoned by someone. He was ancient, with a gray muzzle, missing teeth and a bum back leg. We didn't think he'd live very long, but we loved him into another three years. He was smart, obviously trained -- he came to us knowing how to catch things we threw, how to shake hands. I loved him so much and was so sad when he died; he was so old, but so full of life that I'd somehow become convinced he would live forever.


It's not just dogs, though. My mother is an elementary school teacher, and we've gone through quite a few small mammals and reptiles -- turtles and lizards, a snake, countless guinea pigs, hamsters and gerbils. My favorite of these was Junie B, a rat she had acquired from who-knows-where. She was one of the best natured animals I'd ever met (though, actually, all of the rats I've worked with have been mild) -- she even won over my not-usually-taken-with-animals father, who fed her cereal and Cheetos when my mom wasn't watching.

Me & Junie B, circa 2006. I am wearing clothes, I promise -- it was an unfortunate decision to take this picture in a tube top, I'm aware.

And there were the rabbits. From the age of eight or so, through about 12, I raised a series of rabbits. The first one we bought as part of Mission India, a mission my church participated in; the idea was to make a fifteen dollar investment, and then to grow this investment and donate the money to the mission. My parents decided that my investment would be a pregnant rabbit; I would then raise the babies and we would sell them. This plan was working swimmingly until my parents let it slip that my buyers might want to eat the rabbits! I threw a fit, and my family ended up giving them to a man who raised rabbits in his barn. Although, recently, thinking about making this blog post, I thought to myself: "My mom said he was a man who owned a lot of bunnies, and they just ran around free in his bar--fuck, those rabbits totally got eaten."

Another time, I adopted a bunny that had been won at a carnival and were unwanted by the child who won them. I remember at that point that we weren't prepared to take her on, and she had to stay outside her first night, and she were already sick. And the next morning, before anyone was awake, I slipped outside to check on her, and she was cold. I had already named her Sarah Louise, and I was devastated that she was dead. I cried at school all day long; this memory is still as vivid to me as if I'd lived it yesterday.

I love animals. I even love rodents, rats, rabbits. And now, I do animal research. I do it unabashedly, unashamed. And I do it for one reason -- as much as I love animals, I love humanity even more. I want to be helpful to society. I hate that I have to kill animals; but more than that, I hate the people have to suffer for years and die because their kidneys fail and never recovery. Anything I can do to alleviate that suffering, I will do.

I have never witnessed anything unethical in all of my time working with animals. There are strict rules that MUST be followed, and anyone who does not follow these rules can get banned from doing animal research. There are rules about euthanasia (for example, carbon dioxide euthanasia can only be used in rodents, and it is mandatory to do either cervical dislocation or thoracotomy after they stop breathing to make sure that they do not wake up during organ harvesting. I do all three: carbon dioxide, cervical dislocation, then thoracotomy). There are rules about pain management -- every time I do a survival surgery on a mouse, I give it Buprenex, an opioid pain reliever. I have been taught the signs of distress in animals, and I've been taught how to manage that distress. I separate mice who fight (and it's always mice; lab mice have aggression bred into them accidentally, unfortunately). I have had, all told, probably 24 hours of animal care instruction. Imagine that -- an entire day, sitting in front of a monitor, learning how to properly care for these animals that I use.

Even rabbits. Yes, the same animals that I kept as pets when I was a child -- at least once a week, I walk to the animal facility. I use a badge to enter the room where the rabbits are kept. I choose the calmest one, walk over to it, pet it on the head and then grab it to move it to the cage. It's not always pleasant. Sometimes they are scared, no matter how soothingly you talk to them. Sometimes, they are so distressed, they scream (yes, rabbits scream, though very rarely; yes, it's unnerving; yes, I choose another rabbit because I don't want to exacerbate a screaming rabbit's distress). I put them in a small cage, cover their eyes, walk out of the room with their heads tucked beneath my arm, because it comforts them. Once in the surgery suite, I pet their heads and call them "baby." I lie to them and tell them everything will be ok. Then, I inject a needle into their ear and wait as my partner slowly pushes a barbiturate into the vein. I wait for them to heave a big sigh, then slowly stop breathing.

Then I take their kidneys back to my lab, and I spend hours getting them into a cell dish. And then, I do experiments that I hope will one day lead to better treatment for human disease. The primary cells are preferable because they act most like human cells, physiologically. We take great care to make sure they respire correctly. The thing we want to avoid is injury to humans. This thing is the one thing that informs all of our animal research.

PETA paints us as killing machines, monsters who refuse to use other methods. They suggest we use cell lines -- transformed cells that often do not behave like the human cells in a human body. They suggest that we do epidemiological studies (some do, but that doesn't get us closer to new drugs); they suggest that we do clinical studies. We all HOPE to do clinical studies some day, but there is such a high burden on us, the evil scientists, to make sure that our drugs are as SAFE AS POSSIBLE before they ever pass into a human body. And even that system is not perfect -- not a day goes by that I don't see some advertisement: "Do you have heart failure/vomiting/intractable depression/a child with a birth defect? That might be due to a medicine you took! Hop on the bandwagon and get your money!" More than half of all drugs designed and tested in animals fail in humans; can you imagine what would happen if we didn't do animal testing? Thousands and thousands of drugs that were aborted before they got to humans would not have failed; more humans dead, injured, as a result of negligence. That's what it boils down to.

It takes approximately 17 years and 2 billion dollars to get a drug from its first stages of development to the market. Animal research is an integral part of that process -- it provides a necessary bridge between cells and humans. A bridge, I promise you, that every human wants to be in place. Our animals do not die in vain -- they save human lives. Either by leading us to a new drug, or leading us away from an ineffective or, worse, harmful drug. They save lives.

Animals have been responsible for some of the most life-changing advances in medicine. They brought around insulin (which saved the lives of how many diabetic children?) and heart transplants. They help us understand complicated neural processes, like what goes on when a child is abandoned. Animal research has not always been ethical, but so many steps have been taken to make sure that these animals are well cared for. And care, we do.

For example, PF (our lab tech) accidentally killed a mouse in an anesthesia induction chamber while he was teaching me a common surgery we use. He pulled it out of the chamber and begged it to start breathing, using one finger to do chest compressions on its tiny heart. And our post-doc once spend 5 minutes trying to get a mother rat to recognize some abandoned babies. "I need to tell someone," she said frantically, "or they'll die from neglect." She later laughed at the irony, that she was so worried about them when they would eventually die. But it's not surprising, really. We aren't heartless cruel people. We all wish that it wasn't necessary. But we know that it is. We have intellectually separated ourselves from the process. We acknowledge the sacrifice that these animals give, and we respect them for that sacrifice.

PETA would have you believe that we are all terrible robots who don't give a shit about animals. They somehow try to hammer in this point by using oversexualized ads that don't even begin to touch the surface of the issues. They invade labs and release animals that have been institutionalized, not realizing the cost of that action. They protest with visceral images of animals that have been stripped of all of their context. They are sensationalists. They don't ask for dialogue. They have never learned how to pick their battles, how to separate animal research for cosmetics (which I'm not particularly in support of) from animal research for medicine (totally necessary). They get it all wrong. They don't even try to get it right.

And still, I have a job to do. And that job is to help people. To save lives. To alleviate suffering.

So, once a week, I go to the rabbit room, and I choose one from the wall of cages. I pet its head as I put it down. It should break my heart. But by virtue of emotional distancing and knowledge of a bigger purpose, it doesn't.


Blogger Rebekah said...

Yesssss... EFF PETA!

That was kind of heart-wrenching to read. But absolutely true and as always, very well expressed.

I'm sorry you have to kill rabbits. I would whisper to them too.

November 19, 2010 at 2:08 AM  

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