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