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Of mice and men

The moral dilemma of animal research

“You never get used to killing an animal,” Hélène Ste-Croix told me. She said it sadly, almost defensively, as though she was worried I would think that she was used to killing. But it wouldn’t be surprising if I did: countless times during her career, Ste-Croix has killed animals that she spent time with and cared for, all in the name of science.

From 1995 to 2005, Ste-Croix worked as a technician at McGill’s Animal Resources Centre, and, like most of the people I spoke to who are involved in non-human animal testing, she’s a little touchy about it. “You learn not to bring it up that much,” she admitted.

McGill is no stranger to criticism over its use of animals in research. Ste-Croix was working here in 1996 when a group of activists demonstrated in front of McIntyre Medical building and allegedly tried to set the centre’s research animals free. They didn’t manage to get into the building, but did break one of its windows, and, according to Ste-Croix, thoroughly rattled the staff working there at the time.

“[Supervisors] told us to be careful and not advertise that we worked [at the centre],” she said. “When you work with animals, you always have to be aware of these things.”

The attempted break-in was part of the larger movement against animal testing in the nineties, much of which centered on McGill. As one of Canada’s biggest research centres, McGill is also one of the country’s most frequent users of animals as research subjects. In 2011, its labs and affiliated research facilities used a staggering 69,894 test animals, including 25,661 that were subjected to procedures McGill classifies as “invasiveness D,” or “moderate to severe stress or discomfort.”

Rebecca Aldworth, who is now the executive director of the Canadian Humane Society, was a Concordia student in the nineties and a member of the Concordia Animal Rights Association. She took part in the 1996 protest, and told the McGill Reporter at the time that she was upset when the window was broken, because the point of the protest was “to let people know we’re enraged…not damage things.”

“We want to expose [McGill] for the cruel and sadistic practices it allows and supports,” she said.

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Fast forward almost twenty years. Robert Balk chairs one of McGill’s committees that assesses the ethics of animal research proposals. He remembers the 1996 demonstration well. “I guess I was more annoyed than anything else,” he recalled. “I certainly don’t think there’s any reason to be protesting animal research; each experiment has been reviewed very carefully, and the results have been beneficial to animals as well as humans.”

Nonetheless, using animals in research has long been contested, and historically, its divisiveness has sometimes led to more demonizing than constructive dialogue. This divide shone through when I spoke with Suzanne Smith, a former lab technician in an animal research lab, and the director of the Animal Compliance Office at McGill. When I was leaving her office after our interview, she stopped me at the door and asked, sounding disheartened, whether I was going to write “another negative article about animal research at McGill.”

“We try so hard to make sure the animals have good conditions, and then people go and write about us like we’re evil,” she said.

Jim Gourdon is a trained research animal veterinarian, and the director of Comparative Medicine at McGill. He, too, has had the experience of being stereotyped for his work with animals in research. “If you look at movies and at pop culture, the myth of the evil scientist is quite strong. It’s easier to convince people that there’s been an abuse of animals, even if it’s false, than that we work really hard to take good care of the animals. Good news doesn’t make the headlines,” he said.

Along with Smith, Gourdon serves on one of McGill’s Animal Care Committees (ACC), which review all research proposals involving animal subjects, and have the power to veto or request modification of any aspect of the proposal relating to animals. The ACC were created in 1968 by the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC) in an attempt to implement more oversight of the use of animals as test subjects. They’re made up of at least one researcher who uses animals, an administrator not involved in animal research, a veterinarian, a community representative, a student from any faculty, and a lab technician, and can include other members “as needed.”

Yet the structure of the ACC, and the people who serve on them, still trouble people like Liz White, a director of the nonprofit Animal Alliance of Canada. “Animal Care Committees are mostly staffed by people who are in research, and you usually don’t have a balance of opinion between people who support research and people who are opposed to it. If there were, there could be quite a vigorous debate about the kind of research that the committee is reviewing,” she said.

Even Smith admits that “every member of the committee must accept that, if there’s a strong scientific merit to the project, then it’s acceptable to sacrifice some animals to it.” For her, if someone is completely against animal research, “there’s no point in being a member on the committee.”

As evidenced by White and Smith, there seems to be a strong ideological difference between researchers and animal rights workers regarding the merits of research, despite a common concern for animal welfare. White further protested that even if members of the committee disagree with its final decision, confidentiality agreements disallow the public from hearing anything about it. “This is a closed, encapsulated system, so that nobody knows what the debates or problems are.”

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The CCAC oversees the use of animals in public, private, and university laboratories, including animals used for cosmetic testing. Cosmetic testing, which includes everything from skincare to shampoo to bleach, is considered to be separate from scientific research. It’s illegal in Europe, and does not happen at McGill. To give you a better idea about cosmetic testing, it involves tests like the median lethal dose (or LD50) test, which involves force-feeding a group of animals a certain product until half of them die from it, almost always after intense and prolonged suffering with no anesthesia.

Cosmetic testing, even among those who work with animals in research, is widely unpopular. “I find it totally irrelevant,” said Ste-Croix. “I think there’s no point in doing it at all.”

But when it comes to using animals for scientific research, the ethics become much more foggy. Is it okay to use animals for research when many of them are treated better than most farm animals? When the research might greatly benefit humans?

The CCAC is supposed to deal with precisely this problem, and ensure that animal research is carried out according to what they have dubbed “the three Rs” of humane animal experimentation: replace animals when possible, reduce the use of animals when not, and refine the process to “minimize pain and distress.”

Ste-Croix argues that the CCAC does a good job of making sure animals are treated well. “Everyone’s taking care of the animals and making sure that researchers use alternatives if they can. I just hope that people understand that we’re not a bunch of Nazis trying to torture animals.”

“Every researcher I talk to tells me they love animals – and I’m sure they do,” said  White. “But when you have 1,300 mice for research, are you telling me that that researcher loves and cares for each mouse? I don’t believe all researchers are bad and I don’t think they all want to do bad things to their animals. But there is a systemic intellectual laziness about getting away from the use of animals in research.”

White and other animal rights activists also argue that the CCAC doesn’t do nearly enough to hold researchers accountable and reduce the use of animals in research.

“There is virtually no platform for transparency and accountability. There is no platform for discussion about the ethics and morals of the use of animals in research, and there is no mechanism by which we begin to reduce the numbers of animals that we use in Canada,” she said. “The CCAC says they’re working hard to make change, but that’s just nonsense. We’ve been at them for ten years to try to get them to make a change, and they simply refuse.”

If there’s a lack of alternatives to animals as test subjects, Gourdon faults the government and other bodies that provide research funding. “Researchers will do research if you give them money,” he said bluntly. “Looking into alternatives for animal research isn’t an area that’s currently supported by granting agencies; there are some private agencies that will fund that kind of research, but it’s really marginal.”

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Moral and ethical discussions of animal rights issues, from research to factory farming, often circle back to the concept of speciesism. Speciesism questions the very notion of there being a clear-cut line that we can draw between beings we call humans, and beings we call animals. As the argument goes, according to animal rights philosophers, the distinction is arbitrary since certain ‘animals’, like chimpanzees, have the same capacity for language and rationality as a human infant. Why don’t we test on infants? If we agree that this line is arbitrary, our treatment of what we deem ‘animals’ seems horrifying.

People who talk about speciesism use it to draw a parallel between our treatment of animals and the racism and sexism of human society. The analogy is that treating an animal as inferior just for being in the category ‘animal’ is the same as treating a woman as inferior just for being in the category ‘female’. It’s especially salient in the case of animal research, in which animals are used as surrogates for humans. While animals’ biological similarity to human subjects justifies the research, our perceived distinction between the two allows us to think it’s okay.

“The majority of people put the line between animals and humans, and I’ve accepted it,” said Smith. “If having all the benefits of research for my children means that some animals were involved in research, as long as they don’t suffer, I’m okay with [the fact that the distinction is arbitrary].”

And this arbitrary distinction tends to be the focus of arguments against animal research. Animal rights activists often use the example of pain research, which tends to be conducted on primates and necessarily involves the animals being in pain. The primates used for pain research make good poster children for the cause, especially because pain studies rarely result in grand discoveries. To many activists, the end doesn’t justify the means.

“There’s research that I’ve reviewed that’s been ongoing for ten to 15 years, and not a published paper out of it,” said White, speaking generally about animal research. “What’s the point in treating all these animals as though they were disposable widgets for, apparently, the betterment of mankind?”

But let’s think about the example of mice instead of primates (and this is where the researchers find people hypocritical). Most people wouldn’t contest the usage of mice for cancer research. But if the question is of monkeys enduring pain, everyone is up in arms.

While we as a society don’t like to think about hunting endangered species, many people have no problem wearing leather or eating pigs. Animal research, on the other hand, might evoke images of a mad scientist performing vivisection on a chimp – something that would make most people squirm, ethically.

And this leaves us in a morally sticky situation. While one would hope the CCAC could work to be more transparent and develop alternatives to animal research, we can’t stop doing it outright. At least not right now.

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Millions of animals every year are raised for the sole purpose of testing and scientific research, and many of them suffer greatly in the process. Right here at McGill, a portion of the animals used in research come from species, like macaque monkeys, that have been shown to be quite similar to humans, and, as far as we know, all animals used in research are capable of suffering. They are also all, necessarily, subject to conditions that would be considered unacceptable for human participants in research.

We don’t like to think of ourselves as complicit within a system that exploits animals. But most of the scientific benefits that we enjoy wouldn’t be possible without the suffering and death of millions of animals every year. How can we advocate for changes in animal research without acknowledging our own dependency on animal exploitation? We’re able to avoid this uncomfortable question because people like Ste-Croix end up doing the dirty work behind the scenes. “You shield yourself a little bit,” she said to me toward the end of our phone call, “because otherwise you’d end up crying everyday.”