About killing

I’ll tell you about an important event in my history with animal care and welfare in science. It happened in the middle, so I’ll start with the whole sequence, including important steps in the recent history of animal use in science.

  • 1983-84 (undergrad, tech): Yeast genetics – using, uh, yeast
  • 1985: significant upgrade to the Animal Welfare Act (original: 1966) with the U.S. Government Principles for the Care and Utilization of Vertebrate Animals used in Testing, Research, and Training, instituting Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) review and inspections by the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW)
  • 1985-87 (undergrad, researcher): Brain-and-behavior rat experiments – using live animals, copulation, surgeries, brain and body implants, temperature-modifying drugs
  • 1986-87 (undergrad, tech): Bone biomechanics – prepping slides, no contact with animals
  • 1987-89 (job, researcher): Monkey systematics – using museum skeletal, skin, and cadaver specimens
  • 1990-91 (grad, researcher): gonad-and-genital morphology vole experiments – live animals in colony, surgeries
  • 1991: field mouse trapping (job)
  • 1990-92 (grad: MS): Bat penis bone analysis – using research records and museum specimens
  • 1992-97 (grad: PhD): Tons more genital anatomy analysis across many mammals – preparing and using museum specimens
  • 1996: Sundowner Conference, later published in the Hastings Report
  • Following 1991 I did no more animal research, but I served on IACUC at Children’s Memorial Research Center from 2003-2013, concerning considerable live rodent work
  • 2002: first publication of Adil Shamoo’s and David Resnik’s Responsible Conduct of Research

I’m talking about the bolded period, and how I shifted from doing live animal work, yet remain an advocate for it.

I toughened up a bit: fishing, for instance. Or when my cat came to me in agony, dripping blood, his face somehow smashed – we took him to be killed at the vet. Or when my terrier came to me similarly, her abdomen opened by a raccoon – the peritoneum was intact, so she lived. I thought about these and similar things as a teen to conclude that death was not the problem.

And you need to toughen up too, if you want to keep reading. Animal use is deeply embedded in human life and culture, entailing human control of their lives and deaths, period. There was (and is) no culture which held them sacred in any way which changed that. Animal welfare activist, animal rights activist, vegetarian, vegan, whatever you want to call yourself, doesn’t change it. Neither does this observation act as an endorsement or a condemnation; it’s only to say that studying live animals in research is one mode of use, and for me the question is not whether, but how.

I forgot to mention a couple of details in that clip.

  1. Rodents bred for lab use aren’t covered by the Animal Welfare Act. However, AAALAC accreditation and major granting agencies like NIH and NSF require AWA standards (and stricter) to be applied to them anyway.
  2. Our use of anesthetics and analgesics, to the extent that a rat we operated on was practically a little hospital patient, robed and gowned for surgery, fully “under” with a variety of means to test it, monitoring and heating during recovery, and afterward, the stitches treated with numbing ointment and checked every few hours.
  3. The required assurance upon using gas to kill the animals – in my case, since blood samples were part of the data set, I immediately drew the animal’s blood out of its body with a syringe, killing it for sure. All modes of euthanasia in research require assurance of some kind, all of them very effective.

The more I learned, the more I confirmed that the widespread notion that scientists torture animals because that’s what they do wasn’t happening. Beginning my own research, I used these experiences as my guide: killing for knowledge was something I could and would do, but I wouldn’t be an agent of pain or poor quality of life. It also seemed right to be honest about it, and I resisted using the standard lab euphemism of “sacrifice,” which I still think is a weird thing to say.

During this period, the early 1990s, the scientists I met tended toward this view, but also to self-censor, resulting in little ongoing dialogue or community identity regarding animal care. Anything beyond one’s personal processing was left to comparatively sterile concerns like “enough to keep my job,” and that context quickly develops cracks. That’s what this post is really about: how the infrastructure, the reinforcing mechanisms, the policies, the oversight, the accountability, and the ongoing participation in policies’ making and implementation were and are more important than personal processing.

I was interested in the bone found in the caput penis of many mammals, called the baculum. It, and similar cases of genital diversity, pose a fascinating evolutionary question. In many cases, closely-related species otherwise minimally different from one another, feature radically different bacula, and that was my big study topic. In voles, the baculum is like a little trident (tines at the end), composed of various types of bone and cartilage. I began with testosterone effects how it develops … oh wait, you may not know what voles are. They are little furry rodents as common as mice but much harder to spot. There’s one in the leading image for this post.

Rodent colonies were set up in a dedicated facility in the Psychology department with a full animal care staff and officers, and that’s where I got the animals. I was provided with one of the animal rooms in our department, called Zoology at the time, which was a tiled box with light-hours controls, kept clean by housekeeping staff. They also took away soiled cages and brought replacements, as well as food, but regarding direct contact with the animals, I was the feeder, breeder, cage-monitor, and cage-cleaner, every day. I kept track of their ages, putting males and females together at designated times, making sure that mating wasn’t inbred, removing young into their own cages when they were old enough, monitoring their behavior for signs of stress, and otherwise knowing every animal in there better than I knew my friends. It also meant regularly culling, or routinely killing all the animals over a certain age in lots. I received training in surgery and began my comparisons.

I also took on a paid assignment from an external research project, a conservation-oriented study of genetic diversity in the wild  I was to live-trap field mice (Peromyscus polionotus) in the Ocala National Forest, a bit of a break for me in my daily tasks of lab colony care, and send the animals to the research zoo in question, many states away.

Such trapping employs Sherman traps, which is a little metal box, about the size of a beer can if it were rectangular, with a spring-loaded door that snaps shut when the critter has come all the way in, so it’s not hit by the mechanism. You put peanut butter in about a hundred of them and string them across the forest landscape along the micro-terrain that mice like to use for foraging, then come along the next morning and transfer the puzzled (but not hungry) captives into prepared rodent cages, labeling carefully as you go. I slept at local parks and moved from location to location, collecting early so the animals wouldn’t be trapped in the heat, amassing about several dozen cages of mice in successive trips. It was a hot, tough job in the Florida summer, including seeing my traplines disrupted at one point, and meeting a small but adult bear.

Not having anything else to do with the mice, I set up a colony of cages in a spare room in the tiny house I rented. I was an experienced rodent caretaker, so I’d lost none of the animals and all fifty-six of them were active, feeding well. I was pretty proud of all this successful trapping and careful record-keeping. But how to get them to the lab across the country? Not only was science being halted in its march, this did not seem precisely legal.

I canceled my vole project in full, for which a certain sentence in The Island of Doctor Moreau seems resonant:

Then we went into the laboratory and put an end to all we found living there.

I then turned my research data collection to preserved museum specimens for my Master’s and my Ph.D.

This isn’t a contrite “and I touched sacred animals no more” speech. My views on death itself and on animal use in research didn’t change. Ten years later, as a prof, I joined the IACUC at a university-affiliated research center of international note and served on it for over ten years more – you might say I approved the use and deaths of exponentially more rodents, two or three orders of magnitude more, with great dedication. But that’s my point: the research use and the deaths, yes, not suffering and not collateral damage. The ethical and (more important) the policy question is whether we strive to prevent these animals’ misery and pain in doing so. I didn’t want to participate unless and until that striving was more effective, and this position gave me considerable authority to judge and enforce this.

But back to 1991 or so, to their credit, the researchers at the zoo lab immediately revised all their transport standards. Mine was the most severe case, but they’d found that all kinds of things couldn’t be entrusted to the post office, and from that point forward, they relied on a veterinary inspection prior to transport and assigned a representative from the lab to monitor transported animals and to ensure their proper departure. This must not have been the only case, because over the next few years procedures for transport were included in the federal IACUC protocol.

That one detail, monitoring transport, represents a wide range of dialogues which had blossomed during the 1990s within the scientific research world (I do not speak of or for the meat industry, product testing, or institutions with performing animals, all of which I regard with suspicion). The discussions multiplied and started jumping disciplinary boundaries to produce new symposia and debates. A 1991 paper by Strachan Donnelly, “Speculative Philosophy, the Troubled Middle, and the Ethics of Animal Experimentation,” described scientists as a “troubled middle between human welfarists and animal rightists,” but I think he overlooked the point that we didn’t actually buy into the old and false dichotomy that “torture produces knowledge, so you have to choose.” Scientists knew they were not brutal torturers of animals in the name of human benefit, or if they inadvertently were (e.g. institutional failings, insufficient oversight), they wanted to stop and do it a different way. Strachan did suggest that such scientists address the problem themselves without necessarily buying into what he described as the “ethical three-ring circus” of animal activism ideologies, and that’s exactly what happened.

In 1996, the Hastings Center Report published the proceedings of the recent Sundowner Conference, which yielded a set of principles similar to the Belmont Report concerning research on humans in 1978-1979. These and other results from this period produced a significant library with a voice of its own, appearing in book form in the early 2000s. One of the most important, Shamoo and Resnik’s Responsible Conduct of Research, became our guide in this IACUC, and I’ll talk more about my experiences there in later posts.

My life-timing was apparently still exquisite: I’d begun lab work in 1985 right when IACUCs were instituted, I’d begun my own lab and field work in 1990 right when they were hitting the limits of interdisciplinary and multi-institution work, and I became an IACUC member in the early 2000s just as the Sundowner principles and their general era of reform were being embraced in earnest. What I saw there, fortunately, was exactly what I and I presume every grad student in the early 1990s needed: true infrastructure for animal use and care. For example, by these later standards, that committee would have reviewed the transport step long before I or anyone had ever been contracted, and dedicated a contact person at my end, so that as per the contract, my job would have ended at the trapping and very temporary housing. They would also have had an animal care contact person from their university available to me, as for anyone involved with any scientific animal use, the whole time. I even found myself outlining disciplinary action for a researcher who’d bungled a transport step, with no loss of animals.

This is about policy, not ethics. You may like or dislike my ethics about research animal use and killing. The reason that’s not important is that individual ethics always meet their limits in the logistics and in daily practice, and all too easily. Policy cannot merely be an expression of, or a venue for, the application of personal ethics. It needs to be constructed as itself, implemented, overseen, and enforced, and it needs to be periodically reassessed and blowtorched too, not permitted to get crusty – institutionalized in the good way, not the bad way.

There’s where morality resides, I think.

Next: Adapt this


10 thoughts on “About killing

  1. Re: Animal use is deeply embedded… There was (and is) no culture which held them sacred in any way which changed that.

    What about Jainism?


    • “What about” is not a valid comment here. Make your point using real language or the post gets eaten, as described in the social contract.

      In the slight chance that you are actually posting in good faith and aren’t doing a drive-by, doctrine isn’t culture or practice. Doctrines say all kinds of things.


      • Fair enough.

        I responded very minimally because I generally see that as less hostile, and thought that this mild implication would be enough to get my point and intent across. Clearly I was wrong there.

        By saying “There was (and is) no culture which held them sacred in any way which changed that.” you’re making an extremely sweeping point here without backing it up at all, at least in this article. You bring up this pretty much entirely to dismiss it, which seems kinda drive-by, assuming I understand that term correctly? Perhaps it’s not what you’re interested in talking about here, but by using it as a platform to justify everything else you’re talking about, it becomes fairly relevant.

        My impression from small amounts of research is that modern Jainism is pretty much entirely anti-meat and anti-animal killing in practice, largely anti-egg but does allow dairy, which is often done ignoring the inhumane conditions of factory farming, although when this prohibition was first made factory farming wasn’t a thing. I’d say, from my limited knowledge, that this seems to have changed how they interact/interacted with animals.

        The practice of Jainism may have hewed closer to the ideals in the past, but I’m not aware of any unbiased accounts here – Jainism and Buddhism have been fighting over some of the same literal and ideological turf so their accounts are likely to both be biased. I am, notably, far from an expert on the history of human-animal interaction, or on Jainism for that matter – however, my slight knowledge of Jainism was enough to make me question that this is necessarily correct.

        From what little I’ve seen of you at Forge Midwest/reading your posts here and there, you do often seem to know about a lot of things more deeply than I do. However, that’s no reason to take very broad unsupported statements you say at face value.

        My reason for posting at all was I surmised that either you hadn’t really thought this point out that thoroughly, or there’s a bunch of knowledge you have here that I do not.

        In the former case, I wanted to make you examine your statement, and thus either cause you to question it’s validity or further support it.

        In the latter, I hoped by asking this question, that you’d respond with something that would give me further knowledge on this issue, or at least a better understanding of your viewpoint on it.


      • Also: Violating your Social Contract was unintentional.

        I didn’t see an obvious place said Social Contract was posted by coming directly to this article from Google+.

        Additionally, I didn’t realize the Social Contract was a link before this post, and thought you were talking about generalized Social Contract, but hopefully the above post doesn’t violate it – I’d recheck it more thoroughly if I saw a way to edit it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yay! Thanks. I do have a reference for you, and was hoping this was going to turn out to permit it. Rod Preece is a Canadian ethicist and animal welfare activist whose books I’ve found very helpful, in both agreements and disagreements. I especially recommend his Animals and Nature: Cultural Myths, Cultural Realities which really closed the lid on any lingering romanticism I had about various cultures deemed to revere nonhuman animals in a way we associate with treating them ethically. Preece is writing very much from the position of criticizing scientific practice, so can’t be accused of glossing anything over in defensive terms, and he’s notably good about referencing and data-sourcing, so he’s my first pick.

        Again, too, I am sufficiently harsh to want to focus on what real people do with real animals rather than to examine the points of doctrine. A lot of “believing in” a given doctrine, however sincerely, tends to be accompanied by actions that don’t match it.

        For other readers – not you specifically Abram – I urge caution regarding orientalism, the tendency to exoticize other cultures whether for romantic admiration or to vilify them. The former is especially common regarding Japan, India, and Native Americans.


  2. Are these issues addressed at all in undergraduate biology or science courses? Or is this the issue “that dare not speak its name” and merely glossed over in the course of going over University policy documents that govern animal experimentation?


    • In the final decade of my university teaching (2004-2014), I could see the times changing for this issue in two contradictory directions. In one of them, medical and research training(s) (they are not the same things) now include ethics courses and animal care certifications. There’s a strong shift from the idea that animal care standards are imposed to the idea that they are upheld, and as I wrote, a much higher standard constructed within science than the AWA requires, with better policy in place to run it. Again, the problem isn’t “scientists are cruel” but “crap infrastructure means crap practice, high-mindedness or not.”

      [Related: one detail I didn’t have space to include was that a given IACUC is composed of researchers/faculty from that institution, plus a veterinarian, plus an outside member. The “local” members serve on a rotation; it’s not a paid position and carries no mitigation of other duties. The idea that it serves to shield the institution from scrutiny is false; the OLAW (federal) inspections happen regardless and are notably unforgiving.]

      In the other direction, unfortunately, U.S. college education has been severely affected by an overall shift to a corporate model, including gross overpayment of worthless high-titled individuals, supine truckling to boards of trustees which now act as CEOs, a strong push to the higher-earning middle class and against outreach to high-performing poorer students (such as I was; a version of me could not go to the college I went to today), and most relevant to my current point, a neck-breaking fast shift to pump science students into medical and allied health professional schools with minimal liberal arts and minimal breadth of biological understanding.

      It’s been quite demoralizing to help spearhead the shift among faculty away from test-and-abandon teaching and into critical thinking (I was a primary reviewer for the NSF Project Kaleidoscope in the early 90s), to see that shift begin to take a strong hold, and then to watch it be undercut in such short order.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am a bit of a Deweyite. There could to my mind no better way to develop facility with the subject matter — animals — than in working with them, and working with them in the way that produces the best kind of research and understanding.


  4. (In for a penny, in for a pound…)

    I appreciate this description of how your understanding of the issue developed (here, I don’t want to say “evolved”). I have none of your hands-on science experience, but still see myself following a similar trajectory to a similar destination. “Not whether but how” resonates strongly. I can sympathize with those who draw distinctions about “whether” across various modes of use, and I’d want to add to your “no culture .. changed that” a “not that the details don’t matter” qualifier. But yeah, how they matter is mostly (maybe entirely) in the “how.”

    As an important event in my personal understanding, I’ll point at reading Richard Adams’ “The Plague Dogs” (1977). One of the first hardcovers I ever owned – undoubtedly a gift, and undoubtedly the giver had no idea what they were getting me into. It took me years to sort-out my reaction to that book, and it’s long enough ago I’m not sure I can distinguish its quality from its personal impact, but … impact = big (maybe slow-burn, but big). Despite the fact that the ending he wanted is SO much better than the ending that got published!


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