Lives in the Balance

From the issue dated January 26, 2007


My parents deal in research animals. They are certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and supply dogs to laboratories for various medical experiments. Dad does the purchasing and husbandry work, Mom keeps the books, and they make good money at it.

I accompanied my father on a delivery one day. We took nine dogs to a university lab, backing Dad's approved delivery vehicle up to the loading dock of a nondescript building in the middle of a major urban campus in the wee hours of the morning. The early arrival had something to do with my father's preferred work schedule, perhaps more to do with the tacit understanding of all concerned that, however you may feel about it, this is not the sort of thing one does in the bright light of day.

Of animal-rights issues, medical research is perhaps the thorniest. The human use of animals � for companionship, entertainment, food, clothing � always assumes a hierarchy, one that puts humans at the top or the center of, variously, the evolutionary order, God's creation, or the food chain. That hierarchy is intuitive and acceptable to most people. Our dispositions toward meat and fur and the circus are rarely conscious, but when they are, there is clear, if callous, calculus to them. People can come to terms with whatever they feel comfortable with, or at least are unwilling or unable to give up. We balance a pig's life and a chicken's freedom against ham and eggs, a cow's contented grazing against a handbag.

The elements are so much more abstract when it comes to research, though. The trade-off between animal life lost and medical advancement gained can never be close to one to one. Research, after all, is just practice, and many animal-research deaths must produce little more than checkmarks on clipboards. Animal research persists, though, because those checkmarks often have breathtaking implications. In March a group of scientists in Canada reported that they crushed the spines of some lab rats, paralyzing them, then used stem cells and what might as well be magic to restore some of the rats' movement.

I help Dad lead the dogs into the facility. The inside of the building is a strange blend of hospital and barn. It smells the way I imagine, or hope, dairies and slaughterhouses smell, of a disinfected animal presence. It has the sterile feel lent by stainless-steel equipment and furnishings and long fluorescent hallways, but one of the hallways features several bales of straw, one of them loose, and a waist-high stack of bulging bags that I assume to be full of dog food. We have come in a back way, but as we lead the dogs through the hallways, past various pass-card-secured doors, we go by what must be the main entrance to the building. It is the foyer to any university building: some 60s-era chairs, some outdated magazines, a Mao-esque painting of a middle-aged white man whose family name, I assume, is on the building. The janitorial staff is getting ready for the day. As we lead the dogs past the entryway, their toenails clicking on the linoleum under the ambivalent smile of the donor, one of the dogs, excited and nervous to be in a new place, defecates her way down the freshly mopped hallway. I am apologetic to the staff, but all I hear is an exasperated Spanish-accented voice tell the woman with the mop bucket that she'll have to come over and clean that up.

We come through a final set of doors to a work area. A rectangular pen on wheels, which I recognize as a set of scales used for weighing pigs, sits next to a stainless-steel platform with a digital display attached � another scale, this one used for more cooperative animals or, in another setting, airport luggage. The dogs must be weighed on the platform scale and checked in on arrival � examined for visible signs of ill health, their markings noted for identification purposes. The medical staff members wear lab coats and scrubs, and they are unfailingly nice to the dogs. The two women checking the dogs in barely cease talking to them throughout the process, cooing to each animal in that voice we reserve for animals and babies with whom we are pleased. There is petting, patting, scratching behind the ears. Tails wag.

Completing the picture are two children. Two boys, maybe 5 or 6. They are out of school for Christmas break, and their mother, the technician in charge of checking the dogs in, has had no option this morning but to bring them to work with her. They are adorable, models of boyhood, one red-haired and freckled, the other dark-haired. Dad and I are bringing in two dogs at a time, each of us leading one, and on the second trip Dad's is checked in first. As I stand waiting with the dog I've led in, the boys come over to pet her. This interaction could happen anywhere; kids and animals generally, boys and dogs in particular, are inseparable when in the same room. A split second before it happens, I sense it coming. The redhead looks up at me.

"What'siz name?"

This dog has no name, son, she has a USDA tracking number, assigned to her in the order that my mom registered her in the records. That number, embossed on a metal plate fastened by a light chain around her neck, will be used to track her as she moves through this facility, until whatever it is they're doing to her kills her, or they finish with her and she is either euthanized or, perhaps, put up for adoption. If the latter, then she'll get a name.

I say that I don't know the dog's name.

I grew up with animals, on a farm, and like all farm kids I learned early the difference between a working animal and a pet, and I learned to try not to get too attached to anything until I knew where it stood with my parents. An agricultural attitude toward animals is built on a sense of purpose � the expenses of every animal in time, worry, and money are borne with the assumption that they will be repaid in milk, meat, or (most often) money from sale. The justifying purpose for a pure pet is companionship, and animals enjoying such a privileged uselessness are comparatively rare. If every farm kid saved every animal they ever cried over, the nation's food stores would be substantially strained.

My parents started selling dogs for research about the time I left for college � Dad takes considerable glee in noting that the lowly dogs, along with my financial aid, sent me, debt free, to a top-25 private university. The business was then and is now something I have disclosed only to close friends, and, perhaps consequently, I have met with curiosity and often support from my peers, but never outright hostility. In the rarefied company of my fellow humanities graduate students, though, I've never brought it up at all.

Dad has kept animals his entire life; the whole children's-book barnyard menagerie has passed through his hands � cattle, horses, goats, pigs, chickens. Although the research business is a relatively recent turn, dogs kept for hunting had been a constant presence. Until he became licensed to sell animals for research, he valued dogs only for their capacity to hunt. Now, however, the dogs have become one more sort of livestock, each individual bought, raised, and sold interchangeably. In some ways I think he always thought of the dogs in the same way he thought of all the other farm animals � while he has certainly had favorites among his hounds, I don't think he's ever had what would properly be called a pet.

Dad tells the story of waiting at a veterinarian's office (the strict USDA controls on research animals make such visits very common) behind an elderly couple who had come to have a dog put to sleep. The distraught gentleman, making conversation, asked Dad if he thought dogs had souls. My dad said no. When he was telling me this story, I suggested that the old man may have wanted to hear something different, but Dad insisted that there was no use lying to him since he'd asked an honest question. Only people have souls, and dogs aren't people, he explained, any more than cattle and pigs are people.

After the dogs are checked in, we lead them to a room with large stainless-steel cages down one wall. The cages have rubber floors, and they are impeccably clean. By the time we bring in the last two dogs, the first two are stretched out, apparently comfortably, in their new homes. I do not know what tests these particular dogs are meant for. Sometimes the dogs that Dad delivers live in the facility for many months; he knows this because he occasionally comes across them, sitting in cages next to those in which he is putting new dogs. Other times he knows that the dogs he takes in on a given morning will not last the day.

Although the vast majority of animal experiments are carried out on rodents, the face of animal research is undoubtedly simian. When we worry about it, we think of chimps in cages. Primates are prohibitively expensive for most researchers, though, in financial as well as political terms. The fact that primates get more public attention has to do with the marketing efforts of animal-rights groups: for a mascot, better a chimp than a mouse, for obvious reasons.

The rodents are in some ways more disquieting, though; their widespread use in research draws attention to the unsettling fact that what is really needed for most medical trials is warm-blooded, ambulatory life, of which mice are just the cheapest, most easily housed, and most expendable avatar. It is not the animal that is subjected to chemical injection and dissection, but the animating feature it carries � the divine spark human beings share even with mice. How much of this drug will snuff it out? Can it survive with this plastic implant? If we break it, can we figure out how to fix it?

The hallway we take back out of the building is mostly bare. Except for safety and sanitary reminders on a few bulletin boards, the walls are empty. On one office door, though, is a poster bearing a bald, sunken-eyed child clutching a stuffed animal. She is sitting in a red wagon in a hospital hallway, propped on a pillow, wearing Elmo slippers, and her skin is puffy, her eyes ringed with red and fixed on the viewer. We all recognize this as the image of the cancer patient, even if we have never seen one, the way we recognize even abstract images of Elvis or Christ without having firsthand knowledge of them. With the child's picture, the poster states, "If there is no animal research, there is no cure."

The ad's challenge is powerful. It can only be refuted if we are convinced that cures for lethal human ailments aren't even just a little bit more probable because of research on animals, or if we believe that this child's suffering doesn't matter more than the suffering of mice. That type of argument is especially relevant for my parents because my niece, their granddaughter, was one of those bald kids, diagnosed with a tumor on each kidney when she was 22 months old. My dad bawled like a child when she was diagnosed. Their business is first and foremost a moneymaking venture, to be sure, but my parents know that it is not difficult to trace the line from animal research to the chemicals, instruments, and surgeons who saved her life. When the first piece of hate mail came, when family and friends started refusing to visit their home, they fell back on a sense of purpose derived from personal experience with the benefits of research.

Try as they might, opponents of animal research know they are unable to break or disrupt the link between that research and the advancement of human medicine. The same unsettling similarities of the mice and the dogs to ourselves, and to the child in the poster � the fact that they share life which can be destroyed in them as well as in us � make them indispensable for research. That is what none of the alternatives � cadavers, tissue cultures, computer simulations � can provide.

I eat meat, enthusiastically. It would never occur to me to boycott horse racing or leather goods. I also think zoos and circuses are cruel, though, and I avoid veal and foie gras. The thing about research is that it doesn't allow for self-satisfying half measures. The decision that it's acceptable to crush a rat's spine to see if we can fix a person's crushed spine, the deliberate creation of an ailment in one living thing that we're trying to heal in another, forces us into the bald admission that we really do believe people are more valuable than animals, that we use animals to benefit ourselves, and that what we call "humane" in that respect is something we define.

I think part of what makes us human, though, is being uncomfortable with all of that, ruminating and weighing that discomfort, making our deliveries in the half-light of morning.

Seth Perry is a Ph.D. student in the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 53, Issue 21, Page B14

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