One of the main topics for class this week is the use of model organisms for research in cell and molecular biology. How many models do we need? Which is best? Hopefully, students will reflect carefully on these subjects as they work through the assignments. However, we won’t spend very much time on the topic that haunts me – especially this week: almost all of the model organisms will die (we use the euphemism “be sacrificed”) during or at the conclusion of the experiment. This is a significant moral choice in the life of a scientist working with animals.
A week ago today, I had to say goodbye to my best friend, my 5-year old catahoula, Comet. Comet finally succumbed to the side effects of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and the medicine used to treat it, after a valiant two-year battle. Comet was actually “euthanized”, another technical term for the fact that I made the choice for the veterinarian to take his life, in this case, because I couldn’t bear to see his suffering. Comet was more than a pet. He was a member of the family.
Yet I sit here in my office with minimal concern for the frog that sits in the bucket next to me. I have conducted research with this species for about 15 years now, and in the course of that time, I have personally “sacrificed” dozens of frogs, and approved the “sacrifice” of many more. This has not been without feeling. I really like frogs, and may even love them. I worry about their health, I feed them live crickets and worms instead of just the lousy frog chow, and when no one else is in the lab, I sometimes talk to them. Yet, my moral compass has guided me to a belief that the research that I have conducted and the quality of training I have offered my students has justified the end of many little amphibian lives. I have not cured cancer by any means, but I may have helped. And I have not solved the mysteries of amphibian decline, but I may have added to the dialog about why and how.
I respect people who do not support research with animals, and yet I do not understand how they can live their lives consistently, without benefiting from that research. I do not respect anyone who is cruel to animals.
In animal research, we are taught the 3 R’s, reduce, replace and revise (sort of like reduce, reuse, recycle). The goal is to minimize the use of animals and any suffering they might incur. The Japanese have added a fourth R: respect. Japanese scientists build memorials to the animals they have used for research and even hold remembrance services for them. I like that.