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Animal Researchers:
How Do They Do It?

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Animal Researchers:
How Do They Do It?

From Carol Glaser, Humane Research Council (HRC)
January 2012

In a previous blog series (See No Evil: Denial and Animal Suffering, Parts 1, 2, 3), I explored how denial works to allow humans to become willing participants and bystanders in the suffering of animals. Much of the discussion centered on how employees and subordinates learn to acquiesce to requests from superiors and how the average person learns to ignore the violence inherent in everyday and normalized uses of animals (food, clothing, entertainment, etc.). What I did not thoroughly explore was how those with more economic and social privilege in their careers could engage in types of animal exploitation that are atypical on animals which are often beloved in our culture. This is precisely what animal experimenters are engaged in and a question I have, that leaves many animal advocates baffled, is “How do they do it?”

With the slaughter of food animals, for example, the ‘dirty work’ is conducted by underpaid, marginally employed workers and the process has been normalized and masked in our culture through various linguistic and socialization processes that begin in early childhood (See my previous blog series on Denial for more on this). However, the case of animal testing is much different and requires more than just denial on the part of the researcher, it involves actively imagining the abuse. Animal experiments are designed and often conducted by individuals who are highly educated and have other career options. In addition, the experiments conducted on these animals are atypical, and are not written into our culture’s idea of what is ‘necessary’ or ‘normal’ in the way of animal abuse. Further, the animals used are often those that are highly valued in our society—companion animals such as dogs, cats, and rabbits or animals thought to be “like” humans, namely primates.

Unfortunately, there is not much insight into this topic. There is currently a lot of oversight and a lack of trust in animal testing facilities, largely due to the work of animal advocates in exposing animal abuses in laboratories, which makes it difficult for social scientists to gain access to and research the workings of animal laboratories. However, in the late 1980s, before secrecy was prevalent in animal testing facilities, in Arnold B. Arluke conducted an important study that provides insight into how researchers manage engaging in animal abuse for their work.

Arluke conducted participant observation in 20 biomedical testing facilities and six animal testing facilities and conducted 110 interviews with various people who work in these facilities—principal investigators, postdoctoral fellows, research technicians, animal-care technicians, and veterinarians. There are a number of ways that researchers and lab workers deal with what they are doing throughout the process, according to Arluke. However, the key factor in the ability of lab workers and researchers to engage in animal experimentation in the first place is that they think of animals as objects.

Arluke highlights that what researchers are doing is “converting animals into data” and so the use of the animal must be rationalized through the objectification of the animals. The key ways Arluke identifies this as happening is through incorporation, deindividualization, commodification, isolation, and managing situational definitions.

Animals were incorporated into the research design as objects—listed as a “supply” or bred specifically for testing. They were deindividualized by being kept in group-housing, thought of on the species (versus individual) level, and identified by labels rather than names. Among other ways of labeling, numbers were tattooed, holes were punched, tags were tied, or symbols were drawn onto the bodies of animals to identify them rather than giving them names; in this way, the animals remained something, not someone. Animals were also commoditized, most directly by being thought of as data, or publishable research. In addition, they were kept in isolation to avoid human-animal bonds. Situational definitions were also managed, When outsiders would come into labs and identify the animals as “pets” the lab workers would quickly exit or redirect the interactions; when lab workers were too familial with animals, their behavior was often corrected by superiors and coworkers through verbal sanctions.

The differential labeling of and attitude toward research animals by lab workers is highlighted in a study comparing animal advocates’ and researchers’ attitudes toward animal experimentation. While the animal advocates were primarily concerned with the suffering of individual animals, researchers were focused on the outcome of the experiment and a potential for a “greater good.” In these very different attitudes we can clearly see the difference in labeling of animals as subjects and individuals in the case of animal advocates and as objects or tools in the case of researchers.

The process of objectification on the part of lab workers is not inherent and must be maintained, as it goes against many of the ‘normal’ ways we are taught to care for and treat other animals. What is interesting in the case of the lab workers Arluke studied is that they place different labels (sometimes arbitrarily) on animals in the same species, which were intended to be exploited in the same way for the same experiment. Some animals were loved by lab workers, who then violated lab protocol to save these specific animals. Occasional animals become lab workers’ companion animals or lived in the lab permanently as a group pet, either being totally spared from being part of an experiment or allowed to live after the experiment is completed. The lab worker therefore finds him or herself able to simultaneously “save” and kill animals by placing the label of “pet” on some and “object” on others.

Merely shifting the label placed on an animal is a technique our culture regularly uses to justify and mitigate the (usually violent) use and killing of some animal species and the simultaneous affection for and protection of other animal species. D. W. Rajecki, Jeffrey Lee Rasmussen, and Heather D. Craft conducted two studies—one examining historical archives of popular scientific articles discussing animals, and the second an experiment in which people reacted to stories of different types of animals subjected to the same maltreatment. They found that the maltreatment that was deemed “acceptable” depended on how animals were labeled (e.g., pet or food) or the species of the animals (e.g., it is okay to hook a fish but not a bird). How animals were grouped and labeled, not the animals’ actual ability to suffer or relate to human society, was what influenced the amount of maltreatment people would tolerate.

That shifting labels is so effective is evidence suggesting that programs such as the Beagle Freedom Project may have far reaching effects for the anti-vivisection movement. This program places Beagle dogs and occasional rabbits that were used in experiments into homes afterward, preventing them from being killed, which is typical protocol at the end of experiments. They re-label these dogs as pets, even after they have been classified and “used” as objects. These rescues typically receive lots of media attention, which means many people are exposed to the problematic and atypical labeling of “pets” as “objects” in laboratories. This is promising for shifting public opinion about animal testing, in addition to saving the individual dogs they rescue.

Hal Herzog commented on another aspect of the shifting of labels applied to animals in the same species in a single research facility in a comment he wrote to a journal in 1988. He highlighted that the role that mice played in the lab led to different attitudes and treatment. Mice used in experiments were seen as “good mice,” as they were being used and sacrificed for the greater good. At the same time, there were “bad mice,” which were free roaming mice or “pests” that were killed unceremoniously and violently with the use of glue traps. Finally, there were “feeder mice,” which served only as tools for keeping other experimental animals alive—they received different care and less concern than the “good mice.”

What all these studies teach us is that use of animals in experiments is something that researchers, lab technicians, and other laboratory workers must learn to do and must consistently manage. Animal advocates spend much of their time trying to change public attitudes toward testing by highlighting the often-deleterious effects to human health and the many unnecessary and excessive uses of animal testing (e.g. for cosmetics and household products). Another viable target for the movement may also be working with current and potential researchers. The number of people who do these experiments is comparatively small, and they typically have to work hard to continue engaging in what they are doing. If we learn how to conduct humane education among graduate students and people in laboratory technician programs, we may able to instill in them the more accurate labels that treat animals as individuals and subjects of life, not objects and tools of experiments.