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The first lab mouse I touched had soft white fur and a light pink tail. It looked cute enough to snuggle and take home as a pet and I was smitten. I slipped my hand into the cage, thinking the mouse would respond like my pet gerbils or my brother’s pet rat. As my hand closed around its belly, that sweet little mouse sunk its teeth deep in my thumb. I screamed and shook my hand, smashing the mouse on the cement floor and killing it in an instant.

It’s been many years now since I’ve been doing anything with mice or rats. There’s much more oversight these days, as DrugMonkey has been describing in detail here and here. It seems reasonable that part of that oversight might include requiring students or technicians to complete courses in animal handling before they work with animals. The Blue Lab coats describe an additional course in bioethics that covers animal work.

One of the commenters on an earlier post mentioned that some researchers seemed a bit too callous when they were working with animals and were doing some uneccessary things. Maybe they were, or maybe like me, they were just ignorant. In my case, I had all kinds of good intentions, but I didn’t know the proper technique for mouse handling. My thumb hurt like crazy, but I sure hadn’t wanted to kill the mouse.

And maybe courses in animal handling could also include some advice on how to talk to your colleagues, if you feel they’re being unnecessarily rough. Maybe they just don’t know.

Comments

  1. #1 Jonathan Badger
    August 11, 2008

    I’m all for more training in practical measures in treating lab animals better, but I’m unconvinced as to the value of “bioethics”. I really don’t see how philosophers have any right (or insight) to tell scientists how to do their work. Scientists don’t tell philosophers how to analyze Plato and Kant, do they?

    My own suspicion is that the philosophers (being in rather poorly funded departments, as are most humanities researchers) are attracted to the nice juicy “bioethics” grants offered by the NIH and others…

  2. #2 Sandra Porter
    August 11, 2008

    Jonathan: Many graduate programs in life sciences and quite a few undergraduate biotech programs require that students take a bioethics course or that the relevant topics be covered in another course – like human genetics.

    I don’t think bioethics courses are a bad thing. When I taught a section of one of these courses, we covered a lot of topics that were important for our students to know about – like research ethics, who owns your lab book?, intellectual property, animal research, issues around genetic testing, and privacy issues.

  3. #3 Jonathan Badger
    August 11, 2008

    I’ve taken a course like what you are talking about, and I agree it was useful and practical, but that’s not really “bioethics”, even if it was an “ethics course for biologists”. Bioethics proper is a division of philosophy that claims it can decide whether fetal stem cells, animal experimentation, etc. are “ethical”. That’s what I was referring to.

  4. #4 Sandra Porter
    August 11, 2008

    A lot of these course incorporate both the terminology and work from bioethics – the branch of philosophy – and the practical – what do you need to know? – side.

    Much of the bioethics framework used in these courses comes from places like the Hasting center and was developed with funding from the Human Genome Project.

  5. #5 Zonah
    August 11, 2008

    What does being kind mean in the torture of animals in research laboratories? “Kind Cruelty”? These animals are helpless victims of our society, government and the White Coats who ride on government gravy train grants. There is no kindness in the maiming, invasive surgical procedures or agonizing death thousands of animals suffer and endure every day.

  6. #6 Sandra Porter
    August 11, 2008

    Zonah: I realize that if you haven’t worked in a lab and seen things first-hand, you wouldn’t be likely to know this, but laboratory animals are treated as well as we know how to treat them. If we don’t treat the animals well, the science would suffer and we’d be wasting our time.

  7. #7 Zonah
    August 11, 2008

    Sandra, How is an animal “treated well” when being experimented upon? Would it be “well” enough for you to be treated in this manner while being tortured?

  8. #8 Sandra Porter
    August 11, 2008

    Zonah: I suspect from your language that you’re mostly commenting because you want to argue with someone, and not because you’re interesting in learning. I haven’t ever seen experimental animals get tortured. And I’m not interested in debating the point. It would be like arguing about what the color blue looks like with someone who’s blind.

    Our lab animals always had clean cages with plenty of food and water. We wouldn’t mistreat them, they were too valuable for that.

    If you want more specifics about the treatment of lab animals, and how the veterinarians and the IACUC committees monitor the health of lab animals, you should read DrugMonkey’s post.

  9. #9 Zonah
    August 11, 2008

    I suspect from your language you consider yourself among the “white coats” – holding places of perceived high esteem -that you can easily torture animals, while making sure they have clean cages, plenty of food and water between experiments. I have all the specifics of an animal’s miserable existence in laboratories I need, and what is deemed torture. I realize you and your fellow comrades in legalized cruelty are compelled to self-brainwash yourself and block out any sense of compassion for your lofty work. Perhaps you can research into the ability of animals to feel terror, pain and despair before you take one of the victims out of their clean cages. To make it clear, I don’t want to argue with someone who is blind to the injustice and brutality of breeding, selling and torturing animals in laboratories, I’m out of here. I leave you to your Frankenstein profession.

  10. #10 The Young Linguist
    August 11, 2008

    Zonah.

    I live in constant pain and fear of pain from my Trigeminal Neuralgia. Constant, excruciating, agony. Don’t tell me that the animal testing that developed drugs like Carbamezapene weren’t worth it. Because it was. If even one human life can be saved or made fuller by sacrificing millions of animals, it’s worth it. Fortunately, those kinds of numbers aren’t even needed.

    If you don’t like animal testing, get off the internet, strip naked, and go alone into the wilderness. Don’t enjoy modern life while trying to rip apart it’s foundations.

  11. #11 brooks
    August 14, 2008

    TYL:

    whoa there: “If even one human life can be saved or made fuller by sacrificing millions of animals, it’s worth it.”

    most animal testing benefits wild creatures as well as domestics (including ourselves). but one single person? a 1:1,000000+ ratio? that’s debatable. depends on the condition in question, and the species of animals used as test subjects.

    to my thinking, there’s a huge difference between, say, crayfish, guppies, mice, dogs, monkeys, and apes. a cool mill in the first two or three for one person? most likely. but according to my ethical calculus, that million is going to be a hell of a lot closer to the double digits by the end of the list. we simply cannot ignore that, given similar physiologies, the suffering of certain non-human species — probably dogs, but especially old world primates — is going to be more reminiscent of our own suffering in similar situations than we’d like to admit.

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