The animal research experience

The Lese of the Ituri Forest raise food in gardens, and they exchange various things for wild animal meat hunted by the Efe (Pygmy) foragers with whom they live in close economic and social association. But the Lese also hunt and gather, to varying degrees, with some individuals never doing it, others often engaged in the process, and among those who are, some degree of speciality. One Lese man I knew hunted only elephants, another mainly fished, and one of the men I most often worked with trapped small forest antelopes using snares. I will call him Marque.

As part of my research I "followed" Marque when he trapped. I observed how the traps were made, what factors influenced their exact location on the landscape, what worked and didn't work, and mainly (because it interfaced with my own research) where on the larger scale the "trapline" was arranged.

Marque was a very successful trapper. This meant that I saw a fair number of trapped small forest antelopes. The first time this happened, I noticed that the antelope was not dead. Marque checked the snare on the animal's leg and determined that it was secure. The leg was broken with a compound fracture that probably happened from the animals' thrashing around after being trapped. The animal, alive, stared listlessly at us as Marque examined the trap, and as I took notes. Then, surprisingly, we left the animal in place, alive, and moved on to the next trap.

"Where are we going?" I asked.

"To check the rest of the traps," Marque said.

So I kept my mouth shut and waited, and soon we came to another trapped animal. This one was dead. Marque dislodged the animals leg from the trap, reset the trap, and did the minimal prep on the animal's body, and we carried it with us while we went off to check more traps.

Finally, we got to a trap near the end of the trap line. There was an animal in the trap, and it was alive.

"Let me have that," Marque said, pointing to the bow and arrows I was carrying for him.

He took the bow and arrows, and at close range dispatched the animal with two shots. He detached the animal from the trap, reset the trap, prepped the animal, and we headed back towards the village. We encountered different traps on the way back than on the way out because the trapline was in a "loop" (sort of) and in both directions most of the traps were either untouched or sprung with nothing in them. He reset any traps that had been sprung. finally, we reached the first animal that we had encountered, and it was now dead.

As Marque fixed up this trap and prepped the animal, I asked "So, why didn't you kill this animal on the way out?"

"I didn't want to carry it all the way out and back. And if I left it here dead, the pigs would eat it. Alive, the animal might thrash around and scare off any scavengers," he said, and added "Plus, if you hit an animal with an arrow, it flails around. That can break the arrow shaft."

The next time I went out with Marque, and we came across a live animal, I made him an offer.

"Kill this one, and I'll carry it."

"You don't like to see the animal suffer, do you?" he said. Marque and I had known each other for a couple of years, and he was a very smart guy. I was not surprised that he made this observation. I nodded.

"Then kill it," he said, eying the bow and arrows in my hand.

So I did. I killed that animal, and carried it, and did that to a couple of others along the way, and that became the pattern when I followed Marque on his trap lines.

One day we were following a new trapline he had laid much farther out in the forest. We came close to a particular trap, and he stopped short and signaled for me to stand quietly. We both listened for some time, and eventually he shook his head and started walking towards the trap.

"Never mind, they're either gone or they know we are here and are being quiet," he said.

"Who?" I asked, very curious.

"The chimps. They were here. Look."

And Marque showed me where a sapling had been broken across the pathway leading through a trap. Here's the idea: The loop of the snare sits, buried under duff, over a hole. There is a trigger in the hole, so an animal steps through the snare loop and hits the trigger. This releases a bent sapling to which the snare is attached, pulling the wire tight on whatever had touched the trigger.

Typically, a standing sapling is used to define one side of a pathway guiding an animal to walk over the snare hole. A second sapling is sometimes cut from nearby and set on the other side of the snare hole. Other adjustments to the vegetation might be made to increase the chance that an animal that happened to be walking along in this vicinity would shift its steps a little and place a hoof directly on the snare hole instead of to one side or another.

In this case, the main sapling, the one next to which the hole was dug, was bent over blocking access to the invisible snare. I thought, yes, this looks like an effort to block the trap, but it could be a sapling broken by any of a number of different agencies. I suggested this to Marque.

"No, this is absolutely what it is," was his response. "Look." He pointed to chimpanzee prints right in front of the trap. "Look." He pointed to more prints. And to some feces. "Look." The remains of eaten fruit. The chimps had been here a while.

"The chimpanzee adults know to not step in the trap, but the young ones do not. So the adults cover the trap, or spring it, to protect the young," Marque told me as I surveyed the scene.

Two other traps in the same area were also messed with by the chimps, one with the broken sapling across the path, one with the bent sapling ... the spring for the trap ... pulled totally out of the ground and tossed off to the side.

"The chimpanzees know all about the traps and how to undo them," Marque said to me. "But I did catch one in a trap once anyway."

"It was hard to kill," he said. "They are large and they fight back. They make a lot of noise." He imitated a chimp covering it's face with its arms and making chimp-screaming noises. "They get what you are about to do to them because they watch us do this to the other animals. They're watching us now, I think."

I saw chimp-diffused traps a few more times over coming years, and confirmed that other Lese and Efe believed that this is what chimps routinely do.


I worked closely with Billy in grad school at Harvard. He was in the Biology Department and I was in the Anthropology Department, but we taught together all the time. Billy was involved in what was ultimately to become very important research on an important human physiological process. We know important things now because of what he and his colleagues in the same lab did back then, in the 1980s and earl 1990s.

Billy's project involved raising a large number of mice, a few hundred in total, I think, with different treatments, including controls. Then, the mice would be sacrificed and a measurement taken on one of their body parts.

I remember when Billy processed his first group of mice. He told me about it. The procedure was fascinating, but I won't repeat it here. What was also fascinating is that the difference between the experimental treatment group and the control group was astonishingly large for a biological result. There was little or no overlap between the two groups, as I recall. A brilliant piece of research.

But after describing this to me, he also said that he hated doing it. The mice had to be raised and cared for from just after birth for a very long period of time in mice-years, so he had been checking on and feeding the mice for something like two years. This was not a lab with keepers, or if there were keepers, they were not used by the graduate students. Billy had to feed his mice daily, and he and others doing research with various animals cooperated to cover for each other when needed.

So he had spent the day chopping the heads off of something like 90 mice that he had raised for a couple of years. And you have to remember, Billy was a graduate student. That meant that most likely, these mice were his only friends.

A while later I learned that Billy hired someone else to process the other two thirds of his sample. He couldn't chop any more heads off mice, but he did finish the research, and as far as I know he did not sour on the idea of using mice or other animals in research. But he did sour on the idea of doing it himself.

Billy is not the only person I know who had a similar experience. In fact, I think it is fairly common. One person I know just told me about having done icky research on rodents, and shifting his career objectives because he did not like it. I had a student, again back at Harvard, who intended to do research with Baboons that involved knocking them out. The first time something went terribly wrong with the knockout process, and the baboon almost died. That was the last time he worked with live lab animals.

There is a sorting process: Those who can chop off the heads and those who can not. Given the fact that of all the people reading this blog post, a non trivial percent may well live longer because of the category of research Billy helped pioneer, and other research that involved invasive studies with animals, we can consider those who continue with the slicing and dicing to be heroes for the rest of us. Or at least, I consider them to be.

I killed the antelopes in the traps, I admit, because it made me sad to see them die a slow and miserable death. But I also admit that when I saw them I also saw a potential dinner, because I was living off the land with everyone else in the Ituri. An antelope you can kill is a meal you can eat. I had no problem killing them once I got used to it, but I never got to like the idea of snare trapping, and not once did I substantively facilitate the local snare trapping industry, despite the number of times I was asked to provide wire for the snares.

Another person I know, whom I'll call Marie, does work with animals as well. The work she does is part of a very large project investigating both aging and genetic disease in heart muscle and skeletal muscle. The lab she works in specifically looks at a particular set of molecules in muscle tissues that are known to be affected by both aging and certain genetic diseases, and to be related to muscular dystrophy.

When she does her thing in the lab, it involves getting rodent or rabbit muscles out of a jar in a refrigerator ... they are already dissected out ... and processing them for use in a complex set of procedures. I've followed this research quite closely over the years, and I promise you that things are known about muscle that will save lives and reduce discomfort, and possibly help cure muscular dystrophy and certain heart diseases, because of this research. Marie and her colleagues do not have to chop the heads off of any bunnies or mice, although they are well aware that someone is doing this on their behalf. They can be like Billie ... doing important research ... but without the personal emotional cost that some people may pay more than others, depending on differences in personality or experience.

A few weeks ago, my brother went to the doctor for a minor issue and ended up a few hours later in open heart surgery for several hours. They did a bunch of stuff to his heart. That was not his only experience with heart disease. His second wife died at a young age of a heart attack, as did her sister (who was a good friend of mine's wife) and their father (one suspects a genetic link?). Maria's research will bear on these issues, as will the research being done at the Open Pig Lab.

The Open Pig Lab is a fascinating facility at the University of Minnesota. It is a place where a pig is purchased on its way to the slaughter house (so this pig was going to be bacon, ham, pork, footballs, and shaving brushes) and is put under anesthesia and it's chest cracked much like my brother's was for open heart surgery. School kids (mainly high school kids) observe the pig. They can touch the beating heart. They learn all about anesthesia. They sit in a room while they are told the story of the first pace maker ever. They learn that the pacemaker was first implanted in an animal (a dog) in the very room they are sitting in. They are shown, just over their shoulders, a room where the first open heart surgery was done, and most of the surgical techniques now used on humans were first pioneered, often on humans who were dying, but also on dogs and pigs. Then they get back to the pigs. They learn what this pig is going to contribute ... there is a team of graduate students standing by ready to carry out research that requires this pig to be on anesthesia on this operating table. The research may commence as the kids watch, but since fancy imaging machinery (read radioactivity and high voltage expensive gear) is involved, the process is often shielded. They learn that the entire pig will be sliced and diced and the tissues used for all sorts of research.

I have witnessed high school students enter that facility with the attitude that no research should ever be done on animals, and leave wanting to do the research themselves. Seriously.

I was involved in a research project on an ape. One part of the team administered and shifted psychotherapeutic drugs (this was in the early days of Prozac) while my part of the team observed behavioral changes. This was an ape that was going to be euthanized because its behavior was so out of control and self destructive that this was felt to be the kind thing to do. It was a zoo ape that could never be exhibited because they did not really want the visiting school kids to watch an ape force its hand and forearm as far up its own anus as possible, or to tear its own hair out, or to violently attack and bite other apes randomly.

My interest in this ape was because I wanted to know what an ape looked like if it was raised in an entirely non-ape environment. Not pretty, it turns out. Like humans. The list of self destructive and aberrant behaviors this ape displayed is matched very closely with similar lists of behaviors humans who are raised in closets or pits or rooms with 19 other kids in wartime orphanages, etc. have. Stereotypic rocking, orifice invasion with objects and hands, biting, hair pulling, violence, nail scraping, etc.

A psychiatrist with an interest in similar issues heard that this ape was to be euthanasized and offered to jump in and try one last ditch effort to help it. This was the Prozac. It worked well enough that this ape was kept alive for a year or two longer as the research progressed. When it became apparent that our research team needed to publish things about how these apes are raised and treated in zoos that the zoo industry did not want others to know, the project was canceled. I am no longer allowed in several zoos. Oh well.

Is there a line across which one would not or should not pass to do certain kinds of research on animals? Surely, this is a multidimensional problem. The nature of the research is one issue. The work done on this ape involved trying to save its life from itself and its keepers. Had similar work been done on an ape captured for this purpose from the wild, the same ethics would surely produce a different outcome. Part of this has to do with the nature of the beast. Bunnies are cute, but when you look into the eyes of a bunny you see ... not much. Monkeys are less cute than bunnies (IMHO) but when you look into their eyes, you see something more than bunniness staring back at you.

Part of this has to do with "objective criteria" and how to measure some of these things. I just made a statement comparing bunnies to monkeys. I provided no evidence for what I've said, but I'm obviously talking about something that has to do with phylogeny. We humans afford ourselves certain "rights." We do not afford those rights to a mosquito. Is it the case that these rights should be afforded to humans only, or can some other species have them too?

The above stories are not meant to address these issues. I'll address them later, though I will tell you now that I have no clear answers to these questions. These stories, rather, are meant to describe the complex texture (and only partly so) of animal research, the variation across the animals, the contexts, the people doing the research, and the benefits of the research. And there is another reason for telling these stories. They all link to me personally to one degree or another. Some people reading this have considerable experience in working with animals in research, others have none. Some people reading this can not easily cite a personal benefit they have received from prior animal research, others are alive to read this only because they did so benefit, and they know it. Some people reading this make a living off of research done on animals, some people reading this devote their lives to stopping research done on animals. In both cases, something having to do with animal research is part of the being of these individuals.

Yes, yes, there are rational arguments one can make about the use of animals in research. But there is also self interest, and I don't want self interest to be removed from this discussion. The most vocal supporters of animals in research are often (but not always) those who use the animals in research. Duh-obvious, yes, but rational, not necessarily. The most vocal anti-research voices often come from those who are avocationally or semiprofessionally involved in stopping this research, as activists. In these extreme cases on both sides, I see a common pattern ... very little is given to the other side's argument. The other side's argument is usually set aside, often abruptly and arbitrarily. Meanwhile, most people, who are not involved much in either side of the debate on a personal or professional level are quite willing to hear and listen to and respect arguments from both "sides" and may not even be seeing this as a two sided issue.

That is what I want to explore in my next post.


More like this

Fascinating. Thanks for the education.

By NewEnglandBob (not verified) on 18 Mar 2010 #permalink

I'm almost curious which zoos you aren't allowed in.

I think the important thread that underlies reactions on this subject is that very many of them are not considered.

By Katharine (not verified) on 18 Mar 2010 #permalink

Billy was a graduate student. That meant that most likely, these mice were his only friends.

You do understand!

I think what I like most about this story is not the lesson in the importance of animal research (which I know is very important indeed and wholly support) but in the way you treat the subject of being in the Ituri Forest, living and working with the inhabitants there. It is such a contrast with my only other exposure to stories of that place, and a much more pleasant one.

That exposure was reading about Henry Morton Stanley's exploits there. Those stories paint a far different, far darker portrait of the place. I much prefer yours. So, thank you for that.

Clarifications and corrections:

In Maria's lab, they do in fact sacrifice the bunnies themselves. Its just that if you work part time there you may end up not doing it yourself much, or ever. Maria herself has mostly avoided this by chance.

The "Open Pig Lab" is my name for the "Visible Heart Lab" I like my name better, but I don't want to mislead.

Katherine: Notice that I use the term "ape" and don't say which species. I don't want to publicly say what species or what zoos. If you knew what species, you'd guess the zoos instantly if you knew about apes in zoos.

Bruce, the people I worked with in the Ituri have a strong historical and cultural memory of Stanly. They know of him by name. One of his starvation camps was not that far away. It occurs to me that you might enjoy Congo Memoirs.

Thank you.

I enjoyed the account of your experience in the Ituri Forest. My only exposure to the Ituri Forest and its inhabitants comes from having read The Forest People.

There certainly is a complex texture to all of this. Thank you for describing it.

I've done animal research as part of a two year project in med school. I honestly did not mind at all killing the bunnies (we overdosed them with ketamine). I love animals, I don't lack empathy (if anything, I think I suffer from an excess of it), but it really did not bother me at all. I also don't mind seeing dead bodies.

I do not want to do animal research, however. It's not as fun as doing research with humans.

wow. you are right. And I'll admit to being one of those punk ass people who can't kill animals (if I can at all help it). There is some really great and important research being done. One of my academic brothers was doing soem really neat stuff with voles and sperm competition. It involved sacrificing mice right after sex and looking at their brains and the female repro tract. All good stuff. But stuff that would never, could never be done by me.
There are some questions I'm just not that interested in knowing the answers to.

I don't know how I got here (I must have clicked a link from something else I was reading), but I'm glad I did. What a thought-provoking blog entry. I have spent a fair amount of time on both sides of the issue- I have performed animal research in academic settings, and have been a part of a larger movement of animal rights activism for a variety of causes. I think that any person who tries, in anger or outrage or in defense of their own position, to deny the advances-- or the horrors-- that have occurred in animal research is ultimately doing both sides of the argument a huge disservice. And we must, as thinking, rational, compassionate individuals, consider the impact of our behaviors, and our drives for pleasure and survival, on the beings around us. At some point I feel that we all need to ask ourselves: where is the line? Where do my rights end and the rights of any other living, feeling creature begin? How do we identify what's most important? And what, exactly, makes it okay to do these things to a research animal and not to our next door neighbors or our children or our pets?

I'm not even remotely suggesting that I have the answers to any of these questions. I haven't yet even answered them for myself. But I think it's a step in the right direction to seriously consider the philosophical implications.

On a personal note, I am very much like you were with the antelope: at a friend's house a few months ago, I found a sad, dehydrated, partially-skinned and dying mouse stuck in the glue of one of those sticky mousetraps. I couldn't stand to see him suffer, and there was no way to pull him off and nurse him back to health (or my bleeding-heart-animal-rescuing-self would have tried) so I killed him. And then I sat down and cried about it for a good 25 minutes. A mouse! Mind you, I have a pet snake and feed her live mice once a week and actually make jokes about it by shouting, "Dead mouse walkin!" as I carry the mouse to her cage. But killing that sticky-mouse for no other reason than because my friend didn't want to find a more humane way to keep them out of her pantry, well, that just broke my heart.

By SisterMaryLoquacious (not verified) on 18 Mar 2010 #permalink

Fascinating and thought provoking. Thank you for posting this!

By The Swede (not verified) on 19 Mar 2010 #permalink

I nearly always skim long posts, but this time stayed for every detail. You really touched me. Thanks.

What the hell is wrong with suffering and death? We redistribute these things to ease our pain and extend our lives, but we will never lessen them in the grand scheme of things. We will, however, become their agents, motivated by our self-ishness and our fear. And what goes around will come back around, since it has nowhere else to go.

Here is a link with some numbers, quite large, like 26,000 monkeys which have been rather scarce on science blogs in matters regarding animal research, which only raises suspicions, and often research on primates has been conflated with animal research on science blogs, which only raises suspicions.

The whole thing of animal research must be quite profitable. I would be curious as to how much a rat costs to buy and then to keep, and how much a Rhesus monkey costs to buy and then to keep.

The link mentions a lawsuit, by a former employee, alleging falsification and fraud by the animal suppliers, which would be curious to follow.

The look in the eyes you mention deserves a comment, as in the minds of humans all is prey. As you know, it's the eye positions that indicate prey or predator, and the best guess we have for some dinosaur fossils. We look at predators, we look at us, even if they are fruit eaters for now.

You've got this mixed in with hunting, an interesting connection, probably among the few available. I refer you to a book about Gabon, La mémoire du fleuve by Christian Dedet, in which the native hunter purposely leaves with an erection to go hunting, and then to the pre-historic cave paintings where all the hunters have an erection. You can include that connection.

The guy in the basement at Yale who stuffed the woman's body in the wall-- was an animal carekeeper, was sensitive about his animals, was crazy. I suspect there is a connection. I wonder about Amy Bishop and her neuro studies.

The abbatoirs go crazy.

But, a little gratuitous and unwanted advice, as possibly this whole comment, I wouldn't get too ambitious on this if I were you. It's dangerous territory. Also, most science bloggers are naive about the nature of man. Plainly stated, they do not speak true to experience, and perhaps it's better that they are thus, for their children, for awhile, in the present glowing world.

David, that was a horrible event, and such things should never happen, and I agree that the fine system is probably too light. Pluc, eight years of George Bush style regulations may have hurt as well (though I don't know that for sure).

On the other hand, as the article cites, a current average of 50 inappropriate deaths per year, while sad, is actually a tiny percentage. If you take that as the death rate for the "job" of being a lab animal, that would not be the most dangerous job in the US.

The point to snaring (as opposed to the more general skill of trapping) is to get the animal alive. I wouldn't want to set traps while in the bush and come back to see a half rotted rabbit or pig - oh no, fresh meat is good. Gee, it's been 30 years since I've been snaring and trapping and over 10 years since I've been bowhunting.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 20 Mar 2010 #permalink

Did you happen to ask Marque if he disliked seeing the snared animals suffer? He good reasons to pass up live catches on the line, which suggests that he would have preferred a quick kill too.

Anyway, that is generally descriptive of animal research too. One doesn't cause suffering unless it is for a good reason.

Also on the animal research front... That consideration is actually explicitly stated in the UC system guidelines. The proposal review is focused (supposedly at least) on colleagues and experts looking at the project and seeing if they can come up with any better (less suffering or preferably no animals at all) way of getting at the research question.

Interesting topic... and I look forward to your followup posts.

Taureal rear excrement, Greg.

Your slyly changing Rhesus monkey to "lab animal" is recognizable status naming, a type of negro-type word usage so that you can do with them as you will just get the lower label on them so that they are no longer 26,000 Rhesus monkeys.

You talk as if the fifty Rhesus monkeys will be all that die, but I'm inclined to believe that all 26 thousand will die in a few years, in ways you do not specify but call appropriate. According to you it would be better if there were fifty thousand so the per centage for fifty would be even smaller.

So, I know you broke your patela and went to hospital, but that is of no significance, by your own logic, since a very small percentage of persons break their patela and it's the per centage that matters according to you. And an even smaller per centage of bloggers break their patela, so by your reasoning it is as nothing, patela breaking.

And last but not least you have added insult to injurious reasoning and word sophistry by out of nowhere implicating the Bush administration in the monkey deaths. As much as I revile Bush and Cheney, think they are war criminals, I'm not sucker enough to think you have any evidence whatsoever much less proof for your implication against them. Your head was traveling light with air and you threw it in hoping to hoodwink some Bush haters.

We will decide for ourselves what is a small per centage of anything, we don't need you to furnish a conclusion.

I waited but I believe the readers who can catch your double talk have previously left.

I know from your approach that you are never going to discuss the money involved (26,000 monkeys) but are going to wax sentimental like the Walrus and the Carpenter. So cabbages and kings to you Greg.

David, you could not possibly have done a better job utterly misunderstanding me.

Yes, all those monkeys are going to die. Every single one of them. I never suggested otherwise.

wow, david, have i missed something? is there some attempt at intimidation going on here, or am i mistaken?

By SisterMaryLoquacious (not verified) on 21 Mar 2010 #permalink