Warning: Tough Read for Animal Lovers . . .

“True, but necessary . . . animal research.” – my answer to anyone who paints the entire  field of animal research with the broad label: “Cruel”. 

If god ever grants me angel-hood, I’ll be an angel with dark wings.  You’ll see.  But I’m okay with that.

For I have the blood of thousands upon my hands – tens of thousands, probably.  I don’t know.  After awhile . . . you kinda lose count.

But they were Animal lives; thousands of lives, both large and small.  Souls, every one – even back then, in my eyes.  teeny-tiny, large and small: souls in captivity in a body held captive in a lab, their only release: Death.  And often I was that face, for I dispensed death every day . . . and like our dark angel, grieved deep inside.

But I’m okay with it.  Very – and I cannot stress this enough! – very sad.  I saw things you do not want to see.  I did things you do not want to do.

I helped thousands.

I started working in the army animal labs when I was 15 or so, a year after I’d finished my stint as a volunteer helping old men get around.  I was a volunteer at the animal labs, too – I’d requested the transfer, having gotten tired of the old tired (and oft times bitter) “sour and dour” crowd.  Animals don’t complain – they accept – and when they have pain – they are honest.  People – not so much.   And I wanted to be a veterinarian.   Working in animal labs, I reasoned, would give me the experience for my career – I could learn everything.  (Mr. Straight A+++ in science classes, as well as Art 😀

There the doctors took me under their wing – informal, friendly, but also very strict in method and procedure, tutoring me in the basics.  My responsibilities were as animal caretaker, which meant scooping the poop from thousands of rat cages, washing everything – disposing of any dead animals (you could smell a dead mouse or rat in a room full if one had died overnight).  And . . . I killed animals.

All of us did.  Everything from goats to mice; sheep to dogs.  There should be a sign over the doggie door saying “Abandon all hope, for you are about to die” written in every language an animal can understand, for it was the truth: no animal enters that does not die.  This was true in the civilian hospital I worked at a few years later.  Animals can be contaminated – we had radioactive mice in one lab.  Even a scratch from some can kill you.  I remember a horrendously contagious ‘tumor growth’ mice problem in another (the mice would literally burst at the seams from the tumors growing all over it’s body.)  We had to wear suits and used gloved boxes – masks, negative pressure hoods and all that mess.  And get this:

In the middle of the room was a pedestal.  On the pedestal was a notebook – pages and pages of hand-scrawled notes.  Every once and awhile a researcher would go over and look at this notebook, flipping pages and whatnot.  After the second or third day (not to mention I was a little . . . alarmed! . . . at my ignorance – what was this and why did I need this suit?) – I asked, nodding towards the notebook:

“What’s going on here?”

So the researcher told me.  A doctor had been studying this horrible disease.  That was his notebook.  He’d ended up catching it and died.  They weren’t sure where it was going, but they were following his notebook – hoping that they could find a cure.  Ever since I’ve been haunted by the vision of this doctor – tumors growing like rapid-fire grapefruit under his skin and bursting open.  This is the price researchers pay – every day – these grim facts, that grim knowledge, and the visions that go with it.

In short, doc gave his life for ya’ll, folks.  You and me included.  For all I know, the research is still going on.  A lot – and I mean a LOT – of mice will die.  But the benefit – like that man’s notebook – will live on.  Hopefully they’ve found a cure (a lot has happened since ’76) – and that benefit has not only been to us, all mankind – but to the animal kingdom as well, since human ‘cures’ and procedures often trickle down to the vet and pet trade.

So here’s the big question:

Is animal experimentation cruel?  Hell yes.

Is it necessary?  Reluctantly – yeah.  A very reluctant, but grim and firm: Hell yes. (our Sgt. there)

I never met a ‘cruel’ animal researcher.  We had one guy in the Army animal labs – you could smell when he was working . . .

There’d be this stench of burning hair in the hallways.  Growing curious one day, I grew closer.  Then I heard the screaming.  Hi-high ever so hi! – screams! screams! screams!   Rushing (but not running), I flung the door open and looked in.

The doctor was “flaming” a burning bunny while it was still alive.  Yeah, Jeez, it stopped my heart.  The bunny, partially burnt, was alive and wiggling – in too much pain I think to even scream.

There were more than one.  There were many – very many – of these burnt bunnies, poor things.  And I asked: Why?  Why are you burning them alive?  Can’t you at least knock them out?

And he replied:

“No,”  he said sadly, looking at all the burnt bunnies.  “I can’t.  It might affect the experiments.”  Then looking back at me, he explained.

“Soldiers aren’t ‘anesthetized’ when they get burnt.  They are like this bunny.” Nod of head towards bunny he is placing in cage.  “They don’t get ‘treatment’ right away.  And when they get burnt, their body chemistry changes.  Adrenalins, endorphines, shock syndrome . . .”  Poor bunny looks in shock.  He looks back at me.  “Those would be affected by the anesthesia.  The bunny would feel no fear.  There wouldn’t be a release of adrenalins – ” (he knows I know what he knows – that clamps down on arteries and circulation) “and we need them to be as real as possible.  I wanna help those soldiers.”

At this he looks real sad – burdened by his goal and the methods which he must stoop to to achieve it.  And his research helps everybody.  His research – and that of countless others – has advanced burn therapy far beyond what was possible 40 some odd years ago.  And again – it used to benefit animals as well as humans.  We learned things.

But I’ll never forget having to gas all those lab rats in a 5 gallon bucket, feeling the lid thump beneath my foot as they screamed for escape.  Painless my ass.

Or the dog that was shot in the brain.  Dogs . . . man, I love ’em.  But that was to help find cures for brain injuries.  And yes: the doc’s were very gentle with this dog.  We all were: we came to love him, staggering to the left and right down the hallway as the doctor called out to him – analyzing the walk, the gait, etc.  The dog had to walk to his next ‘operation’ – the skullcap loosely held on with bandages.  And I know us caretakers cried inside.  I remembering wishing once: dog – GO – RUN at the doc and attack him . . . look at what he’s done to you.

Yup, heart breaker.  Prepared me for the Marine Corps, I reckon (or, LOL, the parents did!).

Finally the final issue: training.  Trust me.  I’ve been following this ‘virtual reality’ type training gear they’ve come up with.  Fine for us ‘pre-med’ students; even on through college.  But trust me: there’s nothing like knowing that the animal your are working on (whether it be our animal/human bodies, or that of another animal) – is a live, living being.  You go oh-so much more carefully then.  A fingertip can ‘feel’ that thin fiber of nerve string (been there, done that) – but those ‘resistance gloves’ and all that hi-tech gear?  Not yet, not hardly.  Plus – when you are working on a real thing you know: there is no going back.  There is no “save game” or “checkpoint” to go back to if you screw up.  This is the real deal – deal with it.  No reboot, no ‘screen of death’.  It’s the real thing, baby – alll the way.

And that’s why I (grimly, and sickened, but knowing the greater good) – some of the ‘repetitive’ experiments in animal research – as long as students are doing them, and learning from them.  Not all is necessary, just as I saw thousands of animals executed ‘unnecessarily’ – did it myself – but there are guidelines and reasons behind a lot of that.  Perhaps if people weren’t so ‘sue-happy’, animal labs could give ‘gently used’ animals that had no dangerous contaminates to folks . . . who for some reason want 10,000 gerbils.

Anyway – I won’t go into all the details, but jeez . . . sometimes I think about those labs, my role, what I saw, what went on – remembering the beginnings of vein grafts – now seeing them in my friends (successful!!  We had troubles back then – the docs did; I just watched, helped as needed – hold this, open that, sew him up or to the trash.)  And I think: yeah.  I did my part.  I helped. And . . .

For we are an angel, with dark wings.


If I could speak on behalf of every researcher I ever met – and those of us who took care of our charges with love, grief, and pain – I would say:  We had heart; we cared . . . there is no other way . . . and in the end: we save lives – both yours, mine, and so very, very many others . . . and so our burden is your gain.  To All of you – from all us – with love.  – signed: The Researchers of the World.