The Thankless Task

Posted on December 5, 2009


Gary has been working at the animal testing laboratory for 25 years. His working environment is windowless, and smells alternately of an orthodontist and a petting zoo. His long hair and twitchy, nervous style give him the look of a man who would have to shield his eyes if he ever made it to the outside world.  Mice, rats, guinea pigs and rabbits languish in cages, not the small cells that are the staple of every animal testing nightmare, but cages nonetheless. The animals become restless when people enter the room. Labels on every cage denote what drugs are being used on the animals contained there.

The animals at this laboratory, based at a London university, are used only for medical research. With the new European Union directive that says researchers must use non-animal methods when they are “reasonably and practically available” putting the issue back in the public eye, the jobs people like Gary do are likely to face continuing scrutiny. Does he enjoy what he does? “Yes. Most people do in their own way,” he says. “We enjoy the contact with animals. It’s like having pets at home”. His colleague, Steve, agrees: “All animal technicians love animals. They wouldn’t be doing it otherwise”. Steve calls himself a “spokesman” for the animals. Joan, who looks after a group of marmosets who have been given Parkinson’s disease, uses the same word. She has worked at the laboratory for almost 40 years, but has still not managed to properly reconcile herself to what goes on there. “We’re all primates. What gives us the right to work on them?” she says. “I can understand the reason for doing it but I don’t like it, and I don’t have to like it”.

It is this understanding and their commitment to the animals, that keeps Joan and her colleagues turning up for work each day. Others, like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), still cannot reconcile themselves with what goes on in places such as this, and disagree with such testing on principle. Alastair Currie, campaigns coordinator, is immoveable on the subject. “It’s wrong,” he said. “Animals aren’t ours. Their bodies are their own”. The fact that human lives can be saved by the process is a redundant point to him and the organisation he represents. “Ethics isn’t about arithmetic. It’s not about balancing one thing against another”. He wants a greater focus on the EU legislation, and resents the more militant activists for distracting from the central issue.

Professor Clive Page, who tests drugs on animals, has his own problematic contemporaries. Scientists that work outside the law and test on animals for non-medical reasons or without paying attention to the legal constraints “let everybody down,” he said. “You’re going to have people that work outside the law everywhere, and we’ve got to make sure they can’t do that”. Page refuses to let militant campaigners distract him from the job in hand, in spite of being the subject of death threats. “Most people at that point become so intimidated they stop, which is what these groups want. But the reality is that I work within the law”. He admits that animal testing is morally questionable, and that the anti-testing campaigners have a valid point, but thinks it the lesser of two evils. “I have no problem with people that disagree with animal testing,” he says. “As long as they realise the consequences of me not being able to work”.

People continue to hope that a better method of unearthing life-saving drugs can be found. “It’s the holy grail,” said Wendy Jarrett at Understanding Animal Research. “Everybody wants to move to a time when we no longer have to test on animals.” Legislation continues to be debated and the two sides continue to argue over the rights and wrongs of animal testing. In the mean time, it’s left to people like Joan to make sure the animals that suffer so that human beings might not have to are as comfortable as possible. It’s a tough job, but Joan and her colleagues seem happy enough taking care of the animals for the time being. “Hopefully in the future there will be something else,” she said. But it is most likely that many more people like her will have to work many more years in such an environment before this becomes a reality.

Animal testing timeline

1859- Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory suggested animals could be good models in facilitating biological understanding of humans.

1876- Cruelty to Animals Act- regulated animal testing

1882- Louis Pasteur tests an anthrax vaccine on sheep

1922- Animal testing allows insulin to be isolated from dogs

1930s- Development of anaesthetics and antibiotics developed from animal testing

1950s- Animal testing aids development of vaccines

1986- Animals Scientific Procedures Act- updated 1876 act, imposing greater safeguards

1996- Cloning of Dolly the sheep

1998- Cosmetics related animal testing outlawed

2009- European Union set to ban cosmetic testing on animals and amend law with regard to testing for medical research.