Walking out of the MRI lab on my way to lunch, I passed a police officer guarding the entrance. When that happens it means that animal rights activists are lurking nearby. Sure enough they were clustered down the block, holding up signs like “Stop Animal Cruelty”, and the word “Vivisection” crossed out like a cigarette, and pictures of wide-eyed monkeys.
The protestors gather from time to time at the edge of campus, and shake their signs at passersby and chant like workers on strike. Usually they’re pretty benign, but sometimes they harass researchers, or try to sneak into buildings and disrupt experiments or free the animal—hence the police officer. Occasionally a few of them have done something even more extreme, like break into a UCLA scientist’s house and flood it, or toss a Molotov cocktail into another’s parked car. Sure, these people standing on the corner were not likely terrorists, but I’m always a bit wary.
As I approached them I felt a rising tension inside me at the thought of having to defend my profession. But, since I wasn’t wearing a lab coat, or my UCLA ID, I realized they wouldn’t know I was a scientist. I relaxed a bit. This, however, made me a feel guilty for trying to pass as a non-scientist. No, I don’t personally do animal testing, but I’d like to think I’m the kind of person that would stand up for my fellow scientists.
As I neared the protestors one guy started making eye-contact with me. Internally I slumped, particularly with the realization that I’m too easy to make eye-contact with—to the great benefit of homeless people and bus passengers looking to squeeze into a seat.
He began to walk with me. “Are you against needless cruelty to animals?” This question made me smile, since it was both easy and meant I had passed as a regular person. I confidently answered, “Yes.” I am against all needless cruelty to anyone or anything. If there’s no need for it, why do it? I just didn’t voice the part where I think that a lot of animal research is really important, because it helps old people with dementia and little girls with cancer. And we need that.
His follow-up question was an equal sized softball, “Are you aware of what’s going on at UCLA?”
“Yes,” I replied, “I am aware of what’s going on at UCLA.” Of course, I do neuroscience research there, and I smiled at my deception of omission.
We reached the street corner, but unfortunately the light was red so I wasn’t rid of him yet. “Do you know there’s no scientific rationale for animal testing?”
This I balked at. I mean, come on! If you’re gonna choose to make a stand, at least know what you’re talking about. See the thing is, I get the notion of not wanting to make animals suffer. I don’t like animal experiments. That’s why I do MRI research. I work with humans and computers. The most animal experimentation I’ve done was with Aplysia Californica: a giant sea-slug about 4 inches long. I was even a bit squeamish about that, and they’re practically plants. But the notion of a blanket statement “there’s no scientific rationale for animal testing” is just absurd. Yes, there is. There’s a great poster that I ran across in the halls of UCLA. It has a picture of animal rights activists and it says, “Thanks to animal research, they’ll be able to protest 23.5 years longer.”
Yes, maybe the question of animal research makes you uncomfortable, but there’s no easy answer. You’re either in favor of doing surgery on rats and injecting monkeys or you’re letting some little girl die because you can’t treat her cancer. People make different choices. But come on man, let’s not make such a gross mischaracterization of science.
I hesitated to argue with him, because I don’t like confronting strangers (I mean I love arguing with friends, try using the word “ironically” incorrectly or mention “the paleo diet”, but I suppose I want to make sure people know I care about them, before I tell them they’re wrong). But at that point I couldn’t coyly play along anymore, “Well, that’s not true.” I’m glad I stood up for science, but fortunately the light turned green and I scurried across the street. I wished I could be someone who made a bit bigger of a stand, but I was glad to at least say something.
Then as I reached the other side of the street, I realized I was standing in front of a Burger King. I looked back at protestors with their monkey posters and wanted to shout out, “What about the cows?” But instead I just smiled at the irony of protesting a non-profit research institution, while here across the street was a for-profit company that engaged in the needless slaughter of millions of cows (and let’s not forget the chickens).
After a few moments of reflection though, I also got mad. Who did these protestors think they were trying to turn the public against UCLA? At least UCLA was trying to do something to further the public good. Burger King kills way more animals than any research institution, and that is really needless cruelty. We don’t need to eat as much meat as we do.
I think the desire to protest a university comes from a mistrust and/or misunderstanding of scientists, particularly basic scientists. Basic science is simply studying things to gain understanding, not to create new therapies, not to create interventions, but just to increase new knowledge for its own sake. It is easier to defend scientists who are doing pre-clinical work, meaning testing medications and treatments on animals before trying them in humans. But it is sometimes harder to defend those who are doing science for its own sake. You can question them, “What’s the point of that? Is it necessary?” Well we can’t know what’s necessary until we do it. Looking back from the future it might be easy to see, but looking forward there are lots of explorations that lead nowhere. Unfortunately we can’t tell the difference between the ones that will lead somewhere and the ones that won’t. Science is exploring a frontier, and you do not know where the path will go.
On the other hand we do know that we don’t need to eat as much meat as we do. It’s both bad for the environment and personal health. The animals don’t have great living conditions, and it uses grains that could be used to feed more people. In addition it both wastes and pollutes water.
So sure scientists are easy targets, but guess what? Universities have high standards, and independent review boards. They have strict guidelines about caring for the animals. People who do research on monkeys or other animals take extremely good care of them. The same cannot be said of Burger King.
So I guess I’m just calling out animal rights activists. Go protest somewhere else. Until you can make a dent in the amount of meat this country consumes, then stop picking on scientists who are working for the public good.
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