It is truly amazing the behaviors we can become habituated to perform.
I work in immunology, a burgeoning field in the life sciences. Research in this area has produced countless lifesaving vaccines, rationally designed therapies for autoimmune diseases and a deeper understanding of the means that life has developed to combat the countless micro and macroscopic invaders that derive their livelihood by employing us as their petri dish. Furthermore, it would not be an overstatement to say that exerting control over the immune system is a key element for sucessful gene therapy and that directing the immune system to target cancerous tissues represents the brighest prospect for next generation in cancer therapies. These are, in part, my motives for working in immunology. I feel they are reasoned and valid.
So my field has glorious aspirations, but the day to day in the trenches is gruesome. There are few questions in immunology that are answered satisfactorially with use of non-animal based systems. Yes, we do some work on cultured cells, and there are labs which work with human material obtained from human blood. For the most part, though, the humble mouse is the immunologist’s workhorse.
And my job involves putting it to these little guys. When I began doing animal reaseach, I was horrified and repulsed. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could do this, inflict so much pain on these innocent rodents, that clearly let you know how much pain you are causing. What is amazing (alarming?) to me now that I have been in animal research for 5+ years, however, is that I have become entirely accustomed to the work. I neither like nor dislike my animal work, I just do.
Some may believe that whatever tortures are visited on so-called lower life forms, their suffering cannot compare to the depth of suffering experienced by our sentient selves. I’d say that this cannot be known. Sure, we know that human suffering/torture/death is a really bad thing, but what do we really know of the suffering of other species. As I recall, the Nazi dogma was that Jews were not human and thus killing a Jew was not a really bad thing. Both rationales, the anti-animal and the anti-Jew, are at some level spurious.
Anyway, I’ll conclude with a detailed description of 2 common procedures in animal research. Things that I never imagined I’d acclimate to, yet I have. Do not keep reading if you are squeamish.
Retro-orbital bleeding: This is a common technique for getting blood from a mouse. The blood is commonly used to assay a cellular or soluble blood component. To do this, first grab a mouse by the tail. Then, alter your grip so that you are holding it firmly by the back of the neck. Push the face of the mouse into a tube containing inhalational anaesthesia. Hold the mouse there, against its struggling, for about 30 sec until the anaesthesia starts working. Now the mouse is out. Pick the mouse up firmly with the left hand grasping the skin just below the ears with your thumb and forefinger. Adjust your grip so that you are pulling the skin taut. If you do this correctly, you will observe the eyeballs bulging prominently. Now take a glass pastuer pipette (for the uninitiated, a pastuer pipette is about 9cm long and the diameter of the business end is approx 2-4mm) and insert the tip into the junction of the eyeball and the eyesocket, on the nasal side. Work the tip of the pipette in by rotating slightly. You know you are where you want to be when you feel a slight crunch (or pop). At this point, withdraw the pipette ever so slightly and blood will begin flowing into the pipette. Withdraw the desired amount, remove the pipette, put the mouse back in the cage and you are done. Done properly, this procedure results in no permanent harm to the mouse. But when performed by someone inexperienced, mice are commonly left blinded by the procedure. Also, some elect to do this without anaesthetizing the mouse. I often do 40 bleeds in an afternoon.
Making MEFs (Murine Embryonic Fibroblasts): This is a procedure that generates cells from an animal that you can culture and experiment on in vitro. Step 1 is put male and female mice together. In the morning check the females for plugging (evidence of intercourse during the night). Separate the plugged females and start the countdown. 11-13 days after plugging is when you harvest the embryos for making MEFs (BTW: mouse gestation is 21 days, so the 11-13 d.o. embryos look fairly well developed.) To harvest, sacrifice (read:kill) pregnant female. Open peritoneal cavity aseptically. Remove gravid (pregnant) uterus (which looks remarkably like beads on a string). Open uterus and remove embryos. Transfer into a petri dish containing culture fluid. At this point, movement is evident in the embryos and they look for all the world like small baby mice. Now, holding sterile razor blades with forceps, mince the embryos. Keep at it until no large chunks of tissue remain. After this, some of the fibrous proteins are digested with enzymes, followed by the cells being plated out into new petri dishes for culture.