My own science is done on brains collected from dead bodies, but plenty of my colleagues work with live animals: how else would they study perception, emotions, memory, consciousness, distinctive features of awake, behaving creatures endowed with brains? It’s not that I wouldn’t work with live animals: I have in the past, and will have no issues with doing it again in the future, if the question requires it. What my colleagues and I have in common is not a particular brand of coldheartedness, cruelty or utilitarianism, although, of course, anything we choose to do in our labs, as in our lives, is only done because we believe it to be worth the cost. Rather, what we biomedical scientists share is an awed respect to all forms of life – for we appreciate its intricacies and the delicate, dynamic balance that allows it – coupled with a sincere understanding that everybody dies in the end: the animals and ourselves, researchers and the researched. We want to live well, happy and healthy as long as it lasts. We want the rest of society to have the power to do the same. We want people to have information that they can use in making good choices for themselves.
And yet, we’re shamed into silence, reclusion, seclusion, and sometimes even exile to be able to continue putting our hard-earned knowledge and skills to the service of humanity. That is the case of Nikos Logothetis, Greek-born, US-trained neuroscientist who worked for decades as the director of the prestigious Max-Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, and thanks to a relentless shaming campaign promoted by animal rights activists, shut down all primate research in his lab, and in 2020 moved his research to China.
Which, of course, led to a renewed bout of internet shaming, now not only of animal researchers, but of the Chinese people as well, for their supposed “lower ethical standards.” I’m convinced that Chinese animal researchers and public are just as respectful and humbled by life as anybody else, if not more. I’d like to submit that the key difference between the Chinese and the rest of the world, which allows them to be a rising scientific superpower that welcomes Nikos while we over here must spend time advocating for science and animal research, hiding our animals, protecting ourselves and begging for the right to continue investigating and learning, lies elsewhere.
We in the West have strived to sanitize, industrialize and depersonalize every single aspect of our animalcy. We do as much as we can to forget that we, too, are animals, and that as such, we don’t do photosynthesis. We can’t get by simply absorbing energy from the sun. To live another day, we need to ingest organic matter – that is, other forms of life. That’s right: your organic lettuce, vegan carrots, and even your fair trade coffee beans were still made of living, breathing cells when you bit into and triturated them with your bare teeth, or ground them and scalded their shards. The Chinese? They appreciate that we kill in order to live. How could they forget? They cherish their wet markets, where dinner is still alive.
I’ve been to a few of these markets, where life and death can be smelled in the air. I also grew up with them: In Brazil, when I was a kid and would accompany my mother on her weekly pilgrimage for produce, live chickens were sold in street farmers’ markets. When I went to graduate school and started doing research on rats, my whole family appreciated the science, but only two people didn’t squirm at the details. One was my mom’s mother, who had helped her own mom pick the chicken that would become dinner, taken it home, and was in charge of plucking its feathers. The other was my father, who grew up in a farm himself. When I was a teenager, any mouse that dared enter the house was swiftly met by a broom with my grandmother on the other end – while everybody else climbed on chairs and tables and waited for somebody else to do something about it.
So here we are, the biomedical scientists: we are the ones doing something about it, whether “it” is the new epidemic (possibly spreading in wet markets, I know), grandpa’s Alzheimer, or simply understanding the basics of how we think and breathe and how come we’re alive, and for how long. We grab the broom – and whack no one; we are in awe of our animals and we treat them with respect up to their very end.
But we are not granted the same respect by a good part of the population that seems to forget that if they have 80+ years of life to look forward to, and to use it to protest whatever they want, it is thanks to the biomedical scientists before us, and all the animals that they had to kill (yes, kill – not “euthanize”, not “sacrifice”, not “put to sleep”; giving our animals the respect they deserve also means using the proper words and being fully aware of what we need to do to them). We and our children don’t have to suffer excruciating pain while being operated on thanks to all the animals who were killed in the safety testing of anesthetics. I am grateful for them. Those of us who no longer die from measles and enjoy the fact that, thanks to vaccines and antibodies, “coronavirus” is no longer a lethal word owe our healthy lives to the chicks and rabbits and other animals who incubate the virus and have their blood taken, filtered and purified for us. I am deeply thankful for them, too.
As I am for the chicken that fed me today, and tomorrow will strengthen my muscles, and for the cow whose flank I ate last night and that by now has become part of my neurons. Supermarkets and their sanitary, bloodless packaging are great for public health, but they have allowed too many of us to forget that we live on organic matter. Online shopping, then, wraps it up: we can keep our hands clean while somebody else does the dirty job. No one even needs to pay a visit to the butcher if they don’t want to.
That’s just too easy. Of course we need clean food sources; the value of sanitation is particularly easy to appreciate in times of a new viral epidemic that may have spread from wildlife. But it has become too convenient to forget that life is messy, made of blood and juices, and that some must die for some to live the next day. That shiny, immaculate world where nothing dies is a dream that only exists in the imagination of the naïve who shame biomedical scientists.
What to do, then? Perhaps we could begin by lifting the veil and acknowledging that to get to live one more comfortable day in our modern world, we do want the clean, packaged food, and also the vaccines, the medication, the insights about healthy living, wellbeing and longevity that we gain through science and, yes, animal research. We are animals, too; thriving off of some other living being’s demise is our fate. We scientists are just the ones not kidding ourselves.
Once we acknowledge the blood in our hands, then we can fully respect other creatures, be grateful for them, marvel at the beauty that is life. Maybe the conversation would be different if every teenager got to spend some time in a farm, living off the land and what they could harvest, fish or kill on their own. Nothing out of a can, box, or Styrofoam tray allowed. Also? No bug spray, for animals were killed in their testing. Come back alive, and we’ll talk. Maybe then we could have a society that respects both its animals and its scientists.