It’s not about ethics

My daughter has always been uncomfortable with the fact that my job includes experimenting on animals. Her main objection is that she is not sure that humans are worth saving. Recently she changed her mind, not about whether humans are worth saving, or perhaps that is the fundamental change: she clearly believes that SHE is worth saving. For a teenage girl, that is a huge step.

When she was 3, I’d bring her to the lab on Saturdays when I went in to count the mouse pups. I’d sit her up on the counter and she’d hold out her two hands. “This is your girl hand,” I’d tell her, “and this is your boy hand.” I’d put the girl pups in one chubby hand and the boy pups in the other, and she would “help” me count them. Later she’d help me check for the “pregnant virgin” mice. The way we accomplished the miracle of pregnant virgins is simple. Every morning we’d pair virgin female mice with proven breeder males, and a couple hours later we’d come back and check for the presence of a vaginal plug which, in rodents, indicates that copulation occurred. (SO glad it doesn’t work that way in humans. SO glad.) We do this so we know exactly what day conception occurred, and we can dose during the right window of development. Sometimes a mouse would turn up pregnant although we hadn’t observed a plug. Since the mice were called “virgins” until they were plugged, these mice we called “pregnant virgins” to indicate that we didn’t know the date of conception. Since the virgins were housed 3-5 per cage (“harems”, if you like), we needed to separate out the “pregnant virgins” periodically to avoid having a litter of pups in the harem cage.

Nell’s job one day was to look through all the cages she could see–that is, the bottom 2 rows– and bring me any pregnant virgins. “How will I know if they are pregnant?” she asked.
“They are extra fat,” I told her. Mice, especially CD-1 mice, get super fat when pregnant. They look ridiculous.
“This one might be,” she said doubtfully.
“Leave it,” I answered without looking. “She’s not pregnant.”
Nell looked in the next cage and started laughing.
“That one’s pregnant,” I said. Again I didn’t need to look. Did I mention they look ridiculous when pregnant?
Nell watched me move the pregnant virgin into her own cage.
“Where’s her husband?” she asked.
“She doesn’t have a husband.”
“Where’s her boyfriend?”
“He’s off making other girls pregnant.”
“Does she miss him?”

We weighed the pups every 5 days. To keep track of which pups needed weighed on which day, we drew big symbols on the cage cards: square, circle, triangle, X, star. Nell helped me draw the symbols. She couldn’t draw a 5-pointed star, so she drew 6-pointed stars of David with 2 triangles. So we had Jewish mice as well as pregnant virgins. It was an ecumenical mouse colony.

That was Nell’s introduction to animal experiments. Later on she became aware that we killed the mice for our experiments. This bothered her. “We’re going to prevent disease,” I told her.
“In humans,” she replied. “What makes humans worth more than mice?”
What indeed?

A few months ago, she was on her bike and was hit by a truck. She’s fully recovered now. She suffered a fractured skull, bruised her brain, concussion, and a fractured pinkie finger. She doesn’t remember that 1/2 hour of her life, from the truck hitting her to being in the ambulance. Later, I was doing a literature search on a cartilage impact model, and came across several reports of impact models to study brain trauma. That made me shudder a bit. I’m glad someone is doing the research but I’d have a hard time hitting rats, pigs, or dogs on the head to cause brain damage. It came up in a conversation with her.

“I don’t think it is important for me to remember the wreck,” she said doubtfully.
“That’s not what this is about,” I answered. “During one of the follow-up visits, the trauma doctor told us to keep an eye on your math grades. She said sometimes a brain injury can’t be detected by the simple tests of a follow-up visit, but it could affect your ability to do advanced math. Those animal experiments are about helping the brain recover from that sort of thing.”

Nell looked horrified. I knew she had long ago realized that she could have died in that wreck (we LOVE that helmet), but I think this was the first time she realized that there were other options than death of how it could have been so much worse. She realized that she could have suffered permanent or longer lasting brain damage.

When it’s personal, it’s no longer an ethical question.

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