Remembrance and Refuse

Although decisions about what happens to animals in laboratories are mostly taken by those doing the research, the daily maintenance of the animals is done by others, the animal care ‘technicians’. These are the people who will get to know animals individually, if anyone in the laboratory does. Many of them, perhaps most, will have gone into the work exactly because they ‘like animals’. It’s a strange and potentially unhappy situation for these people, and one which for that reason has produced its own corpus of sociological and psychological study.

Out of this work have emerged various therapeutic suggestions – therapeutic for the humans, that is. For instance, staff might be encouraged to view the laboratory relation as “symbiotic” rather than bleakly exploitative: “We take care of the animals, and they take care of us.” (I won’t bother to expose the sleights of hand involved in this formulation.) Another suggestion is to keep “favoured ‘mascot’ or ‘pet’ animals in the workplace”. This is quite a traditional device. Some of the earliest group photographs of the Physiology Department at Oxford University feature just such a dog. Perhaps the dog providing this service was the professor’s own, for he was known as a ‘dog-lover’ (a “favoured” dog-lover, that is). In fact it was considered a rather entertaining anecdote that when Professor Burdon Sanderson was once walking his dog through the University Parks, a woman expressed the hope that he wasn’t taking it along to be vivisected (laughter all round!).

This device of the laboratory pet as lightning conductor for caring sentiment leaves the other animals exactly where they were, of course, perhaps kept at a convenient distance by the oldest “coping technique” of all: minimal contact, numbers not names, and euphemisms of various sorts.

A rather more inclusive means of reconciling staff to their role as purveyors of live animals to fatal research is now growing in popularity: the memorial. The most traditional form of memorial is the plaque or picture, acknowledging in a permanent but discreet way the nature of the work being done. The University of Rochester Univ Rochester School of MedicineMedical School in New York, for instance, has a rather fine bronze plaque with the text “To those who give their lives for the welfare of mankind”. A notable euphemism itself: you’ll appreciate the choice of verb and its convenient present tense (the memorial is looking ahead as much as back: perhaps war memorials should try this).

It’s doubtful if any text in which an institution memorializes those whom it has itself put to death can quite escape a flavour of humbug. Memorial events may be even more of a challenge. As one such event in Canada (at the University of Guelph in 1993) candidly acknowledged in its prepared reading, “To thank the animals seems logically inappropriate because their contribution was taken, not given.” Even so, the attempt has continued, and some institutions in the U.S.A., Canada, and most animal memorialnumerously in Japan, hold such events annually, with a wide variety of observances, religious and secular: prayers, poems, personal testimonies, ritual procedures, gongs, and so on.

No doubt different cultures design and experience these memorial events in different ways. They must mean differently also to different individuals. Although a moderate regret seems to play an accepted part in them, I don’t find that remorse or the associated desire for forgiveness does, and with good reason: as the guilt-burdened King in Hamlet poignantly asks himself when he tries to pray, “May one be pardon’d, and retain the offence?” That the “offence” – in our case the habit of using animals in research and the benefits claimed for it – will indeed be retained is made obvious by the annual recurrence of the events. But pardon of some kind is implicit in them, self-pardon and institutional pardon, together with its more positive counterpart, a sense that the right thing has been done after all. Hence the recorded effects of such events: “It made me feel proud of what we do”, “It made me realize how much good has come from using animals”, “I went away feeling good about what we do for our animals.” Now we can see more clearly the idea behind these memorial events: they improve morale in the laboratory. They are, in fact, as I said earlier, therapeutic in nature. And after all even feelings of distress can be turned to one’s advantage: as one sociologist specializing in this topic has observed, such feelings show that one has a conscience – surely a comforting possession for anyone to know they have.

That some good does come also to the animals out of all this is certain. Most of the events and other memorials aim to promote respect for the animals (living as well as dead), however compromised that may be in reality. Apparently some events even recall particular animals, rather in the manner of pet funerals. But this last seems to be uncommon, for obvious reasons. It’s not just that there is no grave or pyre, of the sort which normally goes with funeral observances, and that abstraction or idealization must therefore be the characterizing mood; committal to ground or fire couldn’t even be imagined in such a setting. How could the event (half an hour each year, in one recently advertised example) possibly keep up with the numbers?

“We simply throw them away”, one scientist says of the unsatisfactory animals produced during his research project on genetically altered chickens. It’s a stray comment heard and recorded at a conference on an especially disgusting theme, the artificial insemination of commercial poultry. But it’s surely the truer record of what happens in laboratories, what in fact must happen, and of the attitude implicit in animals bin 3that. In truth, a bin is a more accurately expressive memorial to laboratory animals than, say, a garden (where, besides, the animals will never have gone in life or death).

This point is made wretchedly clear in a 2014 article in the journal Environments, titled ‘Review of Evidence of Environmental Impacts of Animal Research and Testing’. After all, these animals have not been enjoying healthy outdoor lives: “A vast array of chemicals is involved in every step of animal research and testing, including chemicals for sanitation, disinfection, sterilization, animal care, and research and testing procedures.” Therefore when the time comes to dispose of the animals, they simply become part of an enormous waste problem: “Millions of animal bodies, many of which are contaminated with toxic or hazardous chemicals, viruses, or infectious diseases, and significant amounts of other laboratory waste such as animal excrement, bedding, excess feed, caging, needles, syringes, and gavages, are discarded after use every year.” Mostly, this terrible miscellany is being steadily incinerated, either at the laboratories themselves or by agencies doing it for them. Landfill is another option. The toxic effect of all this isn’t the subject here, alarming as it is: I’m viewing the matter simply as a gigantic and continuous act of cremation or committal, and asking the question, how could any memorial event or art-work make palatable sense of it, even acknowledge it? In so far as they console or inspire, such memorials must deceive.

A like situation is presented with contrasting honesty towards the end of J.M.Coetzee’s 1999 novel Disgrace. The dead animals in this case are not laboratory animals; they come from a charitable Sunday veterinary clinic where the disgraced professor of English, David Lurie, now helps out. The clinic’s function is to heal the animals brought to it by impoverished owners in the countryside of the Eastern Cape, or to neuter them, or most commonly to put them down, their owners having allowed them to sicken beyond rescue or having lost capacity or willingness to support them. But an incinerator is where the dead and bagged animals, mostly dogs, go after the clinic. And it’s the local hospital incinerator, where the scene is much as described in the Environments article, a dump of mixed refuse piled up and waiting for the incinerator to be fired on Monday morning.

Leaving the dogs there overnight among the rubbish is something that Lurie cannot agree to do: “He is not prepared to inflict such dishonour upon them. So he takes them home in his van, and returns with them early the next morning. But by then they have stiffened, and to fit their bodies into the feeder-trolley the workers at the incinerator beat them down with shovels. Lurie could leave before this happens, refuse to witness it, but he won’t; instead, he does the incinerating of the dogs himself, saving them from this last indignity. He cannot explain to himself why he does it: “For the sake of the dogs? But the dogs are dead; and what do dogs know of honour and dishonour anyway?” And if it cannot help the dogs, nor certainly does it advantage or dignify him.

When Lurie is first helping at the clinic, he expresses the view that animals understand death better than we do, that they are “born prepared”. The woman who runs the clinic disagrees: “I don’t think we are ready to die, any of us, not without being escorted.” This indeed is what Lurie discovers, and when we last see him he is preparing thus to escort a crippled dog the whole way: that is, to “caress him and brush back the fur so that the needle can find the vein, and whisper to him and support him in the moment when, bewilderingly, his legs buckle; and then, when the soul is out, fold him up and pack him away in his bag, and the next day wheel the bag into the flames and see that it is burnt, burnt up.”

It’s not presented as a heroic or even a useful service: “It will be little enough, less than little: nothing.” Nor do I suggest that this fidelity – to what? To an “idea of the world”, Lurie concludes – is even conceivable in the circumstances of a research laboratory, whose output of animal bodies is likely to be on a scale that defeats respect and decency, let alone escorting of any sort. I simply offer Lurie’s unsentimental labour, stubbornly unyielding of consolation or satisfaction of any sort, as a critique of the memorials described above. It may well be that such memorials do some good, fortifying people whose work can make a difference for the living animals, and reminding their institutions that something needs putting right: so good luck to them, just as long as nobody supposes that the memorials themselves do put anything right, or that in their dignity and artistry they correspond to anything that’s really happening. They may be well-intentioned and helpful lies; but they’re lies all the same.


Notes and references:

The descriptions of memorials, including the quotations, come from Susan A. Iliff, ‘An Additional “R”: Remembering the Animals’, in the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research Journal, vol.43, 1 January 2002, pp.38-47. This is a sympathetic account by a vet with direct experience of the subject. The observation about having a conscience comes from an article by A.Arluke, ‘Uneasiness among Laboratory Technicians’, in Occupational Medicine, vol.14, 1 April 1999, pp.305-16. Another writer on this theme of uneasiness in the laboratory is the psychologist Harold Herzog: e.g. ‘Ethical Aspects of Relationships between Humans and Research Animals’, ILAR Journal, vol.43, 1 January 2002, pp.27-32. This and the Iliff article can be accessed online.

The quotation about throwing chickens away comes from a report of the First International Symposium on the Artificial Insemination of Poultry held at the University of Maryland in 1994, cited in The Experimental Use of Chickens and Other Birds in Biomedical and Agricultural Research by Karen Davis, 2003, accessible online at

The article on waste from research laboratories is ‘Review of Evidence of Environmental Impacts of Animal Research and Testing’, by Katherine Groff et al, in Environments, 2014, pp.14-30.

The quotations from Disgrace are at pp.144, 146, 84, and 219-20 of the edition by Vintage Books, 2000. This novel won the Booker Prize in 1999.

Illustrations: The bronze plaque at Rochester is a cast of the one originally made by Amelia Peabody for the New England Deaconess Hospital at Boston in the 1920s, photograph made available from the online version of Susan Iliff’s article cited above. The animal memorial garden, shown in preparation for a service of remembrance in 2016, is at the Okinawa Institution of Science and Technology in Japan. The image of a laboratory waste bin is by Brian Gunn of the International Association against Painful Experiments on Animals.





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