The Double Trauma of Animal Experimentation

Although the animal research community does its best to conceal the violence it commits against animals, there is ample evidence of the psychological and physical trauma it results in. What is less discussed both within and outside the animal advocacy community, is the trauma many researchers experience as a result of perpetuating atrocities against animals.

Animal Trauma

The victims—rats, mice, dogs, cats, nonhuman primates, rabbits, guinea pigs, pigs, among others—live in a perpetual state of terror, loneliness, and boredom. They are confined in small, barren cages or containers. They are either overcrowded or isolated. They are often subjected to horrific tortures including so-called Category E experiments, as stated in the Canada Council for Animal Care Policy Statement On: Categories of Invasiveness in Animal Experimentation, “Procedures which cause severe pain near, at, or above the pain tolerance threshold of unanesthetized conscious animals,” including, “exposure to noxious stimuli or agents whose effects are unknown; exposure to drugs or chemicals at levels that (may) markedly impair physiological systems and which cause death, severe pain, or extreme distress; completely new biomedical experiments which have a high degree of invasive-ness, behavioral studies about which the effects of the degree of distress are not known; use of muscle relaxants or paralytic drugs without anesthetics; burn or trauma infliction on unanesthetized animals; a euthanasia method not approved by the CCAC; any procedures (e.g., the injection of noxious agents or the induction of severe stress or shock) that will result in pain which approaches the pain tolerance threshold and cannot be relieved by analgesia (e.g., when toxicity testing and experimentally-induced infectious disease studies have death as the endpoint).”

Many animals such as nonhuman primates subjected to these or other experimental procedures exhibit symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A recent article in Scientific American, for example, discusses how “retired” chimpanzees used for HIV, hepatitis, and behavioural experiments are being formally diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety disorder, and depression. The animals are so traumatized from years, often decades, of repeated “darting” (injection), confinement, lack of stimulation or the ability to express natural behaviours, fear, social isolation, loneliness, premature separation from mothers, among many other torments, that even once they are removed from labs and housed in sanctuaries, they cannot be integrated with other chimpanzees. Martin Brüne, who is heading this research into laboratory primate trauma reports that, “Some of the animals engaged in self-mutilating behaviors such as scratching wounds and keeping them open, and others showed stereotypic movements like constant body rocking. Others smeared their feces everywhere and engaged in coprophagy [eating their feces]. Such behaviors have never been observed in wild populations, so we can be quite sure to assume that these are abnormal behaviors.” (You can read more about it here.)

Trauma is not limited to nonhuman primates, of course. Mice, rats, cats, dogs, rabbits, and other lab animals are also emotionally, cognitively, and psychologically complex. Like nonhuman primates, they are profoundly damaged as a result of the perpetual confinement, deprivation, and physical violation to which they are subjected. Like their nonhuman primate counterparts, animals confined to cages exhibit symptoms of trauma such as aggression, depression, and self-harm.

Human Trauma

It is important that people are also made aware of the harm animal research causes to researchers themselves. Researchers are not bad people. Most are involved in scientific research to improve human and animal health. But, despite the good intentions which inspired them to pursue their research, they are trained to compartmentalize the animals they research on separately from the animals they lavish affection on at home, and to do bad things to innocent creatures under the presumption that anything is permissible in the name of science.

In order to able to carry out cruel experiments on animals, researchers must repress any natural feelings of sympathy, empathy, and compassion they might otherwise have for animals suffering psychological and physical torment. While many researchers are able to desensitize themselves successfully, many are not and end up with what is now called Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS). These researchers are comparable to soldiers who are trained to kill other human beings, but are scarred by the wounds they inflict on others.

Maximum Tolerated Dose, a recent documentary by Canadian filmmaker Karol Orzechowski, features ex-animal researchers who have come to acknowledge the injustice of their work and the harm it causes both other animals and themselves. Rachel Weiss, a former primate researcher who worked with chimpanzees in HIV studies at Yerkes National Primate Research Centre for many years, for example, talks about her emotional anguish and the avoidance mechanisms she employed during her research tenure to shield herself from the cruelty of what she was participating in. Clearly suffering from denial and internal torment, she could not bring herself to photograph Jerom, one of the chimpanzees she worked on and developed affection for, a primate who was repeatedly injected with various strains of HIV from the age of two onwards. Weiss witnessed Jerom progressively deteriorate over the years into a barely functioning heap of bones by the age of fourteen, at which point he was put to death. Throughout his sad life, she explains,”I thought about taking photos of Jerom but I just couldn’t do it. I just… I didn’t want to capture him. I didn’t want to remember, I didn’t want to, you know, someday flip back through my old pictures of all those good times, you know? The good times I never had in the lab and the good times they never, ever had their whole lives in the lab.”

Weiss’ trauma led her to start up an organization called Laboratory Primate Advocacy Group (LPAG), which doubles as a support group for researchers who have been traumatized or psychologically distressed by their role as researchers, and an advocacy group campaigning to end primate research and the sale of primates for pets and entertainment. The website assures former and current researchers, “You are not alone! On these pages you will find practical advice on how to deal with the emotional impact of witnessing and participating in research, and support for your legitimate concerns about laboratory conditions”. Like Weiss, who started out wanting to help animals as a vet, many primate researchers are severely traumatized by their experiences and are in great need of emotional support from others.

Trauma is not limited to researchers who experiment on nonhuman primates or animals who have human-like cognitive capacities. As Maximum Tolerated Dose highlights, researchers who experiment on rats and other animals are also deeply emotionally distressed by their work. It is clear that the cause of researchers’ trauma is the fact that they are torturing fellow sentient beings, beings with whom they could potentially form deep emotional bonds, beings who in other circumstances might offer affection, friendship, loyalty, and uncomplicated devotion.

While our first concern must be the animal victims, we should not forget that there is a human cost to animal experimentation too.

Post written by Zipporah