What I Did and Didn’t Learn From the Insides of a Guinea Pig

First published on Tenderly, June 11 2020

My education required an animal to be murdered on my behalf – on more than one occasion, and without my consent.

Early in my undergraduate degree, in my first lecture in medical ethics, the professor asked for a show of hands: How many of you think that it’s wrong to use animals in medical research? We young scientists, in our witless innocence, almost unanimously raised our hands. “By the end of this degree,” we were told, “you will have changed your minds.”

Indeed, many of us did lose this sensitivity. Third-year pharmacology classes required that each student isolate the guinea pig trachea (windpipe). This meant cutting open the skin of their chest, breaking apart the ribcage, identifying which of many similar-looking fleshy tubes we were after, and cutting it out with a pair of scissors. We were provided with detailed instructions and a diagram. Then using a needle and thread, each end of the isolated tissue was attached to a metal hook and placed inside an apparatus called an organ chamber, where it could be fed with oxygen and stimulated with chemicals.

We were told to ‘treat the animals with respect’ as their warm bodies were laid down in tissue paper on the laboratory desks — a gift to be unwrapped and explored.

I don’t recall why exactly this was done — something to do with studying muscle contraction and drugs that affect the nervous system — it clearly wasn’t such an illuminating and essential pillar of my education.

A pair of hands holding a brown rat against a black background.
Photo: freestocks via Unsplash

In a later session, our task was to isolate the rat ileum (intestine). As we watched the professor’s introductory demonstration, I noticed in the eyes of my peers — wide eyes, magnified through the glass of a water beaker — looks of wonder, curiosity, disgust even, but rarely disapproval. “He didn’t even wear gloves,” one girl remarked. Strange, I thought, for this feature of the event to be highlighted above the fact that 20 hearts had just stopped beating in the adjoining room.

We were not asked for our approval or consent to have an animal euthanized for the purpose of that day’s learning. We were told to “treat the animals with respect” as their warm bodies were laid down in tissue paper on the laboratory desks — a gift to be unwrapped and explored.

We did, for some reason, need to sign our consent before entering the human anatomy labs — even though those cadavers’ deaths, I assure you, had come about independently of our education.

I was not a monkey or a mouse or a dog and, quite bluntly, their lives meant little to me. I have no way of justifying this line of thinking, but it is how I once thought, and how many still do.

Although it “wasn’t an option,” I somehow managed to refuse participation in the second of such experiments. I know that my absence that day did not save any lives, because there were always “spares.” I spent that afternoon crying in the library, shaking uncontrollably like somebody who had just, well, like somebody who had just had another life cancelled for my supposed and unquestioned educational benefit. Another body’s breath had literally just been concluded because I happened to exist — because I happened to demand a university education in the health sciences.

What might surprise you is that on that first afternoon in medical ethics, when asked our views on animal experimentation, my 18-year-old hand was not one among the many raised. I had not at the time given it any depth of thought but I believed, somehow, that it was not wrong. I was a human being. I cared about other human beings and wanted them to live healthily and to be cured of diseases. I was not a monkey or a mouse or a dog and, quite bluntly, their lives meant little to me. I have no way of justifying this line of thinking, but it is how I once thought, and how many still do.

Growing up, I would never have considered myself to be an “animal person.” Our dear cat, Robin, died when I was four, and he was not replaced. I didn’t understand why anyone would want to keep a cat in their home — or worse, a dog. To be honest, it is still something I question. I didn’t see the “cuteness” in a dog that I saw in a human baby. I found them annoying, smelly and strange. If one ever licked me — God forbid — or brushed against my arm or leg, I felt like I needed to bathe. I felt separate from other animals — I was human and they were other.

So I didn’t raise my hand. In a way I felt superior, that my views were aligned with the professor’s, with real scientists, already a step ahead of the other sensitive souls. Though I pushed the matter from my mind that day, I realized three years later that my professor had been right — many of us did change our minds, and so did I. If the same question were asked of us today, I fear my hand would be quite lonely in the air.

I began the switch towards a vegan lifestyle in the summer before my second year at university. I can’t pinpoint exactly what triggered the switch in my mindset. Why, all of a sudden, did I care about animals? Around that time, I found myself exposed to a lot of online content promoting the vegan message, and I was intrigued.

Like a scientist, I dove in head fist, educating myself about the ethical, environmental, and health impacts of our diet. I searched high and low for a reason not to go vegan, for a loophole in the seemingly impeccable logic, and I couldn’t find one. Like many, I was angry that this had been kept a secret from me for so long, that I had lived 19 years of my life in “food fiction.” It was not a difficult decision, nor was it a difficult transition.

After changing my diet, it soon became clear to me that veganism was going to permeate other areas of my life — the shoes and coats I wore, the makeup I bought, the gifts I gave others — but I didn’t consider at the time how it might influence my career. For a while even, I allowed myself to cling to the idea that animal use in medicine was okay, that the cost in this case did not outweigh the benefit. This belief, I now realize, was not grounded in fact. I do not hold it today.

Killing animals for educational purposes starts before university. Children, before having committed to any career path, medical or otherwise, are required by most educational systems to take classes in biology, which invariably will involve the dissection of an animal. Frogs have become notorious for this role. The intention supposedly, is to teach students about anatomy. Exactly how the indecipherable insides of a dead animal offer a child a more valuable experience than a virtual computer-based anatomy lesson, is mind-boggling.

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Jiddu Krishnamurti

In children, harming animals is a red flag warning for future violence. Yet we have designed a system where students of all ages are expected to tear apart dead animals as part of their education. Is this not a sign of a profoundly sick society? Is it any measure of health that we are so well adjusted to it?

We have created a system that teaches that non-human animals are instruments and ornaments, both unfeeling and expendable — a system that desensitizes children and young adults to the sanctity of life.

If it is so deeply disturbing for a child to kill an animal of his own accord, why is it acceptable in so many instances for an adult to do so? The distinction, seemingly, is that a child acts purely to experience pleasure from the infliction. A child kills an animal for the enjoyment of it, whereas an adult kills an animal as a means towards some later enjoyment, be that enjoyment of taste, material, sport or education.

Education is not only the acquisition of knowledge and skills, but also values, beliefs, and morals. These are things our education gives us without our knowing it, and they are carved much deeper into us than the facts and figures it tries to impart. Whether we recognize it or not, the way we as adults view animals today was shaped by our early experiences. We have created a system that teaches that non-human animals are instruments and ornaments, both unfeeling and expendable — a system that desensitizes children and young adults to the sanctity of life.

My education required an animal to be murdered on my behalf on more than one occasion and without my consent. My education told me that in order to learn I needed to cut open the animal myself. When I refused to do so, my education tried to convince me that a career in science would mean I would simply have to get used to it. I would simply have to stop feeling. I intend to convince it otherwise.

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