By Eryn Slankster-Schmierer on April 22, 2021. Because I find the level of detail necessary to effectively tell you this story, I will label headings (Safe) or (WARNING! GRAPHIC) to alert you in case you are sensitive to the animal abuse used widespread through science.
(Safe) 2009-2010: A year of death. This story begins with a pretty impactful year of death; four of my grandparents passed away due to health-related conditions, ages 66-72, well below the average American life expectancy of 78 years old. Three of these four deaths were related to- or a direct result of- heart disease (the other was a chronic smoker).
(Safe) 2011: Studying the disease running rampant through my family (and America). I began my doctoral research coincidentally assigned to a limb ischemia project. Limb ischemia, or low blood flow to the limbs, is super common among diabetics, typically presenting itself as leg or foot pain, frequent bruising, swelling, and sores that won’t heal. In the worst cases, it could result in gangrene and removal of toes, feet, or even entire legs. These symptoms are so common that surely, like myself, you know of someone who suffers these consequences.
The underlying cause of this blood flow reduction is atherosclerosis. Cholesterol gets lodged within the artery wall, and with the help of reactive oxygen species, triggers an inflammatory response. These inflammatory cells become residents within your artery walls where they DO NOT belong, pumping out pro-inflammatory cytokines to draw in more help to clear the offensive lesion. This gradually causes thickening of the artery wall, drastically closing up the artery, and starving everything downstream of the plaque.
(Safe) 2013, The year I learned I could live without eating cholesterol. There are two themes that resonated throughout my doctoral research: inflammation, and cholesterol. Cholesterol is EXCLUSIVLY found in animal products; there is not a single gram of cholesterol found in a plant-based diet. (To be transparent, there is a lot of scientific debate on whether dietary cholesterol, or rather genetic predisposition, can be held responsible for issues such as high cholesterol.) But in 2013, I learned I absolutely did not NEED dietary cholesterol.
In just a few months, I went from mocking a person as a grass-eater to being shown the wonderful and delicious world of plant-based cooking. I admired his strong ethical stance and commitment, but I’ll admit, these new dietary rules made me feel restricted. I projected that this person thought I was lesser because I ate animal products. I rebelled and sought out McFlurries when he wasn’t around, and ate animal products when free food was offered.
This relationship itself was record breaking short for me, but a magical thing happened when I no longer felt tied to this vegan’s dietary rules: I choose them. I immediately bought my own vegan cookbook, I binged on my last Whopper Jr near midnight on Thanksgiving, and never (intentionally) purchased another animal product again after November 29, 2013.
(WARNING! GRAPHIC) Meanwhile, I was responsible for extreme hell on hundreds of mice. My doctoral research was recreating the effects of atherosclerosis in a mouse model. To do this, I surgically induced limb ischemia; I literally cut open (hundreds of) mice’s legs, tied off the main artery supplying that leg, sewed it back up, and studied the effects. And I was great at it.
These mice suffered horrifically. I was given the orders to euthanize the mouse if the necrosis extended beyond the mouse’s foot. But often, its foot blackened until the mouse literally chewed off its own foot. Otherwise, I let the mouse’s artificial disease develop for 21 days before “sacrifice.”
Aside rant: Do you think any of these hundreds of mice choose for me to rip their brain stems out of their skulls (cervical dislocation- commonly used for euthanasia)? Scientists love using this word “sacrifice” when they kill a laboratory animal. A “sacrifice” implies it is yours to sacrifice. You purchased this animal as a slave, or an inanimate object. You are killing it by experimental design, to harvest exactly what you wanted from it. Its not a sacrifice, it’s a ritualistic torturing and killing. You obtain all of the profit and the mouse benefitted none, and had no choice in participating. How dare you call it a “sacrifice.” But I digress.
Don’t get me wrong, we have IUCUC protocols ensuring the “humane” treatment of animals; we gave the mouse courses of controlled substances to ease the pain. But “humane” is a strange word to describe things we would absolutely never do to a human. After all, how “humane” would it be if I surgically cut off your arteries in exchange for narcotics.
(WARNING! GRAPHIC) I “sacrificed” hundreds of mice for NOTHING. My particular research efforts started in collaboration with a biotech company. I wasn’t producing results fast enough as the sole doctoral student on the project, so this company hired a full-time scientist to use our facility as an animal torture assembly line. The biotech company went through drastic changes through the course of my PhD, cycling and purging scientists left and right. When the scientist hired to work within my lab was let go, I was ordered to “take care” of all of his mice.
Because of that day, I was sent into our animal facility to euthanize all remaining mice. Mice that were purchased with the sole intention of being tortured and experimented on, most of these mice were severely immunocompromised and would die outside the lab.
This mass eradication of mice made me physically ill. It took me multiple days to will myself to do it, but like a deranged, murderous assembly line, I put these mice to sleep using isoflurane, and proceeded to cervically dislocate the heads of 35 of these mice. Until this moment, I believed I was doing more good than harm. I believed there was a higher benefit compared to the “sacrifice.”
One mouse I had left was “normal”; I snuck B-50 out of the lab and took care of him at home where he lived with more than quadruple the space, ample amounts of mouse treats, and an exercise wheel. It did nothing for the rest of the mice, but it gave this one 6 more months.
To add the final punchline to this deranged joke, by the end of my PhD, either by the terms laid out by the biotech company, or by the choice of my mentor, NONE of the research the collaborators on my project nor I worked on was published. NONE. OF. IT.
Hundreds and hundreds of mice’s lives were bred into existence, tortured and/or killed, and the lessons of their death are buried in a fucking lab drawer next to their amputated legs.
(Safe) Conditioning scientists to believe “Sacrificing” another species is imperative. I literally cannot tell you how many mice I have killed in total. I, alone, performed just over 300 surgeries, not to mention the postdoc and the staffed scientist’s toll. I also know it took me 7 mice to create ONE flask of stem cells to treat a single experimental mouse. I literally cannot fathom how many flasks I successfully and unsuccessfully used, nor how many lives I took to make them with my own gloved hands.
We are taught that we need to get over the repulsion of this animal abuse. We are taught it’s NOT abuse, because IUCUC sets guidelines for “humane” animal treatment! We are taught by signing IUCUC documents that a pre-defined amount of torture is acceptable as long as our human brains decide we benefit enough from it. We are taught this is the way science has to be. We are conditioned that this is not only normal, but REQUIRED for the progression of science.
As scientists, we are by definition on the cutting edge of human knowledge. Yet, we just keep asking ourselves, how can I get MORE information out of this tortured animal, how can I use MORE technology on this tortured animal, instead of how can I stop torturing animals?
(Safe) The decision that these “sacrifices” aren’t ours. My diet was entirely vegan halfway through my PhD research, but of course I still believed my research was for the “greater good.” If I could sacrifice a few mice to save thousands of lives, well then, I must be doing something great! But ironically, the very treatment I was developing was intended to undo decades of poor human health decisions and slow self-indulgent-harm; why exactly is that a sacrifice a mouse should have to make?
My dissertation, Role of the immune system following surgical induction of critical limb ischemia in a mouse model, can be found here.