Animals, Vegetables And Minerals

I've been a vegetarian (an ovo-lacto vegetarian, to be exact) since I was 13 years old. I don't wear cosmetics. I won't buy or wear fur. I refuse to wear or use leather if at all possible. And I absolutely love animals. I live with fish, a mouse, a pony, a horse and cats, and I'm looking for the perfect dog to complement my other companion animals. Oh, yes. I also love rats. I've had rats for pets. The last was a big black-and-white-hooded rat. I even nursed an abandoned baby mouse, whose eyes had not yet opened, until she reached adulthood.

So why am I working in a biomedical research lab that uses animals in its experiments? No, I am not an infiltrator from the so-called "animal rights" movement. I love what I do, and I get angry when I hear the terrible things animal-rights groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals say about me and my colleagues and how we supposedly treat laboratory animals.

If you buy into the stories of some animal-rightists, I am the last person you would expect to find working at an animal research lab. Well, not only are these groups wrong about me and my profession; they are also grossly mistaken about my colleagues, our work and the conditions under which we keep our animals.

The work we do with animals is crucial. It's important to me as a woman, as a human and as an animal lover. Although most of my work as a veterinary technician involves rodents, two new studies I find pretty exciting involve dogs. In one, my dogs undergo a minor surgical procedure and take one pill a day of a promising drug that may regenerate bone in victims of osteoarthritis, a condition that cripples many elderly folks. In the second, we're investigating a drug that stimulates T-cell and white-blood-cell production, something of vital importance to AIDS patients.

Both would likely be condemned by the rightists as cruel and unnecessary. Let me tell you the extent of the "cruelty" my dogs undergo. In the first study, they play with a lab technician for an hour every day. The other experiment requires that they drink a tiny amount of an extremely diluted drug, about a fifth of a teaspoonful, every day for eight days, and have some blood drawn. When I draw blood, the dogs are happy to see me and they romp about like bouncy pups. Contrary to popular belief, all animals are not euthanized at the end of a study. Those that are receive the same treatment from a veterinarian that your pet would in a veterinary hospital.

How do I justify my profession in view of my beliefs? I want to dispel any idea that I do what I do for the money. I've wanted to work with animals--horses, actually--since I was old enough to think such thoughts. My first job out of high school was working for a wonderful and compassionate veterinarian for $4 an hour. Until then I had always imagined myself working on a farm where I could train and ride horses.

I guess you could say my desire to work with animals caused me to go back to school, where I earned a degree in equine veterinary science with a minor in animal science. I spent a few years as a vet tech in private practice taking care of sick animals, assisting with surgery and dealing with the pet owners. From that experience I can honestly say at least 25 percent of pet owners should never be allowed near any animals. The stories I could tell about pet mistreatment are not fit for any ears.

I'd never considered working in a biomedical lab until a friend invited me to apply where he worked. I did not know what to expect. TV images of dark, dirty, water-dripping dungeons floated in and out of my imagination. I didn't really want to go, but I knew he was a good person and wouldn't be associated with a bad place, so I applied. The moment I stepped into the lab was an eye-opener. I was impressed with how clean, well lit and modern the facilities are. It's more like a human hospital. The monitoring equipment, the sterile technique used in the surgery area, the anesthetics and painkillers for postoperative recovery are identical to what you would find in most hospitals for humans.

The animals themselves are frisky, playful and happy to see the animal techs, who play with them whenever they have a free moment. All the dogs have play toys. Do you know of any other hopsital where the patient is held in a nurse's arms until he or she awakes and is steady enough to walk alone? That is part of what I do for every animal undergoing anesthesia, whether it's a rat, mouse, cat or a dog.

What impressed me then, and still does now that I am a part of the team, is the absolute honor, respect and devotion all of us have for the animals. Love for the animals is the rule, not the exception. The protective clothing worn by visitors to the lab is to protect the animals.

I take my profession very seriously. And I get angry when I hear people who don't know what they are talking about rant and rave about "torture" and duplication of tests. The research we do is essential to humans and animals. Test duplications are sometimes needed to show that the results of the first study aren't a fluke. Less than 5 percent of our studies require any pain relief at all. A full 95 percent are less painful than a visit to the doctor for you or me.

I've thought about the difference between animal welfare and animal rights. The whole issue of moral and ethical treatment of animals has been one that has shaped how I live my life. But there are some animal-rightists whose definitions and priorities are so extreme that they just don't apply. PETA, I've read, envisions a future where I would not be allowed to keep my pets. And it considers a rat, a mammal, the equal of a child, so deciding to save one or the other would be a flip of a coin. I cannot accept this. My love for animals matches anyone's, but there's no question in my mind as to who would come first.

Biomedical research has become my life. I know how researchers treat lab animals, including mice and rats. I see how the work we are doing truly benefits everyone, including animals. Today, dogs and cats can enjoy a three-to-five-year increase in their life expectancies thanks to research and the vaccines and medicines we've developed. I'm glad to be working with animals and other animal lovers to find ways to make life better for both.