COVID-19 measures in animal labs: Bad news for rodents

Andrew Fenton reflects on a recent Science magazine article outlining the management of some laboratory rodent populations as a result of COVID-19.

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A recent news piece in the magazine Science gave voice to the emotional struggles of laboratory staff as they kill large numbers of their laboratory rodent populations. In light of the COVID-19 public health crisis, administrators have closed down non-essential work and asked non-essential staff and researchers to stay home. Consequently, many researchers and staff have been asked to decide what number of lab animals can receive adequate care from the decreased number of working staff and to reduce their populations accordingly.

But, if we’re honest, there’s something disingenuous about the piece. First, lots of animals are routinely killed in laboratories, whether they are used in a study or not. This can be the result of welfare indicators, for example the animals aren’t doing well and it is a mercy to kill them. But it also includes animals who are “surplus” because they no longer perform a useful function. Second, lots of the animals now being killed would have been killed at some point. Third, presumably, a number of those currently killing the animals would have killed them anyway at a later date. Indeed, if this is going to be done humanely, you only want those with proper training and experience to be killing the animals.

So, what are we to make of the emotional struggles of those mentioned in the article? I don’t doubt that their struggles are genuine. It may be that, with the added stress of the current public health crisis and accompanying changes to daily life as well as the relative speed at which the relevant staff are killing their laboratory animals, these personnel are understandably emotionally overwhelmed. Some may even be bonded to the animals they’re killing, and that too can add to their distress. More cynically, some may be troubled by what this means for projects which are effectively stalled until they can rebuild their numbers of research animals up to what adequately powered studies require. I suspect that something more is also going on: there are hints that the waste surrounding this killing is hitting home to some of those doing the killing.

Photo Credit:  Creative Commons Zero – CC0. Image Description: A rodent on a white table with scattered glass tubes.

Some animal researchers hold the view that they should be killing as few animals as they can or killing animals only when it’s “necessary,” and this resonates with the struggle of the staff described in the article. It’s tempting to dispute the claim that killing laboratory animals is necessary, but I want to think about the “should” from the previous sentence. I don’t think this “should” is exhausted or adequately explained by aesthetic or prudential considerations – it’s not just that killing is an ugly or costly business. I think the “should” is best understood morally. From that perspective, we wrong animals when we kill them (or, if you prefer, kill them unnecessarily). It’s a wrong, under this understanding, because death is a harm.

Here’s the problem: there’s a resistance to seeing death as a harm when we’re talking about animals. This resistance isn’t just from animal scientists, philosophers and ethicists can be resistant too.

Why resist the view that death is a harm to animals? We may be tempted to think that it’s because death cuts short what we had hoped would be a longer life. Perhaps, our dreams or pursuits can’t be realized or our interest in continuing to live is violated. Death, then, is only a harm for those who are cognitvely sophisticated enough. Killing, under this view, wrongs an animal if it’s done inhumanely, for example if the animal suffers or is distressed. But death itself is not a harm.

Hints that this is a mistaken view can be found in the responses of the laboratory personnel mentioned before. An alternative understanding of death as a harm, where those who die lose out on future valued experiences, can work here. Folks are more familiar with this view of death-as-a-harm than they think. In the movie Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s character quips, “It’s a hell of a thing killing a man, you take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” That’s about right, though being a man or a human is neither here nor there. When we kill animals, we take away all that they have and all that they are ever going to have. Maybe if this was more widely acknowledged, harm-benefit analyses of animal use wouldn’t be so skewed to favour humans and “humane killing” wouldn’t be so normalized.

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Andrew Fenton is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Dalhousie University.