How do I balance my karma for testing on animals?
April 9, 2009 9:23 AM   Subscribe

How do I balance my karma for testing on animals?

I am working on my PhD in a gene therapy lab. The work involves testing things that I make out on mice. The things I have to do to mice include various injections of stuff (I don't think this hurts them that badly), ear-tagging (haven't been able to bring myself to do this yet, but will have to soon - they squeak when you do this), and eventually sacrificing the mice and harvesting their organs (am putting this off for as long as humanly possible).

I am doing this work for a very good cause, and our lab is able to directly put working reagents into clinical trials for a variety of horrific diseases. So I feel justified that I'm not just using animals to understand physiological responses (which I don't have a moral problem with - it is how we learn) but for direct therapeutic benefit. However, I am still making completely innocent creatures suffer, using my own two hands.

I don't know how to reconcile this. I've always had somewhat buddhistic leanings in life, but I don't ascribe to any religion. I do think that we should do all we can to limit suffering. There are days where I am literally tormented by what I do, and days when I feel so numb to it. I want to reconcile for myself that I am not a bad person for doing what I do to mice.

Any suggestions? Leaving my line of work is not an option - I work in gene therapy because I believe it holds incredible promise for our species. I just hate that I have to use another species to prove that.
posted by sickinthehead to Religion & Philosophy (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a fellow science person, and I'm in a field that relies heavily on animal subjects. Essentially, how I deal with it is assuring myself that procedures are approved by the IRB and that the mice are dying as humanely as possible. I also try to not consume leather or food from animals that I know have probably been mistreated.
posted by kldickson at 9:28 AM on April 9, 2009

I'd listen to your instinct; even if it's okay for others to do, it's not good to do something that requires overriding your conscience. A roommate of mine steered her microbiology / genetic interests towards plants for this very reason.
posted by salvia at 9:30 AM on April 9, 2009

I think the karma's balanced - and tilted to the other side - by the fact that what you do is, in fact, working for the direct therapeutic benefit of many humans. You cause suffering, but only to relieve even more suffering.
posted by Tomorrowful at 9:35 AM on April 9, 2009 [6 favorites]

Become a vegetarian, or at least an "only-eat-humanely-raised-meat-itarian". You will contribute, in a small way, to lessening the net amount of animal suffering -- just as your research contributes, in a small way, to increasing the net amount of animal suffering. Consider it a carbon offset.
posted by kestrel251 at 9:36 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Read that last as "non-human animal suffering". Given the good your work does for *human* animals, it doesn't sound like it actually increases the net amount of ALL animal suffering. We are critters too.
posted by kestrel251 at 9:38 AM on April 9, 2009

Ear tagging, I don't think, is a giant deal. Perhaps ask for approval to swab some kind of anesthetic on there before you give them an ear tag?
posted by kldickson at 9:45 AM on April 9, 2009

Response by poster: I know ear-tagging isn't a giant deal. I've tried to do it, but it's hard to get the tagger lined up correctly and I have a problem forcing myself to actually close my hand. There is another grad student in my lab who has been gracious enough to tag for me, but she just graduated! I've heard you can mark their tails with Sharpies, but that you have to reapply fairly frequently. I'm not opposed to doing this. I just don't want it to wear off because then the experiment is moot since I won't know who is who and then they really did suffer for no reason.

And they never squeak when I do injections, but they consistently squeak for the ear tags. In my world that is conclusive evidence that it does in fact hurt them, even if it is over quickly.
posted by sickinthehead at 9:48 AM on April 9, 2009

Your philosophical approach is pretty vague, but you could possibly fit your worldview into a peter-singer-esque utilitarianism (ie you value the possible goods of gene therapy over the pain/suffering caused to the mice). If you're specifically concerned about non-human animal suffering, then the best (and easiest) thing you can do to reduce this is to be vegan (Singer himself advocates veganism). Being vegan will reduce the amount of suffering caused to the animals you would eat and/or consume products from. There's no such thing as "humanely raised" meat, and all slaughter is fraught with suffering. Eating animals "killed instantly and without pain" would fit into a utilitarian worldview, but to be consistent (imho) this should apply to animals not confined during their lifetimes, which leaves game animals like deer (which you should then kill "without pain" somehow).
posted by beerbajay at 9:51 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you believe using these animals is wrong, and you don't want to be guilty of such wrongdoing, then you should stop participating in it. You can't just trade away your sins. "Karma" is not like that.

I suggest realising that the animal testing you do is not wrong at all.

The amount of suffering and death in the animal world is appalling, but we are rightfully unconcerned about the way coyotes use rabbits for their own personal means . . .

They key--for the comfort of our own spirits--is to avoid inflicting cruelty and suffering when we can. That is exactly and entirely what your job does.

posted by General Tonic at 9:52 AM on April 9, 2009 [10 favorites]

Best answer: There was a young man, a Tibetan living in the US as a citizen, that was drafted into the army to fight in Vietnam. While there, he was pretty certain, though not positive, that he had killed another human being. When he returned, he asked a lama, "What I should do?" They were living near a farm at the time and the lama told him to adopt a few of the young sheep and take care of them. Of course, sheep live a pretty long time. So, the young man ended up taking care of these sheep for over a decade. The lama in question has some pretty good credentials, so if you're literally looking to balance it off, taking good care of animals seems the way to go.

If you are truly worried about your karma, the best thing you can do is live a strictly moral life outside of your tests on animals. This essentially boil down to reducing the amount of suffering you cause other sentient beings, roughly:
  • Do not kill, i.e., protect life
  • Do not steal, i.e., honor other people's property
  • Do not be sexually immoral, i.e., honor your commitments
  • Do not lie, i.e., be truthful
  • Do not speak in a way that divides people, i.e., speak in a way that brings people together
  • Do not speak harshly, i.e., speak gently
  • Avoid intoxicants (because they make it very hard to stay moral)
There are other ones, but these can easily be practiced by non-buddhists. And we can all practice these better than we do. Let me take the waterbug outside and so on.

However, there is the old story about the Buddhist butcher. He was really upset that he needed kill animals for a living, as that was strictly prohibited. He was told by a monk nearby to only butcher during the day and to be sure to practice strict morality during the nighttime. He followed this. Upon his rebirth, he lived with a beautiful woman each night and they shared all sorts of pleasures together, but every morning, she transformed into a snake and ate him.
posted by milarepa at 9:58 AM on April 9, 2009 [8 favorites]

From a Buddhist perspective, karma "balancing" is not favored. You want to escape karma by becoming enlightened. You don't escape it, it is inevitable.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:00 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Believe it or not, PETA has some reasonable answers to this question. Specifically, they ask organizations that use animals for testing to (a) minimize the use of animals, and (b) treat the animals humanely. The following is excerpted from a shareholder resolution they filed at Covance. (At linked site search for "covance" to find text.)
BE IT RESOLVED, that the shareholders request that the Board adopt and post an Animal Welfare Policy online which addresses the Company's commitment to (a) reducing, refining and replacing its use of animals in research and testing, and (b) implementing acceptable standards of care for animals who continue to be used for these purposes, both by the Company itself and by all independently retained laboratories, including provisions that address animals' psychological, social and behavioral needs. Further, the shareholders request that the Board issue an annual report to shareholders on the extent to which in-house and contract laboratories are adhering to this policy, including the implementation of the psychological enrichment measures.
The point that I remember from meeting with their shareholder activists was that they really do care about the "provisions that address animals' psychological, social and behavioral needs." Even if you're going to kill the animals, you can treat them humanely while they are alive.

You could ensure that your organization has posted policies that would satisfy these guidelines.

A little bit more here.
posted by alms at 10:00 AM on April 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

If it's a "very good cause" then there's nothing to "balance".

Either it's a net good, or it's a net evil. If you believe it's a net good, then why worry about karma damage? Clearly then it's doing the opposite.
posted by glider at 10:23 AM on April 9, 2009

Yeah, sorry, you can't reconcile this with Buddhism. Part of the eightfold path is right livelihood, and this doesn't qualify. As Ironmouth pointed out, you can't balance karma any more than you can reverse gravity. It's a law.

Remember that you're causing your OWN suffering ("literally tormented") as well as that of the animals. Granted, you are probably ultimately preventing human suffering, but there are many more direct ways to do so, and you won't have any moral qualms about those.
posted by desjardins at 10:24 AM on April 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

I used to do surgery on and sacrifice mice and baby ferrets in the name of science. My method for dealing with it was to talk to the animals while doing the procedures. I would thank them for their sacrifice and apologize that I had to do what I was doing. I also explained to them why their sacrifice was important. It probably didn't do anything for the animals, although a soft, soothing voice may have calmed them a bit, but it definitely helped me. Also, I'm sure my labmates thought I was a weirdo.

As for balancing out your karma, I think it depends on what view of karma you have. If you think your good deeds and your bad deeds balance each other out, then try doing a bunch of good deeds. Maybe volunteer at an animal shelter or take in a stray or shelter animal. However, if you think each deed you do will have a karmic consequence, then maybe you should try to move your research in a non-sacrifice direction. Or just suck it up and realize you will have have a lot of unhappy rebirths. Here's the laughing and crying goat story that I always think of when I think about scientific animal sacrifice.
posted by mandapanda at 10:30 AM on April 9, 2009

Leaving my line of work is not an option - I work in gene therapy because I believe it holds incredible promise for our species.

Of course leaving is an option. Gene therapy may hold incredible promise but you don't have to be the one doing the research and if you truly feel you're mistreating the animals the solution is to stop. Fobbing off the distasteful work (ear-tagging) onto someone else in an attempt to distance yourself from what you do isn't going to work, either. And I fail to see how doing something like treating other animals well somehow makes up for what you seem to view as mistreating the mice.

I say this as someone that doesn't take issue with the humane use of animals.
posted by 6550 at 10:31 AM on April 9, 2009

i agree that the most plausible and obvious solution would be to adopt a strictly vegetarian diet. the fact is that anyone who true "animal lover" should never, ever, ever eat an animal. there is an endless list of misconceptions as to why people disagree but the resounding truth anymore, if one really does want the hard truth, is that it is not necessary to spend money on a dead animals flesh for the purpose of consumption. i am very much opposed to vivisection, and i think that a vegetarian diet is absolutely the best thing you could do in this situation. the object is to limit the suffering you inflict on animals, and without question, becoming a dedicated vegetarian would do that in a wonderful array of ways.

having said that, i have a few contacts who work rather prominently in the field of anti-vivisection, and i can think of one in particular who i think would be very interested to hear your thoughts on this, and could perhaps offer some insight or ideas. if that's of any interest to you, feel free to e-mail me. though i suspect that they too would suggest that, at a very minimum, you stop eating animals to make up for what harm you do inflict on those you work with.

in any case, kudos to you for even thinking about it.
posted by austere at 10:41 AM on April 9, 2009

Best answer: I have done mouse work for about 10 years now and the justifications that I use are several.

I know that I do everything in my power to keep the animals from suffering within the context of what I'm doing - from appropriate anesthesia and analgesics to gentle and firm handling. Part of this is making sure that I am, at a minimum, competent at every step of handling from observation to surgery.

I maximize the amount of information I can get from each and every animal that I have/generate. This includes actively seeking out researchers that can use mice/organs that I can't.

I take the time to understand the protocols that I'm on and to continue discussing new technology and alternative options with the vets and techs who work in our animal care department.

Ultimately, I realise that the things that I'm doing cannot be replaced by non-animal models. I honestly believe that there are things that you just cannot learn from cell culture or modeling programs, that the complexity of biological systems beggars our modeling technology and that there are questions that can only be answered by manipulating a live system.

I do my best to minimise suffering, increase productivity and make sure that these mice are being used and dying for a reason.

I am, of course, Me-mailable should you want to talk more.
posted by oreonax at 10:51 AM on April 9, 2009 [5 favorites]

First, keep things in perspective. Mice live and die in the most brutal and painful circumstances in the wild, in staggering numbers. You can be pretty sure that the life of a lab mouse is more pampered, well-fed, and long-lived than any mouse in the wild. And, as others have pointed about, the animal care regulations and institutional review boards in place at any research institution ensure that the animals are treated humanely and compassionately.

Perhaps more importantly than assuaging your guilt in some cosmic sense would be feeling confident in the treatment of the animals you actually interact with. It's certainly a praiseworthy thing to want to ensure the well-being of the animals in your care. To that end, I would recommend you learn about the ways animal well-being is protected institutionally. Read the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC) Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals. Make sure those guidelines are followed. Meet the animal techs that feed and clean the mice habitats, and attend a meeting of the animal care committee at your institution. The more you know about the mechanisms in place to make sure the animals are well cared-for, the better you will feel, and the more able you will be to take action if you observe mistreatment.

The larger context here is that the reactionary anti-animal-testing crowd has done a good job of making animal testing seem essentially unsavory or unethical. This is ridiculous, and as others have pointed out, animal testing is a noble venture that helps millions of people (and animals). Perhaps realizing that you don't have anything to feel guilty about will go a long way towards balancing your imagined karmic debt.
posted by Eldritch at 10:57 AM on April 9, 2009

Best answer: Lots of lifestyle suggestions here. I'm going to come at it from a different angle, because as a behavioral neurobiologist myself I know what you're dealing with. A couple of things to suggest:

When doing the required literature search for alternatives / models / etc. during the write-up for your institutional animal care and use committee, don't phone it in. It's easy to tweak the keywords used to bias results in favor of animal models. Don't. If an alternative comes up, seriously consider it. Even if you only use an alternative for laying groundwork before moving to an animal trial, you've saved a few animals from unnecessary use.

Re-use animals if possible to limit numbers. You have a friend doing non-terminal studies? Great. There's a good possibility that you can collaborate, using animals that would be otherwise culled from a breeding colony, or sacrificed after their time in a behavioral study, etc. If the previous work won't affect your results you're golden. You get the data you need, and fewer animals are used.

Use power analysis and talk to a statistician [if possible] when designing experiments to be sure that you are using the least number of animals possible to still obtain statistically significant results. Well-planned experiments are also a must; you use more animals doing "fishing expeditions" or re-running experiments that failed because they weren't thought through properly. While you're at it, make friends with your vet and animal care staff; let them know how important the health of your animals is to you, and be damn sure that endpoint criteria are reasonable and adhered to no matter how important that specific mouse may be to your study. If it's sick, get it treated; if it's too sick, humanely euthanize it. Your vet wants you to ask. It's your job to do it, so take advantage of the personnel that are there to help you.

Save and store as much tissue as possible. You never know - something you save now may mean you can run an experiment later, without needing to collect new tissue. I've done experiments (especially follow-ups) using saved tissue; it's much nicer to have it on hand than to collect fresh, especially if that would require running a treatment paradigm on the animals prior to collection.

Finally, stop stalling and take responsibility for your own job duties. You need to be calm and sure of yourself when handling animals (and believe me, it is DAMN hard to remain calm when one is currently biting the hell out of your finger). If you're tense and nervous, they will pick up on that. When you are running a procedure, YOU are the one responsible for doing it properly. You aren't doing your subjects a favor by being squeamish about ear tags, etc., and deflecting things by having someone else do it is a cop-out. You don't have to like it, but you do have to do it properly. Methods are designed and tested to provide the most benefit with the least distress. When you are afraid to clamp the ear tag on, you're making it take longer, and that increases the pain and distress. Tissue collection itself isn't so bad, aside from the inevitable blood. When you collect tissue, you're going to CO2 or overdose the animal and collect it. Make sure the animal is out, that's all you have to do. After that, there's no pain involved, just blood. But if you get all squeamish and screw it up because you can't bring yourself to touch the animal during a perfusion, for example, then you have just wasted that tissue and killed that animal for no reason.

I'm not trying to sound like a hard-ass here, I'm just being brutally honest about it. Every mouse you put down might feel like a tiny stain on your soul, but remember that this is a good thing. The vast majority of animal researchers I have known genuinely care about animals. You can become inured to the blood and the procedures, it does get easier with time, you might even be able to make off-color morbid jokes about it (because laughing is better than feeling miserable, right?), but you never have to like it and you never have to stop feeling a tiny bit sad when you do it. It's OK and frankly I'd much rather work side by side with someone who didn't like it than an individual that just plain didn't care.

Perhaps it's our karma to come back as lab rats to atone for our lines of work. But if you do your best to do things for the greater good, with luck you'll be breeding stock instead of something worse. (See? Morbid humor. It helps a lot more than you might expect.)
posted by caution live frogs at 11:09 AM on April 9, 2009 [8 favorites]

How about making the mice's lives better? Give them things to chew on. Give them a habitrail to play in sometimes. I don't know what mice like to do, but find out, and to the degree that it doesn't interfere, let them do it.

I think most people feel that eating free range cows gives you less of a karmic footprint than eating veal from calves that can't move their whole lives. Apply the same principles to your mice.
posted by musofire at 11:09 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I seem to have injected my own personal perspective into Buddhist thought.

Animal Use in Biomedicine: An Annotated Bibliography of Buddhist and Related Perspectives. [pdf]

From a speech by His Holiness the Dalai Lama:
1) How do you reconcile your ideas about compassion to all beings with animal research?
Do the minimum experiment necessary. Try to minimize pain. “I am exploiting this poor animal to bring greater benefit to greater number of beings.”
I'm a Buddhist in Big Pharma - Is That Cool?
posted by desjardins at 2:34 PM on April 9, 2009

I am a practicing Buddhist (theravada), and, for what it's worth, the absolute best thing you could do from that point of view is to not kill anything on purpose if you can help it. Period. Yes, despite your beliefs about the incredible promise of gene therapy for humanity.

I know, it totally sucks to hear that. But if you have to kill to follow your belief... if you have to go down that path... you should maybe possibly start to reconsider it?

The Buddha said that intentionally killing any living things is never a skillful action... ever... in any circumstance. It's just not worth it. He didn't put any qualifiers on that. There would be very real consequences for you involved, both physical and mental. So just think about it.

I know, it may be hard to see the sense in this. They are just mice after all, and you are human. But all the more reason to take pity on them, cause their birth was not as fortunate as yours. And it may be hard to consider letting go of what you're after... but dagnabit if you will not save yourself a lot of trouble and stress if you don't kill.

All actions have results, and sooner or later we always have to face the music! I don't deny that you may do a lot of good for humanity with this research and reap the rewards of that, but... you'll still also have to reap the consequences of any evil actions involved, no matter how you try to wash your hands of it.

There is a reason why the Noble Eightfold Path includes Right (or wholesome) Livelihood, and that's because wrong livelihood (which may include killing) is not conducive to peace of mind or the ending of suffering.

That's just my two cents from what I've learned from my religion.
posted by Theloupgarou at 11:03 PM on April 9, 2009

I can't address the Buddhism part of the question, but surely the bad karma of killing the mice is already balanced out by the good karma of future benefits from gene therapy? It sounds like you've made that call already (I would agree, FWIW), otherwise you wouldn't be doing the job you do. I'm not directly involved in animal research, but work with many people who are, and they pretty much all have the same view as you outline in your question - killing animals makes them feel bad (and I agree with caution live frogs - it's probably not healthy to strive for a state of mind where it doesn't), but in their reasoned scientific opinion, the potential benefits outweigh that. You could also take comfort from the fact that, even for your particular project, you're not the only one who holds that opinion - the folk that collaborate with you and those who approve your experiments must have come to the same conclusion, otherwise they would not give their approval.
posted by primer_dimer at 2:17 AM on April 10, 2009

This is something I struggle with, too, as a researcher in biological engineering with Buddhist leanings... I'm also vegetarian and I feel strongly about animal rights. I really really sympathize with your predicament.

I've done a lot of thinking about the Buddhist perspective here... I know the Buddha said never to kill anything, ever - and boy do I take that seriously - but the Buddha didn't live in the time of animal testing or pharmaceuticals, and he also asked that people not follow his advice blindly. I don't think this is a situation in which you can look to any sort of authority for a "certified" answer - I think each of us has to come to our own conclusion. The way I understand it, the Buddha advised us all to practice kindness and nurture happiness. Figuring out what action is the kindest and what action leads to the greatest happiness is tremendously difficult in this situation, but I think you deserve to feel OK about your decision, if you've thought about it in a deep way. Personally, I cannot stand to work with the animals myself, but I do use animal organs that others get for me. It took me many months of consideration to come to my conclusion, and I hope that in the future I will not have to use any animals at all, but for now at least I know that my heart is in the right place.

Also - I bring toys and treats for the mice my lab uses. They love almond-flavored cookies and tubes to hide in. Sometimes I just go down there and talk to them - they're so cute.
posted by Cygnet at 7:35 PM on April 11, 2009

Oh, and PS:

I disagree with those who say that your line of work cannot be reconciled with Buddhism. There is no doctrine in Buddhism. There are precepts, but I think we are meant to constantly question whether or not what we are doing is right, even if we are following the precepts. One of the precepts is "do not kill", of course, but it's not so simple - your intention in sacrificing the mice is not to see the mouse die, it's to (eventually) see others live. This does not make for an easy answer, but I really don't think it means that your situation can't be reconciled with Buddhism.

A Buddhist teacher I think is extraordinarily smart once counseled a lawyer who was worried that her profession was incompatible with Buddhism that "sometimes it's necessary to look like you're fighting to get your point across". She meant that the woman might need to use strong language and be harsh in order to help people, but that she could put her heart in a very different place. This anecdote does not specifically relate to your situation but it was heartening for me to hear, anyway, so maybe it will be for you.
posted by Cygnet at 7:49 PM on April 11, 2009

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