animal research lamb
A lab worker stands in a room with a lamb. Image: Javier Pierini, via Getty Images

Inside the Secret Mental Health Crisis of People Who Kill Animals for Science

Most people know biomedical research is bad for animals. Very few consider the trauma suffered by lab workers.
May 7, 2021, 6:38am

Briana figures she’s probably killed more than 300,000 animals throughout her career. Most of them mice. The occasional rat. Sometimes a hamster. At the biomedical research facility where she used to work, at a university in the United Kingdom, the method of execution wasn’t always the same. Some test subjects were killed by an overdose of anaesthetics, others by a rising concentration of carbon dioxide that was slowly pumped into a sealed enclosure.

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But the most common technique was something called cervical dislocation. Ten times a day, on average, for more than 10 years, Briana’s job involved taking a mouse by the tail in one hand, pinching its neck with the other, and yanking hard to dislocate its vertebrae.

“The last week before Christmas was always the worst; I’d spend an entire day just breaking necks,” she tells VICE World News over email. “Having to kill so many animals and be part of their suffering left me feeling like there wasn’t much point in my existence.”

Nonetheless, Briana – who requested anonymity for fear of jeopardizing her current job – says it took “longer than you’d think” to notice the negative impacts her line of work was having on her mental health. Eight years into her position at the university, where she conducted animal-led research into influenza and other infectious diseases, she started questioning the ethical implications of her job. Feelings of guilt and heartbreak intensified over the years. She started feeling “heavy” outside working hours. She started drinking to excess. On end-of-study days, when there was no longer any use for the test subjects and culls were inevitable, she’d dread going into work.

But this malaise, she says, was normal. Almost everyone who was involved in animal research at her facility felt more or less the same.

“My colleagues and I had a running joke that if things got too bad, we could throw ourselves down the third floor stairs,” she says. “Because they weren't so high that you'd seriously hurt yourself, but they were high enough to get a few days off. Looking back, I’m horrified at how toxic it all was.”

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People often talk about the physical, emotional and psychological impacts that lab animals are subjected to in the name of scientific progress – impacts that include but are not limited to disease, injury, stress, trauma, depression and, in an overwhelming number of cases, death. Much less is said about the effect such things have on lab workers: those people whose job it is to induce the disease, inflict the injury, restrain, operate upon and euthanize the animals – not just because their research depends upon it, but because society at large will, all going to plan, benefit.

It’s perhaps tempting to reduce animal researchers to the trope of evil professors, henchpeople and villains in lab coats. But the reality is that most are in fact regular people like Briana: animal lovers who ironically got into the industry because they were passionate about working with and caring for living things. And it’s this love of animals that is ultimately driving them to despair.

As Dr Bernard E. Rollin from Colorado State University observed in 2011: “Many research technicians... go into the field of animal research to help the animals, yet their day-to-day work ends up being the killing of animals or being complicit in creating pain, distress, disease, and other noxious states demanded by the research Enterprise.” 

Psychologists call it the “caring-killing paradox”: the result of having to perform or witness procedures that harm the very animals one wants to nurture. Regular people will have experienced this tension after coming across an animal in pain – a fledgling that’s fallen from its nest, say, or a fish gasping on the end of a hook – and deciding to “put it out of its misery.” In more extreme cases, the condition has links to perpetration-induced traumatic stress, moral uncertainty and compassion fatigue – that is, feelings of emotional and physical exhaustion that are common among healthcare professionals and which variably manifest as anger, depression and an inability to empathize.

Last year, a team of academics in the United States conducted what they claimed to be “the first large cross-sectional study to explore risk factors for laboratory animal personnel’s professional quality of life”, published in the Frontiers in Veterinary Science journal. Based on survey responses from more than 800 lab workers across the U.S. and Canada, the paper’s authors identified a compelling link between the daily demands and traumas of animal research and a number of psychological symptoms such as traumatic stress and compassion fatigue.

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None of these are particularly new concepts – both the caring-killing paradox and compassion fatigue have been studied by traumatologists since at least the mid-90s – but it’s difficult to find precise, percentage-based data on how prolific such problems are among lab animal researchers. The subject remains an under-researched one, “a gap in the literature” according to Dr Hazem Zohny, a research fellow in Bioethics and Bioprediction at Oxford University’s Centre for Practical Ethics. And that probably has something to do with people’s tendency to focus on the binary of animals as victims and researchers as perpetrators.

“There is a long history of controversy over the ethics of experimenting on animals and the harms inflicted on them for our benefit, and with that controversy in mind it can seem to miss the point if you start talking about the harms inflicted on those doing the harming,” Dr Zohny told VICE World News over email. “So there might be a concern that by focusing on what may be a smaller harm (the researchers’ welfare), you are neglecting or diminishing the more salient one (the animal’s welfare).”

“The upshot [though],” he adds, “is that there is every reason to believe that reducing animal user burden would be good for the animals themselves. Less miserable lab personnel are less likely to make mistakes and more likely to follow the animal welfare protocols in place… But we clearly need more studies.”

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Ron Neibor was, according to his friend Harold Herzog, a “cat person by temperament.” Both were students in a psychobiology graduate program, and both chose animals they liked as the subject of their doctoral research. Herzog looked at snakes, while Neibor focussed on his beloved felines in a bid to study the mammalian visual cortex. 

Over the course of the 12-month program, Neibor became increasingly attached to the animals under his care. He played with the cats, gave them names and took them individually from their cages each day so they could freely roam the test colony. Until, towards the end of his research, he came to the stage where he had to conduct “perfusions” on the test subjects: by killing them, decapitating them and removing their brains from their skulls.

Herzog, now a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University and a leading expert on human-animal relations, cited Neibor’s case in a 2002 paper about lab workers developing connections with their subjects – sharply illustrating the moral complexities that are inherent to animal research.

“To hold in your hand the disconnected head of a cat you have petted every morning for a year is, to say the least, unsettling,” Herzog wrote. “The dozen or so perfusions took place over several weeks, during which time, [Neibor] became reclusive and depressed and shaky. It was clear that his need to confront the moral consequences of his studies involved considerable personal costs.”

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Such anecdotes are not uncommon. Another former animal lab worker, Lianne, told VICE World News that whenever she performed cervical dislocations on mice, dead or alive, she’d start bawling her eyes out.

“It’s crunchy,” she said. “And that feeling will never ever leave your mind; I can practically feel it under my fingers right now.”

Lianne too agreed to speak to VICE World News on condition of anonymity for professional reasons. After several years working in the lab she was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, and later quit her job for reasons of emotional distress. She has seen a therapist once a week every week for the past five years. She says most animal research workers she knows do the same.

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In March 2020, coronavirus-related lab closures meant researchers were forced to cull thousands of unneeded lab mice. Photo: Photo: Evgenyi_Eg, via Getty Images

So what can be done? A helpful first step might be broader acknowledgement that trauma and suffering within an animal research setting is not limited to the test subjects. Empathy, compassion and the unavoidable reality of human-animal relationships mean that emotional stress becomes a bilateral event, and the shockwaves of trauma during and after clinical trials can affect all parties involved.

The 2020 paper published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science found that the biggest contributors to compassion fatigue, burnout and secondary traumatic stress among research personnel were a lack of social support, a higher degree of stress or pain among test subjects, and the development of animal-human bonds, particularly in cases where lab workers named the animals. Being forced to euthanize animals and having to use physical killing methods like cervical dislocation were also identified as major factors.

Briana recalls a time when she worked under a “particularly inept manager” who struggled to accurately forecast the number of mice that needed to be bred for upcoming experiments, meaning the lab always had a surfeit of live specimens, just in case. Every three months, Briana was ordered to kill off all the mice that were no longer suitable for studies or breeding – that is, any that were older than six months.

“I cannot emphasise the rage and futility that I still feel now thinking about it,” she says. “Those animals did not need to be bred. They were used for no greater good, and needlessly culled because of a culture that allowed researchers to demand animals as soon as they got project approval.”

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But she was powerless to object. In her lab, she says, there was an unwritten rule: “If you had a problem with the job, then you were the problem, not the job.”

Such culling events, widely considered par for the course in research laboratories around the world, have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, reports started emerging that research institutions across the United States were being forced to cull thousands of research animals following the closure of labs and the official declaration that any research not related to the coronavirus was being deemed non-essential. 

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) branded the culls as a “killing spree”, while spokespeople from universities like Johns Hopkins and Yale insisted that the health and wellbeing of human employees was priority number one – notwithstanding the fact that many such employees were being burdened with the task of actually carrying out the killings.

“I did several shifts down there [culling the animals],” Eric Hutchinson, director of research animal resources at Johns Hopkins, told The Guardian, “and it takes a toll.”

It’s likely more than just COVID-19-related cullings that are inflicting trauma upon laboratory personnel, though. In their tireless pursuit of a human vaccine, researchers around the world are conducting intensive clinical trials that involve making live animals sick. In some cases, scientists genetically modified animals to make them more vulnerable to the coronavirus in order to test the vaccine candidates.

While such urgency hasn’t necessarily contributed to an increase in the number of animal experiments overall, there are certain cases in which it has prompted researchers to broaden their scope. Rather than focussing on the usual suspects of mice, rats and hamsters, some scientists are now conducting experiments on less typical test subjects such as cats, dogs and pigs – animals that are more likely to elicit a strong empathic response and facilitate the forging of a human-animal bond.

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While the need to crash-test vaccine candidates on animals before taking them to human trials is clear, the implications of such procedures for the mental wellbeing of lab workers might also be cause for concern. 

In March, Dr Zohny and his colleague Mike King co-authored a paper for the Journal of Medical Ethics where they noted that “the pandemic highlights the need for reform on how killing, inducing disease or injury, and observing morbidity in research animals, is regulated and conducted.” That paper, titled “Animal researchers shoulder a psychological burden that animal ethics committees ought to address,” sets out a number of ways in which the administrative bodies that oversee and regulate animal research “neglect the potential welfare impact of that animal use on the animal laboratory personnel.”

“Some of the work of animal laboratory personnel can involve inducing disease or damage in healthy animals they care for, depriving animals of usual care, and often – as in the case of the pandemic – killing them for reasons unrelated to relieving their pain or distress,” the paper states. “If aspects of research such as these can set back the wellbeing of animal laboratory personnel by negatively affecting them psychologically, this seems, prima facie, to be harmful, and relevant for the purposes of ethical review.”

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For Dr Zohny, this is a matter of acute importance. And since health and safety regulations in research environments don’t appear to cover the mental health and trauma of lab workers – focusing instead on physical hazards, infectious diseases and allergens – he insists that animal ethics committees need to step in and find ways to mitigate human, as well as animal, suffering.

It is, after all, an ethical issue. Animal lab workers like Briana and Lianne live on the fault-line of a vexing moral quandary: having to subject animals to suffering and harm in order to alleviate the suffering and harm of humans. It’s a zero-sum game, and there is currently no way for the research enterprise to function while guaranteeing a net benefit to both parties. 

Instead, many find themselves justifying the issue through a utilitarian kind of logic: the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s a rationale that can be traced back as far as Charles Darwin, who in the first edition of The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex wrote: “Everyone has heard of the dog suffering under vivisection, who licked the hand of the operator: This man, unless he had a heart of stone, must have felt remorse to the last hour of his life.” 

As Herzog points out, Darwin added a caveat to the second edition: the man must have felt remorse for the animal’s suffering “unless the operation was fully justified by an increase of our knowledge.”

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This sentiment – the idea of making small-scale sacrifices for the sake of large-scale benefit – has gained global currency amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But for Briana, justifying her line of work through a kind of ethical cost-benefit analysis was, for many years, the only way she could do her job.

“Having a firm belief that the studies themselves were for the greater good [was how I squared it with myself],” she says. “It depends entirely on the outcome of the study and the severity of the procedures proposed… My issue was (and still is) the act of causing stress or pain to a living animal. And I think the justification and net benefit needs to be much higher… the COVID vaccine is a great example of necessary animal work – but right now, I think a large proportion of animal research is unnecessary.”

As Dr Zohny notes, it’s unlikely that the machinery of the animal research enterprise is going to grind to a halt any time soon. But in lieu of a major, root-and-branch overhaul, Briana and Lianne agree that at the very least, there needs to be more mental health support for the animal researchers working on the ground. 

Lianne wants to see systems put in place that give researchers and care staff an outlet to express their feelings and unload their emotional baggage.

“The problem is that we're not allowed to get mad,” she says. “We should be mad on behalf of our patients – that's what lab animals are – when they are being mistreated, ignored, or are suffering. But when you’re a part of a system you feel helpless to fix the situation, even though you’re their primary caretaker and advocate.”

As for Briana she wants to see mental resilience initiatives incorporated into staff training; workers given time off so they can decompress after a cull; and regular check-ups to assess people’s mental wellbeing. 

While the university where she worked offered all staff up to 10 counselling sessions, she says it was never aimed at animal care workers like herself.

“There needs to be acknowledgement that it’s not a normal job, and it’s absolutely normal to feel burdened by the things you have to do,” she says. “Where I worked there was an unspoken rule of keeping a stiff upper lip… [and] for the most part, management just expected you to get on with it. There was no real acknowledgement that killing and dismembering up to 100 animals in a day could have a negative impact on staff.”

Instead, Briana did her best to inflict as little pain and suffering upon the mice as she could: by turning down the lights when opening their cages (mice are nocturnal), handling them gently at all times and, when it came to the fatal moment, by being as calm, swift and competent in her execution as possible.

“How else could I sleep at night?”

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