It is a great irony that in order to study life, one must often extinguish it.
Thus, there comes a time in every young biologist's life when he or she must decide what he or she is willing to kill in the name of scientific progress. For me, the answer lies somewhere between mouse and cat. I could probably kill a rat. Hamsters, too.
A bird would be hard — admittedly, this is influenced by the fact that I am terrified of birds.
It sounds arbitrary, because, well, it kind of is. The truth is, I don't want to kill anything. I really don't want to kill anything. In one of the labs where I am working, I have thus far personally beheaded something like 60 mice (a relatively small number), and I absolutely hate it.
The borderline-obsession I have with my cat has extinguished my ability to look at animals as anything but individuals, and each individual sacrifice is heavy and gruesome in the manner of the train wreck where one cannot stop looking. There is the view, the smell, and, worst of all, the feel. It doesn't get easier, or at least it hasn't in my experience.
I think I am better for it. Not because I am doing a good thing, but precisely because I am not. Because killing — ending life — is terrible.
Maybe it's just masochism — a certain pleasure that comes in the experience and recognition of your own guilt, but I don't think it's that simple. It has been my experience that interacting with — and directly causing — death has given me an appreciation of the biological sciences that would be difficult to come by otherwise.
Every action I take, every experiment I run is done under the reckoning of worth, a determination that cannot simply be assumed. In other words, the stakes are higher. Or rather, the already high stakes are easier to see.
The mistakes that inevitably occur are not made in isolation; they are mistakes with costs sometimes as high as the waste of a perfectly good life. Every action is weighted; our triumphs are not made in isolation, either. They, too, have solemn costs.
It's a lesson that goes beyond the laboratory, I think. We don't just kill to study life, we kill to live it, and all of us are complicit. Whether it be in the food we eat, in the medicines we use or in some other form or fashion, we survive through others' sacrifice. Every action is weighted. There is always a cost. Though we may not always wield the knife, we are all, in some sense, conspirators.
The purpose of this piece is not to argue that the use of animals in research is ethical.
If I'm being honest, I'm not sure I want to do that. But I think it is worth recognizing that we do not live without expense, and it is important to recognize the implications of this fact. This does not have to be as depressing as it perhaps sounds — Disney, after all, made "The Circle of Life" a rather catchy, uplifting song.
It is a simple acknowledgment of the fact that we live at a cost. However we go about it, we should make it worth it.
Melissa Lee is a senior in College Scholars. She can be reached at email@example.com.