It’s not that I don’t like animals. I do. When Old Yeller died, I cried just as much as my dog-loving neighbor. Granted we have no pets in my family, with the exception of my brother’s neglected fish, but that’s more because of our allergies than anything else. And although I fall significantly short of activist-status, I consider myself a proponent of animal rights. I don’t hunt. I don’t believe in animal testing for cosmetic purposes. I strongly support the Animal Welfare Act. I wouldn’t buy a mink coat or ivory figurine.


But I’ve never been able to condemn animal testing for the purpose of scientific research. In the name of science. Makes sense to me. Yes, we humans are animals too. Yes, rodents and rabbits are just as alive as we are. As Jain philosophy teaches, every creature, from ants to antelopes, possesses a separate and independent soul and is worthy of life. But to claim that a rat’s life is comparable to that of a human, in worth or merit, is unrealistic and impractical, if not untrue.
Animal research has been vital to past medical advances. The use of animals in ethical scientific studies and experimentation has yielded antibiotics and vaccines, insulin for diabetes, treatments for leukemia, and local and general anesthetics while facilitating advances in medical technology like blood transfusions, kidney dialysis, and the heart-lung machine. There’d be no chemotherapy were it not for animal testing. Little medication for high blood pressure. No vaccine for polio. Without animal testing, we’d have little hope for the treatment and prevention of cancer and various auto-immune diseases. We would be far behind in developing new blood substitutes and mechanisms of organ transplantation.

When I recall the number of people I know who have benefited from the findings of regulated testing, it’s easy to support animal research. But it hasn’t always been that simple. My stance on animal testing was recently called into question during an internship at a Stanford University immunology lab. It’s one thing to sit and spew paragraphs on animal testing from your home computer. It’s another to work in a laboratory, hand-pick the specific animal you are going to sacrifice, and then have to deal with both its innards and your guilt.

It wasn’t a very large mouse. About four inches in length, three inches in tail, an inch width between the ears. It had dark fur, patchy and eaten in places by its cage-mates, five other wild type mice. I felt sorry when I saw it; sorry it was the last to be chosen, sorry about the smell too, and the fact that the Animal House technicians had forgotten to refill its water bottle. I squeezed latex fingers over its neck and back, lamenting the empty water bottle, and then realized that a Stanford University lab mouse probably lived in much better conditions that its counterparts in other labs.

We took the service elevator back upstairs, the mouse and I. I in a size 34 blood and water splattered coat, the mouse in a green and red tote, cracked at the cover. It was heavy. The mouse in its cage in the tote was really heavy, and banged against my knees vengefully as I walked into our room. I surveyed the bench. Re-read the protocol for harvesting blood lymphocytes; we needed this experiment to work. I switched onto auto-pilot: opened the tote, opened the cage, felt for the mouse’s tail. I turned to the sink and the prepared beaker of dry ice stuffed with paper napkins, topped with foil, and dropped it in. I turned away.

Given the amount of carbon dioxide built up in a covered beaker of dry ice, the boss assured me, a small animal placed inside should suffocate in less than three minutes. Three minutes passed: heart still beating, mouse gasping. Four minutes: heart beating, mouse gasping. Five minutes: heart beating, mouse gasping. I was guilty. As it was breathing, I was shaking, as my bench mate whispered into my ear, “I can hear its spirit. This one’s talking to me.”

I heard, too. I heard the voice of the short-haired, flannel-wearing, cigarette-smoking activist in Covent Garden who handed me a pamphlet: Imagine having your body left to science—while you’re still in it. She was talking about Tony Blair and his lack of empathy, his ineffectual animal rights initiatives, Shell gasoline and the rabbits they burn. The mouse twitched against the side of the clear glass beaker and stained the paper napkin an orange-yellow mess. There were black pellets as well, and that little heart still beat visibly as I gaped in dismay.

I heard Jane Goodall, from my seat in the 14th row, and her words, Most people who are cruel to animals simply haven’t understood their true nature. They don’t believe that any animals … have minds and feelings and emotions similar to ours.

I was almost in tears and the mouse was most visibly in pain. It convulsed. I wrung the kurta beneath my lab coat with gloved hands until finally I couldn’t take it or my lab mate’s commentary on reincarnation any more. We performed a cervical dislocation on the gasping mouse. It was dead. I cut into its skin unsteadily, trying to ignore the twitching foot I’d just push-pinned into the foam board. Stigmata. It was open then, and I sliced away its ribs to reveal a pulsing, red-black orb and thin, cotton candy colored lungs. Switched back to auto-pilot as I remembered which organs needed to be extracted and the appropriate preparations required for each.

Two hours later I stood in front of the centrifuge waiting for kidney and liver extracts to spin down. Blood was to my left, in a warm bath, in red blood cell lysis buffer. The lymph nodes and bone marrow were in petri-dishes. And the mouse, empty of its vitals, was double wrapped in my powder-free, size medium gloves and on its way to the freezer in the next room. I opened the freezer door, instinctively held my breath, and chucked the carcass into a grocery bag filled with equivalent bundles.

As I closed the freezer door, I reminded myself that the experiments we were to conduct could eventually lead to the development of a mouse model of human asthma. I was proud then; I knew the mouse would forgive me. And putting on a fresh pair of gloves, I smoothed my lab coat and headed back to the bench.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan was Editor of India Currents from July 2007-June 2009. 

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan has been a regular contributor to India Currents since 2001.