March 31, 2007
It all started when I was an undergraduate doing a medical degree. We were introduced to it gently; we started by watching videos of experiments on anaesthetised rabbits and recording the results. Later we carried out experiments on frogs' legs and then hearts. We took it seriously, and 15 years later I still remember the physiological principles we learned in those experiments. So it all seemed worthwhile.
When I started my research degree, I had to go on a course about how to look after animals under anaesthesia and how to kill them humanely. Animal experiments are highly regulated in Britain; you need a licence from the Home Office and have to take exams and practical tests to prove your competence. The course was frightening. We watched a video on how to kill animals - masked people in lab coats smacking animals over the side of a table or breaking their necks - and then we calmly discussed ethics, as if it all made sense. The trouble was, it didn't - but I must have missed the bit where we were encouraged to question that.
When I started in the research lab, it was my turn to do the deed. We were closely supervised and there wasn't any pressure to kill animals unless we were confident we could do it properly. But it didn't seem right to do the experiments without doing the killing as well. I could feel the guinea pig's heart racing when I picked him up; he wasn't the only one who was nervous. And then I did it. I hit his head over the side of a table to stun him, then cut his throat so he'd bleed to death. The sound of skull hitting table will never leave me; 10 years on, I still flinch if I hear a similar noise.
In some laboratories, the psychological damage that this technique inflicts on staff is recognised, and animals are injected with a fatal dose of anaesthetic instead. But this is far more distressing to the animal and can damage the tissue on which you want to experiment. So we hit them over the head and live with the sound of cracking skulls.
It soon got easier. What had shocked me at first was suddenly very normal and mundane. Cracking guinea pigs over the back of the head, then slitting their throats really didn't affect me any more. And it didn't seem to affect anyone else either. Colleagues told me it was a perfectly natural coping strategy, that you just couldn't do it unless you'd rationalised it in your head. Friends assumed I must be doing some desperately worthy medical research in order to justify such behaviour, and that I was about to discover the cure for HIV or heart disease. The truth is, research can be a very hit and miss affair, and sometimes it is only hindsight that allows us to judge what were the useful discoveries.
Meanwhile, the building I was working in was under siege by anti-vivisectionists. A prominent animal rights campaigner was in jail and on hunger strike. His supporters had circulated a list of academics they said they would kill in revenge if the hunger striker died. We were surrounded by steel fences and stern-faced policemen on horses. The departmental car had a mirror on a pole, so you could check underneath it for bombs. But sometimes having an enemy to unite against makes it easier not to question what you're doing. And once you're that involved, it's difficult to get out.
When I had done my three-year research degree, I left. I had become someone who thought it was normal to kill animals on a daily basis and not be affected by it, which was somehow not really the person I wanted to be.
It was a year after I'd finished before I picked up a guinea pig again. It was one of those really hairy ones whose front end looks the same as its tail end. I didn't tell its owner what I used to do. I had an irrational fear that I would suddenly flip and smack the poor animal over the head. I didn't, but I had to hide the fact that my hands were shaking when I put him down again.
I consider myself rehabilitated now. I've killed two animals since those days: a wild bird that was missing a leg and crawling with maggots, and an almost-dead rabbit with myxomatosis. Both times I've vomited afterwards with the sheer horror of it all. But that's a natural reaction, and I'm glad.