Animal Experimenters: Unscathed Or Psychologically Scarred?
Many people are aware that animals used in scientific research experience physical and psychological suffering. But what about the impact of animal experimentation on the mental well-being of the experimenters themselves?
The use of animals for scientific research has become a significant social issue, as human-animal relations undergo a major shift both inside and outside of the lab. Within scientific circles, polarization is growing between two camps: one maintaining that animal testing is inevitable, and one rejecting it across the board. Public interest in this topic is also on the rise, and with this comes a newfound willingness to put research activities under an ethical microscope.
While studies on the human welfare aspects of experimenting on animals is sparse (but not unheard of), more extensive research has been conducted on another occupation with direct exposure to the suffering, death, and killing of animals: veterinarians. This body of research reveals associations between veterinary work and a number of strong negative psychological effects, including suicide.
In this study, researchers sought to determine whether testing on animals has negative psychological effects on human experimenters. Potential participants were contacted in 2019 via two Polish organizations with mandates related to the care of animals used in research. 105 contacts of these two institutions, all of whom had previous or current experience working with animals, completed the survey via the hyperlink sent to them.
The survey questions were focused mainly on the following topics: feelings experienced during and after performing experiments on animals; feelings associated with killing animals (if applicable); attempts to avoid animal procedures; views on the necessity and value of animal experimentation
Next, the study researchers performed statistical analyses on the responses. Their first goal was to determine which responses tended to “cluster” together, or which groups of responses tended to appear within the same survey submissions.
The overall feelings participants experienced when conducting procedures on animals were clustered into three groups during statistical analysis: 1) avoidance of animal experimentation (swapping tasks with another researcher, putting it off) and reluctance; 2) fascination and curiosity; and 3) apprehension, anxiety, and feelings of compassion for the animals being used, amongst other feelings.
In addition, four distinct clusters emerged for feelings experienced after conducting procedures on animals:
- Annoyance, helplessness, indifference, and remorse
- Relief, pity for the animals
- Curiosity about research results, satisfaction with the procedure
- Miscellaneous other responses
Further statistical analyses of the responses revealed that the experimenters fell into two main groups. And the main attribute that set these groups apart? Their compassion for animals: In Group 1, comprising 46% of all respondents, most respondents declared feelings of compassion for animals. In Group 2, comprising about 54% of all respondents, most did not declare feelings of compassion for animals.
In the higher compassion cluster, the invasiveness or severity of the procedures performed was significantly higher than those performed by the lower compassion cluster.
The researchers found several significant differences between the two groups. In the higher compassion group, the following trends were observed:
- A higher percentage of women: 77% of this group identified as women, while the lower compassion group was almost evenly split between men and women
- A higher possibility of resigning from animal experimentation (although a low percentage of respondents in both groups indicated that resignation was possible for them)
- Less belief that animal experimentation is unavoidable, more belief that it is unnecessary
- More belief that animal experiments should not be performed at all in today’s day and age
- More reports of emotional burden, remorse, and avoidance associated with animal experimentation
- Lower curiosity and fascination with animal experimentation procedures
- More reluctance about performing experiments on animals. However, 75% of this group still did not feel reluctant to perform such procedures
- More reports of apprehension and anxiety (although reports of both were less than 30% in this group)
Paradoxically, researchers found that the lower the severity of the procedures performed, the higher the feelings of stress reported by the respondents. Unsurprisingly, the higher compassion group felt significantly more stress due to killing animals than the other group.
Meanwhile, respondents who were aware of the importance of good handling for animal welfare tended to experience more stress when killing animals, but this trend was only apparent in the group with lower compassion. This group also showed increased stress when killing smaller animals as opposed to larger animals.
We should note that this study is not without its limitations. First, those asked to participate were provided with background information on the study ahead of time. It is unclear how much detail was provided, so it is difficult to assess the bias this might have introduced. The study’s abstract also states: “Especially young people involved in animal testing, feel remorse, emotional tension and helplessness”. Although the ages of the participants were collected during the survey, associations of age with the feelings of respondents were not reported in the rest of the study. Finally, there are some inconsistencies between different parts of the paper. For example, one paragraph indicates that the higher and lower compassion groups should be swapped with respect to the rest of the study results. We assumed this was a typo, as all other parts of the paper indicated the opposite.
Overall, the One Welfare aspect of these findings — that suffering experienced by animals used for research is often accompanied by psychological harm to the human experimenters involved — is key. Campaigns that address these interlinked issues may experience more success. Also, while almost half of the respondents acknowledged that many animal experiments are unnecessary, most still believed they were unavoidable. So, animal advocates within the scientific community should aim to encourage and mobilize alternatives to the use of animals in research. Like any institution, science has an image to maintain, and working towards ending animal experimentation is likely to reflect positively on it.