Ep. 47: The Toll of the Culture of Silence in Animal Research


Welcome to the reboot of The Undark Podcast, which will deliver — once a month from September to May — a feature-length exploration of a single topic at the intersection of science and society. In this episode, join science journalist Bradley van Paridon and podcast host Lydia Chain as they investigate the tension that shrouds the culture of silence in animal research, and the emotional toll it may be taking on the scientists who fear stigmatization from the public.

Below is the full transcript of the podcast, lightly edited for clarity. You can also subscribe to The Undark Podcast at Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, or Spotify.

Katharine Shapcott: It is difficult, you know. Nobody enjoys hurting animals, like you try to avoid it as much as possible. But I really think it’s important what we’re doing.

Bradley van Paridon: That’s Katharine Shapcott, a neuroscientist who works with primates. She believes her work provides us with information about our brains and bodies that would be impossible to get any other way. But for her and many other scientists who work with animals, there’s an emotional toll…both from the work itself and from the reactions of people around them.

Katharine Shapcott: And people struggle to do this and then being told that you’re horrible at the same time doesn’t really help anything.

Lydia Chain: This is the Undark Podcast. I’m Lydia Chain. Decades of tension between animal researchers and animal rights activists left many early career scientists reluctant to speak about what their jobs are like. Communicating about their work with the public can open them up to social stigma and even campaigns that threaten careers. But working with animals, including performing surgeries and euthanasia, can be an emotionally tough job and some researchers and advocates say the culture of silence in the field makes that job even harder, isolating scientists and strengthening public misconceptions. Bradley van Paridon has the story.

Kirk Leech: So, for a long period of time, animal rights extremists using violence — and some nasty violence — had the research sector pretty much cowed.

Bradley van Paridon: That’s Kirk Leech. He’s the executive director of the European Animal Research Association, or EARA, which seeks to increase public understanding of animal research. According to Leech, aggressive tactics and violence by animal rights activists scared the research sector into silence for a long period of time, coming to a head in the early 2000s.

Kirk Leech: The straw that broke the camel’s back was when a number of activists dug up the dead body of a woman whose family ran a guinea pig farm, breeding guinea pigs for research, and they ransomed the body and said that unless you stop breeding guinea pigs for research, you won’t get your grandmother back. And it was successful. The company closed.

Bradley van Paridon: Incidents like this led the U.K. government to impose stricter laws around this kind of activism. It became a criminal offense to cause economic damage via campaigns of intimidation and to threaten an individual with an unlawful act because they were connected with animal research.

Kirk Leech: And really in the U.K. from that moment onwards — so we’re talking about the early 2000s — illegal activity against animal research pretty much disappeared in the U.K., and it’s been replaced in the U.K. and also across Europe, and increasingly in the U.S. and Canada, by very professional communications campaigns focusing on the public and politicians in the media.

Bradley van Paridon: Animal rights groups like Humane Society International, the National Anti-Vivisection Society, and Animal Defenders International run campaigns and lobbying efforts aimed at ending or in some cases improving animal research. Other groups, like PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — perform public stunts and organize protests to garner attention and pressure politicians. But intimidating and controversial tactics haven’t fully gone away, and researchers still occasionally face threatening phone calls, pointed protests … even death threats, arson, and violence.

All of this pressure, past and present, has created a culture of silence and front-line researchers are reluctant to talk about their experiences actually doing the work.

Kirk Leech: And you will still meet people today who would have been told 10 years ago to look under their cars for bombs. But effectively what that meant was that increasingly from the early 2000s, the public was pretty much starved of factual or even emotional information in many European countries about why we need to use animals in research.

Bradley van Paridon: Even though laws and activism tactics changed, Leech says it hasn’t been enough to dismantle that fear of speaking out. And that led to an unbalanced public discourse, where people hear a lot about problems with animal research from activists, but very little to support the work or humanize the people doing it.

And this has some real consequences. Animal research advocates worry that if scientists and institutions don’t open up and communicate with the public, support will drop, potentially leading to changes in legislation that halt or impede their work and cause funding to dry up.

But there’s also consequences for the mental health of scientists who work with animals.

Megan LaFollette: A lot of people, not all of them, but many of them that work in animal research enter the field because they really love and care for animals. However, many types of research involve putting animals under some amount of discomfort or stress.

Bradley van Paridon: This is Megan LaFollette. She got her doctorate at the College of Agriculture, in animal science, at Purdue University, specializing in animal behavior and wellbeing. Now she works for the North American 3Rs Collaborative, a nonprofit focusing on refinement, replacement, and reduction of laboratory animal research.

Megan LaFollette: So that can be stressful for these people who really care for animals to see and to deal with. And then often at the end of the study, after they’ve been caring for these animals for however long period of time, they have to euthanize these animals.

Bradley van Paridon: LaFollette’s research focused on a specific type of psychological stress called compassion fatigue.

Megan LaFollette: And compassion fatigue is comprised of two components. The first is secondary traumatic stress, and the second is burnout. Now, secondary traumatic stress, it’s actually very similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and its symptoms can include invasive thoughts, nightmares, hypervigilance, and avoidance. Burnout leads to feelings of exhaustion, depression, anger, and frustration, which can lead to feelings of hopelessness and difficulties in performing effective tasks.

Bradley van Paridon: She and others have found that compassion fatigue and stress in people who work with animals, including scientists and caretakers, is associated with things like lack of social support and control surrounding the well-being or deaths of the animals. A scheduled euthanizing of an animal, for example, is much easier to deal with than unexpected death.

Vanessa Rohlf: There are deaths that occur when we work with animals in research, and when they’re expected deaths, we can prepare for them psychologically. When they are unexpected, we don’t necessarily, we haven’t built up the resilience to really cope with something like that.

Bradley van Paridon: That’s Vanessa Rohlf. She is a research fellow at the School of Psychology and Public Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, as well as a counselor specializing in providing support for people who work with animals. Ph.D. student Marina Zempeltzi agrees that unexpected deaths are particularly traumatic.

Marina Zempeltzi: Let’s say if there is an accident and something went wrong, then, for me it’s really emotional.

Bradley van Paridon: She works with gerbils at the Leibniz Institute for Neurobiology in Magdeburg, Germany. And despite protocols to minimize injury and all of her best efforts, she has experienced accidental animal death.

Marina Zempeltzi: I was really shocked. I contacted my supervisors, so my colleagues and so on. I was, it was highly, emotionally loaded, like even crying, a bit. And I was blaming myself.

Bradley van Paridon: Alisa Vlasenko also works at the Leibniz Institute and, like Zempeltzi, she struggled with losing an animal and blamed herself.

Alisa Vlasenko: I was very sad about it because really, basically, we had then to kill the animals without completing the behavioral experiment and that was my first mishandling of the animal and that was very sad. I’m just too clumsy to do all this stuff with these tiny animals. And that was very stressful. I do believe that keeping yourself busy is a way to somehow fight these dark thoughts and sad emotions that you have.

Bradley van Paridon: While keeping busy helped keep her mind off of it in the moment, she also leaned on her coworkers to help her cope.

Alisa Vlasenko: That animal technician just took me to the rat room and he had really tame rats that are really nice to interact with. He just allowed me to interact with the rat. And they are nice and playful when they are tame. So, I think it was kind of healing.

Bradley van Paridon: And according to both Rohlf and LaFollette, social support — having someone to talk to in these moments of difficulty — is an important way of managing compassion fatigue. Another component of mental health is feeling like the codes of conduct in the lab are adequate.

Here again is Katharine Shapcott. For her, personally, the high stakes and sensitive arena of primate research actually makes things less stressful, because everyone involved is highly trained and focused on making sure things are done correctly.

Katharine Shapcott: So, the experience is completely different working with monkeys, because everyone cares a lot, a lot what’s happening to the monkeys. If anything bad is happening, everyone is worried, everyone is stressed and upset and talking about it and stuff.

Bradley van Paridon: But even with a supportive and well-run lab, there are still those who decide that they simply cannot do this type of work.

Maria Hänel: Yes, I think animal research is highly important and essential and necessary and also reasonable in the medical area. But I can’t do it.

Bradley van Paridon: This is Maria Hänel. She is currently doing her master’s degree in microbiology at the Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena, Germany, but once considered moving into animal research. As part of that plan, she had enrolled in an animal-handling certification course. The course covered training in animal ethics and regulations as well as hands-on experience with rodents, including injections and euthanasia. Hänel says the rodents are euthanized in a carbon dioxide chamber, but after the procedure, their necks must be broken to ensure they are dead.

Maria Hänel: What was stressful and uncomfortable for me was the killing. So the break of the neck. When I think back, I still feel it in my fingers.

Bradley van Paridon: Rohlf says that not only do researchers face stressful moments like this, they also face social stigma about their work.

Vanessa Rohlf: Along with, you know, perhaps exposure to some suffering and exposure to euthanasia, exposure to unexpected results, which cause stress. There’s also the stigma associated with animal research where people who I work with feel like they can’t talk about what they do. So the normal sources of support that they might get from friends and family, if they’re feeling stressed at work, aren’t there for them because they feel like they often are misunderstood. They might get called people who don’t, you know, are callous or, or just kill animals, and that’s not the case.

Bradley van Paridon: This stigma can add feelings of isolation on top of the already stressful aspects of the job.

Katrina Deane: It kind of sucks. I really love the work that I do. And I’m so happy to be here and doing this work. But I feel that I can’t really talk about it with other people.

Bradley van Paridon: That’s Katrina Deane, another Ph.D. student at the Leibniz Institute. She works with rodents to study complex learning and decision processes.

Katrina Deane: People will look at you like kind of squinty eyed and they won’t really know how to react and maybe they don’t want to say anything but they’d like had this drop of opinion of you and it doesn’t feel good. It is a little annoying and it’s, it’s kind of disappointing that people will really like think less of you, if you accidently tell them what you do, so…

Bradley van Paridon: Deane and her colleagues use surgical implants to monitor brain activity in their animal models. The animals are anesthetized for surgery. After the data is collected, the animals are euthanized under strict protocols and their brains removed for analysis. This kind of research is governed by pages of laws, regulations, and institutional policies, but researchers still face judgement. For Zempeltzi, that judgement can come even from people with whom she has close relationships.

Marina Zempeltzi: Especially one friend from Greece says, yeah, you kill again gerbils. I said, it’s really hard to, to, to get this from a person that, you know, that actually she is my friend that loves me. I know that it’s, it’s all right but to make them believe that it’s not that we hurt the animals, it’s not, we do care about the animals. It’s very, very painful to convince them yeah.

Bradley van Paridon: These kinds of reactions make researchers reluctant to speak about their work, but that silence is reinforcing — it means misconceptions don’t get corrected. Like the perception that animal researchers aren’t emotionally impacted by the work they do.

Elias Adriaenssens: If something would be stressful for a person on the street, the same thing is going to be stressful for us. We are no different in that respect.

Bradley van Paridon: That’s Elias Adriaenssens. He recently completed his Ph.D. at the VIB Center for Molecular Neurology at the University of Antwerp, where he was involved in biomedical research that occasionally required animals.

Elias Adriaenssens: I’ve never come across any scientists who loves the, the aspect of working with animals that is related to pain. I mean, we all love our cat. We all say goodbye to our cat in the morning so we’re, we’re really no different than other people.

Bradley van Paridon: Another reason many researchers are reluctant to speak up about their work is fear of becoming a target if their work is accidentally or purposefully mischaracterized. Becoming a target can derail careers. For example, in 2014 animal rights activists recorded an undercover video at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, alleging that researchers waited too long to euthanize sick animals. The video spread, prompting an investigation against prominent neuroscientist Nikos Logothetis, during which time his research was restricted. The case against him was later dropped, but citing a lack of support from his institution and the public, he accepted a new position in China.

Stories like this mean some researchers would rather just lay low and not draw attention to themselves. Here’s Deane.

Katrina Deane: And the thing that scares me is that they kind of sometimes can ruin careers and I am, I am afraid that one day that will happen to me.

Liesbeth Aerts: Especially scientists and young scientists, they’re really often afraid that they’ll say something wrong or they don’t know, like every letter of the legislation.

Bradley van Paridon: That’s Liesbeth Aerts. She worked with animals in the past, when she did a Ph.D. studying Parkinson’s disease and she’s now a science communicator at the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research in Belgium.

Liesbeth Aerts: Nobody feels ready or feels, you know, appropriately feels like they are the right person to speak on behalf of the sector, let’s say, or on behalf of their research community. Or they feel, you know, somebody more senior should speak up. But then the senior professors think, you know, somebody from the animal facilities should speak up. And the animal facility says, well, we only facilitate, it’s a scientist who needs to speak up. So that’s sort of the, I guess the bystander effect.

Bradley van Paridon: Aerts believes that speaking up means not just correcting errors in the media, but also responding to media requests and providing more general information about animal research. That’s why she started Infopoint Animal Testing, a communication platform for scientists to provide more information about how, why, and when animals are used in research. Aerts is comfortable taking a public position and encourages others to do so as well, but understands that not everyone has overcome the fear of being a public voice.

Elias Adriaenssens: I think I’m definitely someone who experiences that, that fear.

Bradley van Paridon: In 2016, an undercover video recorded at an animal facility in another university went viral in Belgium. Adriaenssens, Aerts, and their colleagues felt this video mischaracterized the animal’s behaviors and the type of research they do. For example, animals jumping around and over each other in their cages can, to the untrained eye, appear to be in distress brought on by captivity, as the video alleged. According to Adriaenssens, they may in fact be acting normally, playing or fighting like animals do, or they could be involved in researching specific conditions like epilepsy.

Elias Adriaenssens: It wasn’t going crazy because it was contained in the cage. No, it was going crazy because it was part of an experiment that was studying epilepsy and this is exactly what is happening in those epileptic patients. So, we’re trying to understand how the disease works so that we can cure it.

Bradley van Paridon: To combat this misinformation, they decided to write a piece in the newspaper to explain, but as publication day approached, Adriaenssens started to worry.

Elias Adriaenssens: I just started getting the feeling that I wasn’t ready to actually put my name under this, this small text. And then in the end I decided to get my name withdrawn and the others would publish without me just because I was a bit afraid that it would have some repercussions on, on, on a scale of like very extreme or extremists would know who I am.

Bradley van Paridon: Being targeted online was a real concern for Adriaenssens, but he also didn’t want his neighbors to look at him in the supermarket and assume he was a cruel person because he was connected with animal research. The research community largely agrees that animal studies are still needed to advance scientific understanding and test new treatments and medications. Here’s Leech.

Kirk Leech: Everybody would rather find a way of finding cures and therapies that can help humanity without using animals. But currently, our scientific understanding suggests that in the short to medium term, if not longer, animal models are going to be used.

Janet Stemwedel: In a perfect world, building knowledge without putting the animals through anything would be the way that we do it. Given that we’re not in that world, given that there’s some questions we can’t answer without animal research, you know, how do we find the ways to make that ethical sacrifice matter?

Bradley van Paridon: That’s Janet D. Stemwedel, a professor of philosophy at San Jose State University who works on issues in philosophy of science and the ethics of scientific practice.

Janet Stemwedel: I don’t think of it so much as a debate as, here’s the space that we’re trying to work in. The regulations in the United States and in many other countries build in a framework of animal welfare ethics basically saying if you’re going to use animals in your knowledge building, you need to take account of the potential for pain and distress of those animals. It’s not optional to care about that.

Bradley van Paridon: A framework called the three Rs has guided animal research since the late ‘50s — to reduce the numbers of animals, refine techniques to minimize pain and stress, and replace animals whenever possible. But public awareness of the three Rs and their use remains low. In 2018, a U.K. government survey on attitudes towards animal research revealed that only a quarter of people believed animal studies are used only if there’s no alternative. Leech and organizations like the European Animal Research Association aim to rectify these misunderstandings that color public perception of the research sector. They’ve made progress at an institutional level by implementing transparency agreements with many public and private facilities in Europe. The agreements contain things like commitments to actively engage the public and politicians, displaying animal welfare statements on their websites, and being specific and clear about when animals were used when new findings are released to the public. According to Leech though, the individuals involved in this work also have a responsibility to engage.

Kirk Leech: We need to begin a cultural shift in how the scientific community explains to the public what we do and researchers, you know, caretakers, laboratory technicians all play a role.

Bradley van Paridon: Dispelling myths surrounding animal research could ease some of the anxieties researchers have about engaging the public and relieve some of the stresses of the job. To do so though, Leech says, it is up to them to tell their stories.

Kirk Leech: I think we need to move away from the past where, you know, I would meet caretakers and others, who were told never to mention the animal outside, because people would be so horrified to hear what you do. We have to get beyond that. And I do think that we, you know, the more and more people who do this and make it part of their kind of natural discourse, we’ll begin to have this kind of cultural shift.,

Bradley van Paridon: The people involved with animal research recognize that there will always be segments of society both for and against this kind of work, and that is their right. But Leech and organizations like EARA believe that helping the section of society that just doesn’t understand it yet can benefit the scientists, their research, and importantly, the well-being of the animals. For this, Leech says, everyone in the research community has a role to play and if they cannot trust the public to hear their story and make informed decisions, then this work will continue to be misunderstood, undervalued, and potentially halted altogether.

Kirk Leech: If we don’t trust the public, I think we’re screwed. We need to trust the public and give them as much information about the benefits of animal research, the discoveries, the care, the regulation that takes place in the belief that the majority people will go with us.

Lydia Chain: Bradley van Paridon, thanks for joining us on the show.

Bradley van Paridon: Thank you. Thanks a lot for having me.

Lydia Chain: Throughout your interviews, did any other barriers come up as reasons why scientists may not spend time on communication with the public?

Bradley van Paridon: Yeah, one thing that comes up is just that it’s kind of an extra task. It’s a job that they are sometimes expected to do, but there’s no formal compensation for it, there’s no training for it. That, and then just they’re already doing a lot of work to get publications and advance their careers. So it sometimes comes across as just one more thing onto the pile and if there’s no measurable benefit to it, some people might be less inclined to do it. And then the other thing is, there might not be a process in which the researchers know if they’re allowed to speak, what they’re allowed to speak about, so again if this isn’t talked about within their institution, they end up running between a press secretary or the head of the institution trying to ask for permission. This is something I ran into a number of times where you had younger researchers or early career researchers wanting to speak, and then saying “I’d love to speak with you, but I have to run it up the chain and see if that’s ok.” But in general, it could just be confusion. It sometimes can just end up being as simple as that. I don’t know who to ask for permission, I feel I should ask for permission from somebody. So the institutions can sometimes get in their own way a little bit.

Lydia Chain: We heard from Alisa Vlasenko that a supportive lab environment is really beneficial in dealing with the stress of the job. What other kinds of institutional support exist or would be helpful?

Bradley van Paridon: Yeah, so this was an interesting question because I heard from some sources that didn’t make it into the piece that having a sort of dedicated counselor or something like this, or a group set aside, putting time aside to speak about these things would be useful while others said that a counselor wouldn’t really do anything unless they had experience in animal research themselves, so they felt like there had to be that shared experience. But I think in general, the sense that I got was just having someone to speak to and having someone where they knew that they could raise concerns was a big part of it.

Lydia Chain: Bradley van Paridon is a Canadian freelance science journalist and podcaster based in Marburg, Germany. Our theme music is by the Undark team and additional music in today’s episode is by Kevin MacLeod at Incompetech. I’m your host Lydia Chain. We’re off for the summer to put together new stories for you, but will see you back in the fall.