“Most people go to veterinary school because they love animals,” says Colorado State University vet David Neil. “But then a very interesting transition takes place if you go into lab work”–which is what most research-minded veterinarians aspire to do rather than spend their professional lives flea-dipping the local Lassies and Garfields. It’s a fundamental but subtle shift, Neil says, one that many vet students make before they realize they’re doing so: “You go from someone who makes sick animals healthy to someone who makes healthy animals sick.” At one point in his career, Neil found himself taking perfectly vital, eager young beagles and surgically giving them arterial blockages to replicate heart disease. Then he implanted pacemakers to study what forms of artificial heartbeats worked best on failing hearts. “They’re so friendly; they love to be studied,” Neil remembers, his voice dripping with melancholy. “As far as they’re concerned, it’s the highlight of their week.” When the study was over, the dogs were euthanized.
All across biological science, animals from rats to chimps are made sick, studied, and killed. It is usually done as humanely as possible; such studies save thousands of human lives; as a society, we have decided that the cost is worth the benefit. But it is veterinarians like Neil who must do the dirty work. According to Bernie Rollin, a philosopher at Colorado State University who has studied animal welfare, most vets are tormented by the moral conundrum at the heart of animal testing. Neil agrees: “I am always asking, Is this intrinsically right? Just because it works for the greater good, does that make it right? I don’t know that I’ll ever answer that question.”