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KILLER’S REMORSE: Inside the secret mental health ‘crisis’ of people who kill animals for science

Briana figures she has probably killed more than 300,000 animals at the biomedical research facility where she used to work. Most of them mice. The occasional rat. Sometimes a hamster.

GAVIN BUTLER: People often talk about the physical, emotional and psychological impacts that lab animals are subjected to in the name of scientific progress – impacts that include but are not limited to disease, injury, stress, trauma, depression and, in an overwhelming number of cases, death. Much less is said about the effect such things have on lab workers: those people whose job it is to induce the disease, inflict the injury, restrain, operate upon and euthanize the animals…

People like Briana: animal lovers who ironically got into the industry because they were passionate about working with and caring for living things. And it’s this love of animals that is ultimately driving them to despair… Briana figures she’s probably killed more than 300,000 animals throughout her career. Most of them mice. The occasional rat. Sometimes a hamster. At the biomedical research facility where she used to work, at a university in the United Kingdom, the method of execution wasn’t always the same.

Some test subjects were killed by an overdose of anaesthetics, others by a rising concentration of carbon dioxide that was slowly pumped into a sealed enclosure. But the most common technique was something called cervical dislocation. Ten times a day, on average, for more than 10 years, Briana’s job involved taking a mouse by the tail in one hand, pinching its neck with the other, and yanking hard to dislocate its vertebrae. “The last week before Christmas was always the worst; I’d spend an entire day just breaking necks,” she tells VICE World News over email. “Having to kill so many animals and be part of their suffering left me feeling like there wasn’t much point in my existence”.

Nonetheless, Briana – who requested anonymity for fear of jeopardizing her current job – says it took “longer than you’d think” to notice the negative impacts her line of work was having on her mental health. Eight years into her position at the university, where she conducted animal-led research into influenza and other infectious diseases, she started questioning the ethical implications of her job. Feelings of guilt and heartbreak intensified over the years. She started feeling “heavy” outside working hours. She started drinking to excess. On end-of-study days, when there was no longer any use for the test subjects and culls were inevitable, she’d dread going into work…

Psychologists call it the “caring-killing paradox”: the result of having to perform or witness procedures that harm the very animals one wants to nurture. Regular people will have experienced this tension after coming across an animal in pain – a fledgling that’s fallen from its nest, say, or a fish gasping on the end of a hook – and deciding to “put it out of its misery.” In more extreme cases, the condition has links to perpetration-induced traumatic stress, moral uncertainty and compassion fatigue – that is, feelings of emotional and physical exhaustion that are common among healthcare professionals and which variably manifest as anger, depression and an inability to empathize…

Last year, a team of academics in the United States conducted what they claimed to be “the first large cross-sectional study to explore risk factors for laboratory animal personnel’s professional quality of life”, published in the Frontiers in Veterinary Science journal. Based on survey responses from more than 800 lab workers across the U.S. and Canada, the paper’s authors identified a compelling link between the daily demands and traumas of animal research and a number of psychological symptoms such as traumatic stress and compassion fatigue…

The 2020 paper published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science found that the biggest contributors to compassion fatigue, burnout and secondary traumatic stress among research personnel were a lack of social support, a higher degree of stress or pain among test subjects, and the development of animal-human bonds, particularly in cases where lab workers named the animals. Being forced to euthanize animals and having to use physical killing methods like cervical dislocation were also identified as major factors…

In March 2020, reports started emerging that research institutions across the United States were being forced to cull thousands of research animals following the closure of labs and the official declaration that any research not related to the coronavirus was being deemed non-essential… People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) branded the culls as a “killing spree”…

Animal lab workers like Briana… live on the fault-line of a vexing moral quandary: having to subject animals to suffering and harm in order to alleviate the suffering and harm of humans. It’s a zero-sum game, and there is currently no way for the research enterprise to function while guaranteeing a net benefit to both parties. Instead, many find themselves justifying the issue through a utilitarian kind of logic: the greatest good for the greatest number… This sentiment – the idea of making small-scale sacrifices for the sake of large-scale benefit – has gained global currency amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

But for Briana, justifying her line of work through a kind of ethical cost-benefit analysis was, for many years, the only way she could do her job… Briana did her best to inflict as little pain and suffering upon the mice as she could: by turning down the lights when opening their cages (mice are nocturnal), handling them gently at all times and, when it came to the fatal moment, by being as calm, swift and competent in her execution as possible. “How else could I sleep at night?” SOURCE…

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