Instrumental Relations between Laboratory Animals and Their People

Reading Nancy Farmer's young adult novel A Girl Named Disaster, I was arrested by the story of the relationship between an old African Vapostori man and the guinea pigs he cared for in a little scientific outpost in Zimbabwe around 1980. Used for sleeping sickness research, the lab rodents were at the center of a knot tying together tsetse flies, trypanosomes, cattle, and people. During their working hours, the guinea pigs were held in tight little baskets while wire cages filled with biting flies were placed over them, their skin shaved and painted with poisons that might sicken the offending insects with their protozoan parasites. The flies gorged themselves on the guinea pigs' blood. A young Shona adolescent girl, Nhamo, new to the practices of science, watched.

"It's cruel," agreed Baba Joseph, "but one day the things we learn will keep our cattle from dying." He stuck his own arm into a tsetse cage.

Nhamo covered her mouth to keep from crying out. The flies settled all over the old man's skin and began swelling up. "I do this to learn what the guinea pigs are suffering," he explained. "It's wicked to cause pain, but if I share it, God may forgive me."1

Baba Joseph seems to me to offer a deep insight into how to think about the labor of animals and their people in scientific practices, especially in experimental labs. The experimental animal science inhabited in this chapter is largely medical and veterinary research in which animals bear diseases of interest to people. A great deal of animal experimental science is not of this type, and for me the most interesting biological research, in and out of labs, does not have the human species much in mind. The notion that "the proper study of man is mankind" is risible among most of the biologists I know, whose curiosity is actually for and about other critters. Curiosity, not just functional benefit, may warrant the risk of "wicked action." Baba Joseph, however, is worried about sick cattle, coerced guinea pigs, and their people.

The animal caretaker is engaged not in the heroics of self-experimentation (a common trope in tropical medicine histories)2 but in the practical and moral obligation to mitigate suffering among mortals— and not just human mortals—where possible and to share the conditions of work, including the suffering, of the most vulnerable lab actors. Baba Joseph's bitten arm is not the fruit of a heroic fantasy of ending all suffering or not causing suffering, but the result of remaining at risk and in solidarity in instrumental relationships that one does not disavow. Using a model organism in an experiment is a common necessity in research. The necessity and the justifications, no matter how strong, do not obviate the obligations of care and sharing pain. How else could necessity and justice (justification) be evaluated in a mortal world in which acquiring knowledge is never innocent? There are, of course, more standards for evaluation than this one, but forgetting the criterion of sharing pain to learn what animals' suffering is and what to do about it is not tolerable anymore, if it ever was.

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