Emotionality in the Animal Research Laboratory

It is almost impossible not to develop an affectionate relationship with the animals in one's charge and hence feel sadness, grief, and frustration if one of them is subjected to avoidable suffering and killed at the end of the research project.
Courtesy of the Scottish Agricultural College


Contributors to the following email discussion on the Laboratory Animal Refinement & Enrichment Forum (LAREF) were six animal technicians (T1-6) and five researchers (R1-5). The messages were edited by Viktor Reinhardt, moderator of LAREF.

"I strive to alleviate the boredom and minimize the anxiety and stress of the monkeys in my charge, but my efforts are usually blocked by senior personnel. This can be overwhelmingly frustrating at times. If I cry, I am labeled as unprofessional. I have learned to remove myself from everyone when I no longer can control my emotions" (R1).

"There have been occasions when I had to do everything in my power to choke back tears of grief and frustration. I think it is normal to be sad and cry sometimes with our line of work" (T1). "Crying is unprofessional only if it prevents me from doing my job in a way that is best for the animal, otherwise it is simply an indication that I care about my charges" (R2), "that my emphatic feelings are alert rather than put to sleep by the routine of work" (R3). "Crying shows that you are sensitive to the impaired well-being of your animals. I would ask those who are judgmental with us who cannot help but cry occasionally, to just let us be, especially if our response to a disturbing situation is not interfering with our work performance. Crying is an important safety valve that some of us simply need to cope with emotional distress" (T2). "Expressing the feelings that our work gives rise to is a normal response not only for animal care staff but also for investigators" (R4).

"I have noticed coworkers who do not cry. Sometimes I have interpreted this as a coldness, but I was wrong. Talking to my colleagues I realized that they are, just like me, deeply affected but somehow deal with the pressure in other ways" (T2). "It is not the people who do not cry that are the problem, but those who do not cry AND fail to accept that others do" (T3).

"I work with guinea pigs, and we euthanize quite often. I haven't cried yet, maybe because the animals are in my care only for a short while. It would probably be much more difficult for me to euthanize one of our male breeders, who stay with us for up to two years. It's almost impossible not to get attached to these guys and, rather than euthanizing we always manage to find good homes for them. One is with me :)) (T3).

"At the end of the studies, I euthanize the monkeys myself because I want them to feel no apprehension or fear. For them it's a normal anesthetization procedure. Some of them I have worked with regularly for up to five years. To terminate one of them is heartbreaking. I believe in the science that is done with the animals and I do my best to alleviate their boredom, pain, discomfort and stress while they are in my care, but I will cry when they are gone" (T2). "Whenever an animal had to be put down, my supervisor was very strict in respecting the animal's dignity. If anyone joked about it, she was like a cobra. She is still my dear friend" (T5). "We too had to let some of our guys go off to a better place. Although no one would show any tears, there definitely would be a different feel in the air. Some became quiet, others a little snappy, others would choose to just not be around for the terminal procedure. As for myself, the day before a euthanasia, I would sit with 'my young man' or 'my little girl' and talk to them. I'd let them know that I was glad for them to move on, and thank them and apologize for the sacrifice they have done for us, though the sacrifice was not by their own choice. I will always think of the monkeys I have had the privilege to work with" (T4).

"After working with a group of beagles for several weeks I was asked to assist in their euthanasia. My favorite was nicknamed Chunky because he was a porker but still so cute!! I helped but cried like a baby. My co-workers suggested that I should not be around for future euthanasias. This was not a solution because I still would have been upset. Fortunately, I have not had to say good-bye to any of our monkeys yet. I honestly don't know how I'll deal with that" (T1).

"Once we received a group of dogs from a class B dealer. One of the animals was a beautiful golden retriever pup. Even with proper 'paperwork' we just knew that this dog had been stolen. It was decided to save Alex. When my supervisor brought the little terrier over as a trade, we just broke down. This animal was selected because she could never be adopted out due to the particular research she had been used for. She was so sweet! I sat there for a good 30 minutes crying and talking to her and hoping someday she would forgive us. Ah, I'm crying again! On the positive side Alex is running on the prairie with a loving family" (T5).

"I'm crying now too!! We do such a tough job. If I didn't cry and didn't care, and didn't feel bad about what we are doing, then I wouldn't be in this profession" (T1). "It is very difficult at times dealing with the animal research issue, but until the day invasive studies with animals are no longer done, I will be here helping the animals" (T6). "I am sad that there isn't yet another way besides using animals in these experiments. As hard as it is on a daily basis, I am glad that I'm here because I feel that I am offering the animals a special gift. Every day I do my part to foster their well-being and make sure that they get the best care possible, and the best toys, of course!! ha ha. I have been criticized for crying on the job, I too have hid to cry because it is looked down upon here" (T1).

"People are often assuming that animal technicians must not be animal lovers because we work in biomedical facilities. It's just the opposite. Most of the colleagues I have met truly do love animals. In fact, that's the reason we work in these emotionally challenging positions. There are days that are almost unbearable. Yet, I know that if I weren't working in my position, someone else would. Who knows how that person might treat the animals I care so much for? I do my very best to make the life of the animals as easy as possible. Unfortunately, being attached to them is frowned upon in the facility I am working, but it is hard not to cry about the situation that research animals are in. I have a friend at work, and we offer each other a shoulder to cry. It makes all the difference to have someone who understands you and who can share the same frustrating experiences and sad feelings with you" (R5).

"A month ago, we had a young monkey suffering from a seizure as a consequence of an experiment. After the seizure had stopped, she was paralyzed completely on her left side. She was awake, alert and hungry, but every time I tried to give her some food, she would make attempts to sit up and get hold of it but would inevitably flop all over the place trying to accomplish this task. I couldn't help but cry. Here was this perfectly healthy animal and we did this to her! Because I work with the girls on a daily basis, I become attached to them. I can't work any other way. I know what I'm in, what they're here for and what will eventually happen to them. It's not easy! I am glad to know that I'm not the only one who gets upset with what we are doing" (T6).