Behind Closed Doors: The Human Toll of Animal Research

by Ruthanne Johnson

More than a decade has passed since Kathleen Conlee left her job at a primate research and breeding center, yet the nightmares still come. Sometimes the monkeys are escaping into the woods, and she’s struggling to get them back before hunters shoot them. Or she’s driving to the center to feed a baby animal when her car keeps breaking down.

As upsetting as the dreams are, the reality was worse. During the seven and a half years she worked as the center’s animal behaviorist, Conlee saw monkeys confined in small barren cages, driven to psychoses from prolonged isolation, and wasting away from disease.

Like many people who work in research, Conlee entered the field because she wanted to study and interact with animals. She stayed because she wanted to change the system. She fought “tooth and nail” to move spigots to the bottoms of cages so elderly, arthritic animals could access their water. She analyzed mortality reports to prove to researchers that they would lose fewer monkeys by keeping babies with their mothers for a full year. When the head veterinarian dismissed her concerns about crippled monkeys who were in pain, she secretly slipped them painkillers.

But it never felt like enough. Time and again, she witnessed suffering that did nothing to further scientific learning; it was simply a result of the scant priority given to the creatures’ well-being. The animals seldom received treatment for pain, even after surgery.

Conlee eventually left the job and joined The HSUS. As senior director for animal research issues, she works to change research practices from the outside—efforts she believes will help insiders experiencing the same problems she once faced. “The culture within an institution can have a significant influence over employee well-being, which can, in turn, directly impact animal welfare,” she says.

Few studies have examined the emotional impact of laboratory animal work, but some former employees talk of relying on alcohol, drugs, and other self-destructive coping mechanisms. Some are plagued by nightmares, anxiety, and depression—even years later.

What Conlee most often witnessed were caretakers who learned to shut down their empathy and began to view the animals as just a source of irritation. A few were deliberately cruel. One incident that started out as an April Fools’ Day joke epitomized the profound disconnect. “I thought it would be funny to put a stuffed animal in the cage, and the lab workers actually provided it with food,” Conlee says. “They weren’t even looking at the animals.”

For workers who can’t disengage, the job can seem like a battlefield—and a trap. “Once I was there, I thought, if I leave, then who is going to be there to watch out for the animals?” says Jessica Ganas of the 28 months she spent as a research assistant at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. “… [It was] like I was carrying a weight on me all the time.”

She received emotional support from a few coworkers who shared her feelings, but their compassion wasn’t encouraged. “We were in the trenches fighting for these animals—going in early, making special meals—and we were scoffed at,” Ganas remembers.

Eventually, she quit and, with another former Yerkes employee, founded the all-volunteer Laboratory Primate Advocacy Group to lobby against primate research and provide emotional support for former or current research employees.

But the job is still with her, in flashbacks to particularly disturbing scenes: The newborn macaques, some with placentas still attached, snatched from their mothers and shipped in black boxes for an eye study that would keep them in darkness their entire lives.

“When we started working there, we had an open mind. But based on what we had seen for many years …” Ganas says, her voice trailing off.

As Ganas, Conlee, and many other former research employees have discovered, the job will haunt them for a long time.

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