The project was this: a few teaching hospitals aligned with the university were exploring the idea of working together to present a unified voice and a single message to counter the growing wave of public opinion against the use of animals in research.
My heart missed a beat as my VP explained the assignment. I couldn’t stop the sensation of ice creeping through my body.
A meeting was coming up and as the person responsible for communications planning, media and community relations, I was now assigned to be one of Administration’s point people to go to the meetings, participate, contribute and report back. They could not have picked anyone in the entire organization more ill-suited to do this work than me. I wanted to throw up. Instead, I swallowed and gathered the stack of background materials to read.
Back in my office, I read those materials: all day. I still wanted to throw up. This was not what I signed up for. This is not why I entered the Communications field, although three years into it, it was pretty clear that in practice as opposed to textbook, any form of Corporate Communication would never be about true, effective honest, candid communications; it would be about PR and marketing, positioning, reputation and issues management and silly internal things like town hall rah-rah meetings and newsletters and e-notes and broadcast messages and pay stub stuffers and other little missives designed to make management look like it cared and to keep a lid on or defuse negative media coverage that could, you know, make someone look bad or stupid.
Most days it was a fine delicate balance and not an ethical issue at all. Other days, communication was impossible because no one could or would communicate and it was only about positioning and pissing in corners to stake out territory. Staff, management, professional staff, Administration, unions, community activists, interested stakeholders; all saying they want to move things ahead but waiting for the other side to make concessions or blink first.
Reading the materials, I found that there were reasoned, rational statements and explanations by researchers, by the University, by the hospitals, by the pharma industries and by people who had been given life and relief through drugs and treatments that had first been tested on animals.
In essence, everyone’s statement boiled down to this: we can’t ethically or legally conduct research on humans and so the only alternative available is to test in a safe and humane way on animals since the goal of all medical research is ultimately aimed at saving human lives, improving the quality of life of humans and reducing pain and suffering.
The materials were academic and had that academic distance, absent acknowledgment of, oh I don’t know what I was hoping for: humanity? Acknowledgment that there are reservations and risks to using animals in research for products and services and treatment ultimately aimed for humans? Maybe. Maybe that’s what I was hoping to see.
I still had a job to do.
For the diverse institutions and interests to put together a single, unified position, we had to expect the questions and put in plain language answers to those question. I had to imagine that I was on the other side — not a hard stretch for me — and imagine what I’d want to know. To my mind, nothing in the materials answered the basic questions and if I were back on the media side, I’d be hammering away on that one because it would show just how manufactured the responses are and how there is no single, justifiable good answer to the questions.
That might be because the questions have little to do with animals and everything to do with the humans. In fact, the issue has little to do with animals and everything to do with humans. What is the value of testing expensive and dangerous drugs that only the rich can afford, or that will be very hard to pay for or receive under a public health scheme? What gives us the right to use other species as revenue-generating, disposable resources to extend our lives? Why and how is it justified to take animals from shelters and do research on them, use them as test subjects? Wasn’t it Gandhi who said that the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated? If it is true that dogs have a rudimentary sense of fairness that might have informed the development of our own sense of fairness way back when we lived in tribes in caves, why is THAT science not informing the science that uses dogs as test subjects?
And the other questions. Do we have to cure everything? Fix everything? Everyone? Anyone? Aren’t there other methods and if there aren’t why isn’t medical science exploring alternatives?
Oh, I thought of a million questions and I keyed them all in furiously.
All the while my stomach was churning. At the time, I was repaying a college loan and had cats to feed. Stalemate: put aside my own feelings and do the work? Explain my internal reservations to my gung-ho boss and ask that someone else be assigned? I chose neither course of action. Instead, I made two decisions.
- Formulate the questions. I organized them in as factual and non-emotional language as I could and, I did not give provisional answers because I was not a subject matter expert. Then I distributed them.
- I would go to the meeting and make a decide upon a course of action after that meeting.
The meeting was held in one of the university buildings. I walked in all serious and still feeling sick to my stomach. The room was a mix of suits, including me. Mostly men. We all got into our seats around the conference table, sun streaming through the huge windows. Meeting started. And stalled. Two hours of that. The meeting failed.
The senior people from the hospitals and the university couldn’t agree on a few initial process and procedural issues and it went downhill from there albeit in the polite way that these things often do when people can’t agree but want to be seen to be working together amicably. Who would lead? How do we want to go about this? What kind of materials would work? Some smart suit probably thought it was a good idea and some other suit was charged with making it happen. It actually was a good idea, if it could be made to happen and if there could be leadership.
For a group of senior people to get mired in procedure and process and tactics proved that there was a lack of strategic intent and vision. But I was more than relieved on two fronts: without agreement it meant that the idea would not get past go and that meant by the silly grace of other people’s ego and inability to get over themselves, together with all the animal totems I talked to over the week, I was not only safe, I was saved. Ethical issue avoided. Yay for me!
Not too long after that, I left the hospital. It would be a decade before I was faced with another ethical dilemma in my workplace: reducing headcount to meet politically mandated headcount reductions. I was not saved. That night, I cried myself to sleep and it would be a while before the bad dreams went away. The science on downsizing says it rarely works, although it IS good for creative accounting and switching headcount.
Is there ever a good reason to do harmful things that never get the intended results?
Is there ever a good reason to conduct experiments on animals? Under what circumstance is it ever okay to do vivisection on any animal, drug them up, infect them, grow human ears on their back, remove half of a skull and insert probes, pump them full of insect and worms and poisons to see which ones work?
And do not tell me that the reason is to improve the quality of life for humans. That is not an answer, it’s an opinion and a value statement and so I will again ask what humans, under what circumstances and with what consequences and why that is an acceptable goal?
It’s hard to know what the animals might be thinking — if they think — about how they are being used and destroyed. But it’s something we — the human animal — can think about. And perhaps we can wonder about what experiments we’re part of that don’t make sense anymore.