Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Animal House


Last week, while trying to think of a scientific blog "theme" to keep myself busy in August, I was creating a moving-slideshow of all my wildlife photography. Then I had one of those forehead-slap moments... how about animals? I love animals. I'll sit for hours watching a hole in the ground, camera ready, waiting for a tarantula or a prairie dog to appear. I've gotten hazardously close to free-roaming bears and alligators during these ventures, and even some arguably "tame" tigers.

Coincidentally, that same day, the Houston Chronicle featured an article about April Evans, who says she has recently chosen to leave NASA because of their involvement in animal testing. This former ISS engineer recently ground her career to an abrupt halt when she learned of the space agency's plan to irradiate squirrel monkeys as part of an experiment to assess health risks from deep space radiation. Imagine how strongly you'd have to feel (or how guilty, in her words) about any issue to walk away during a recession like this one?

NASA, of course, counters animal rights activists by highlighting their conservative internal policies, namely the NASA Principles for the Ethical Care and Use of Animals, and pointing out the reality that radiation exposure is the greatest hurdle we face in successfully performing long-duration flight, such as that required to reach Mars. Experiments with primates have always been considered critical to safeguarding the health and lives of astronauts. Similar to the goals in testing flight analogs such as myself, NASA hopes to understand how radiation affects primate physiology and psychology, in order to develop counter-measures.

The difference, of course, was that I could assess all the risks, sign a form agreeing to the tests, and make the choice to participate. Animals cannot. Thus, the comments following the article contained predictable debates. The extremists on one end engaged in a flame war with the extremists on the other, but most people (myself included) sit on the fence.

Discussions about this divisive issue tend to be a degenerative lose-lose affair; here's just a taste of the few "clean" comments:

"Wack Job. Maybe PETA will feed her family."

"A principled and courageous woman. There should be other ways to assess the health risks of radiation other than killing primates."

"Admire her conviction, but if she wasn't directly involved with the radiation tests, why would she quit NASA? No big company and no gov't agency is w/o some unsavory or controversial aspects."

"Let her tell her story as she likes. The fact is she was about to get laid off and this was her way of getting some attention."

"I'm amazed at this lady's principle and guts. Very few people would do what she's done and whether you agree with her or not you have to respect her."

"I applaud Ms. Evans standing up for her own beliefs. Yet I have to ask, what else would you do? Give up space travel? What mystical alternative testing regime makes these radiation experiments unnecessary?"

"Personally I'm divided. I would much rather an animal 'suffer' than a human but at the same time I'd rather no one suffer. I wish there was some middle ground."

I could have written that last comment. Many people simply don't form a strong opinion over the idea of animal testing. We'd prefer it didn't exist, but aren't torn enough to quit a job or wave a picket sign, understanding the history of animals in medicine, toxicology, space flight, and the greater biological food chain.

Initially, this wasn't how I planned to kick off my theme about animals in relation to the space program, but I wanted to acknowledge the ethical debate that I know exists over this subject. I don't presume to know the answer. For the rest of the month, I'll be honoring the animals that have increased our scientific knowledge and paved the way for human pioneering.