Rachel Hipp
Published on
April 4, 2017

The Dark Truth Behind Animal Testing

By Mary Kate Fain, DxE Philly

I am a vegan and an animal rights activist. I read every label of every item of food I eat and research every company’s animal testing policy before I buy from them. I attend animal rights demonstrations regularly, and organize two different animal liberation groups. In July I jumped on stage to disrupt Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest and splashed fake blood all over. When seven DxE activists got arrested for disrupting the Governor of Pennsylvania for his support of animal agriculture, I was there. This is the only side of me that my friends these days know. They could never imagine me hurting anyone.

 Rats are curious, love playtime, and need lots of room to run and explore with friends to be happy.
Rats are curious, love playtime, and need lots of room to run and explore with friends to be happy.

Most vegans used to eat animals. This shared trauma and the experience of overcoming our social conditioning is often a talking point at any vegan get together. But while most of us have walked down the “meat” aisle of grocery stores and thoughtlessly dropped carcasses in our shopping carts, very few of us have ever actually held a knife to an animal’s throat.

But I have.

I was privileged enough to be able to attend (if not afford) a private college with a great undergraduate research program. I wanted to be a neuroscientist, and my school’s psychology program offered me endless opportunities. Research experience is the most valuable thing I could have on my transcript when applying to competitive grad school programs, and I was hasty to make the most of my academic experience.

I became the protégé of the school’s young new Psychology professor, and she gave me more responsibility and opportunity than I could have hoped for. I helped her design her studies, purchase the materials for her new neuro lab, and was awarded a fellowship to conduct my own research. But unlike every other lab in the department, our lab was not set up to study consenting human adults. Our lab that tested on nonhuman animals.

The lab was set to run multiple studies – all on rats. My personal research was on the effect of the maternal separation protocol being used to simulate childhood trauma (in pups) on mothers who were considered  to be collateral damage. It involved getting female rats pregnant; separating them from their babies for a designated time each day; then testing their stress levels and tendencies towards alcohol and “comfort food” consumption. I told myself that the results of my study would help inform the psychological community on the ethics of invoking this particular protocol. I naively believed that this work was necessary, and it might as well be done by someone who “loved” animals. Wouldn’t the rats rather be handled with care than be tortured in unsympathetic hands? I convinced myself for months that I was doing a good thing.

 Mary Kate working in the animal testing lab
Mary Kate working in the animal testing lab

But that was a delusion that quickly faded. The crimes I committed against innocent  beings in that lab are probably the most atrocious things I have ever done. These were some of the worst acts of violence and abuse that occurred, the majority of which are commonplace in labs across the world:

1.     Rats were kept alone in tiny cages called “shoe boxes,” (in less than one third of the ground space rats need at a minimum, and provided with no height for climbing). Social isolation is essentially the same as putting a human in solitary confinement for their entire life.

2.     Newborn rats regularly had their heads cut off with scissors during the “culling” process, to ensure that all litters were the same size.

3.     Mothers cried and screamed when separated from their babies. They tried to fight us to get the pups back, burying them in litter in an attempt to hide and protect them.

4.     Pups separated from their mothers during the study experienced trauma comparable to severe neglect in human children. We did this to hundreds, if not thousands, of pups.

5.     Males trained to be aggressive were baited with others who were unable to defend themselves. These rats often had to be euthanized due to the injuries they sustained.

6.     We put rats through incredibly traumatizing experiences, and then exposed them to alcohol knowing they would likely become addicted, in order to test the effect of trauma on addiction.

7.     Any rat who was not compliant in the test was “euthanized” (killed).

 A rat on a “stress wheel” in this lab, used to measure stress levels, perseverance, and depression
A rat on a “stress wheel” in this lab, used to measure stress levels, perseverance, and depression

8.     Careless lab workers threw out litters of newborn pups along with the bedding in a cage while cleaning it. Those pups were separated from their mothers and were suffocating in trash bags when we found them after digging through the trash following the sound of their squeals. When we had finally rescued them, they had to be “euthanized” due to their experience and no longer being fit for study. This happened twice.

9.     The professor was often absent from her own lab and left students to perform surgeries such as ligation. We were not qualified to do this, and rats often suffered as a result, sometimes needing to be euthanized due to botched operations.

10.  At the end of their “cycle”, the vast majority of rats were killed well before their natural lifespan, even  those who had experienced no trauma and could easily be adopted or sent to rescue. Thousands of rats died for these often fruitless studies.

It wasn’t long into my stint at this lab that I started to realize that what I was doing was wrong. I had nightmares about the squeals of babies crying out for their mothers, and I dreaded going into the lab each day. I spent my lunch break unable to eat, crying on the floor of a bathroom stall. I developed an alcohol problem (fitting, given that we were doing the same thing to the rats), and was unable to be home with my thoughts at night without drinking.

 A mom rushes to protect her litter
A mom rushes to protect her litter

And yet, I was determined to be the best scientist and student I could. I wanted to achieve, and I was driven to do so. Our work was accepted for presentation at the Neuroscience conference in New Orleans, and I was going to be published in a prestigious journal as an undergraduate. I told myself that I needed to be stronger and tougher to succeed in this field. I started self-harming again as a way to prove to myself that I was tough and could take it. I would not be perceived as weak or let my emotions get in the way of the work I needed to do. This quest for success, however, took its toll on me. Eventually, I became severely suicidal.

Finally, many months later, I quit the lab. There wasn’t really a moment that pushed me over the edge or any sort of wake-up call. I just slowly faded myself to the background of the work and eventually abandoned my study. It wasn’t until a couple years later that I was really able to come to terms with the violence I had committed during my time there.

 Rats rescued from a lab in Philly: JD (left) and Turk (right)
Rats rescued from a lab in Philly: JD (left) and Turk (right)

Now, I care for two amazing rats who were rescued from a psychology lab likely not that different than the one I used to work in. Despite their cruel upbringing, they are loving, sweet, curious, and playful. Although to most people they look identical, I have gotten to know their unique personalities, interests, and preferences. Turk is more outgoing and loves to climb on top of things and play games for treats. JD is more sweet and shy, and always wants to curl up for cuddles in dark spaces. I know that there is nothing I can do to ever make up for what I did to rats like them, just like none of us can ever make up for all the “meat” we ate, the milk we drank, and the eggs we carelessly scrambled. But it is for them, and for all other individuals like them in labs, farms, and cages everywhere, that I now fight like hell for animal liberation.

I had no idea what animal testing was like when I joined the lab, but now I do. And now that I know, there is no going back. Will you continue to support companies that test on animals (even though there are many, many alternatives), or will you join the movement for animal liberation? To me, the answer was very clear.

Want to get involved? DxE is a grassroots network focused on empowering you to be the best activist you can be. Here are some steps you can take. 

  1. Sign up to our mailing list and share our content on social media. 
  2. Join a local DxE community (or, better yet, come visit us in Berkeley).
  3. Take the Liberation Pledge. And join us in building a true social movement for animals.

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