Regrets: Treating Animals As Less Than Sentient Beings

Regrets: Treating Animals As Less Than Sentient Beings


Leonard Zwelling

         One thing that I dwell upon in my retirement is the regret I have over behaviors I have exhibited and deeds I have done. I have had supervisors who claimed to never having had any regrets. Those people need to think harder. No one is that good. Everyone makes mistakes and the commonest of these go to the way we have treated others. My regrets go beyond my own misbehavior to deeds I have done in service of my job which were not of the highest ethical standards. Making excuses for the behaviors of others for whom I worked and whose behavior I had to explain to the press are not among my proudest moments. Neither are the times I spoke cruelly to others or was less considerate of the feelings of others than I should have been.

         But surprisingly, how I treated sentient beings of the non-human kind also troubles  me.

         I never did any research with animals during my tenure at MD Anderson, but I did at the NIH. I never looked upon these vertebrate species as anything more than vehicles by which to advance my scientific career. Admittedly, that was the prevailing sensitivity of the 1980’s for better or worse. When experiments were completed, wholesale muricide was completed with a variety of methods, none of which would be considered humane today.

         When I chaired the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee from 2009 to 2012, I tried to correct my previous bad behavior without slowing the biomedical progress that animal research can further. I found myself in constant conflict with the rest of the committee. If I could not understand the likely benefits of an animal protocol, I wanted it stopped. I was regularly out-voted by the rest of the committee, often 20 or more to one. That didn’t make me wrong or them wrong. I just believed that the lives being sacrificed in these experiments ought to be for a higher purpose beyond another minimal publishable unit. Often, I did not see the light that the protocol was purporting to shed on cancer biology and wished the research stopped. Fortunately for many faculty members, I was usually overruled by the IACUC. I am sure many people were glad to see my tenure as chair end.

         Once in a while, I prevailed when a series of proposed animal experiments was so poorly described or the benefits so questionable that the reviewers of the protocol could not even convince the usually passive members of the IACUC to go along.

         Of course, I had also had similar problems with many clinical research protocols proposed when I was Vice President for Research Administration and overseeing that form of research. Many studies were “me-too” pharmaceutical company sponsored trials that really didn’t need redoing or even doing in the first place. The attitude of the Clinical Research Committee and the Institutional Review Board was usually if no blatant harm was predicted, the work could go on. Innocent until proven guilty. My position was always the opposite. If I could not see the benefit to be derived from the study, why bother? Again, fortunately for the many faculty members engaged in clinical research, I didn’t even have a vote on those committees and rarely prevailed in any arguments, which was probably a good thing for the body politic of MD Anderson.

         So imagine my surprise at reading in Sunday’s NY Times, an op-ed by Dr. John P. Gluck, a former animal investigator, about his regrets about research he performed in his past.

         He regrets some of the primate research he did the same way I regret some of the murine work I did and some of the IACUC-passed protocols I couldn’t stop.

         I believe this stuff really matters as it reflects how we in academics view the value of the many life forms entrusted to our caring, human and non.

         I regret a lot about my career. I was often too arrogant and too self-righteous. I was very often wrong and stubborn. I grew out of a lot of it (but not all, I am afraid). But the way I treated animals in my early career was shameful and the way I tried to protect them at my career’s end, one of my proudest moments. That I failed at both ends of my career is not news. I had my moments of failure in the middle as well.

         In this ethically charged environment, when conflict of interest reigns supreme and animals are cloned and manipulated at genetic will and human subjects research is right at the edge of the genome, it is not a bad idea to sit and contemplate exactly what we are doing and whether the direction we are pursuing is the only one that will get us where we want to go. And where is that any way?

4 thoughts on “Regrets: Treating Animals As Less Than Sentient Beings”

  1. Thank you Len. You remind all of us that self reflection and examining our past behaviors may be "best assets".
    I appreciate your honesty.

  2. Bravo for addressing this topic. It's one I have thought about all during my career but have never taken a public stand, in part, because I'm not sure what it would be. I myself have avoided directly working with animals, but have certainly collaborated on animal experiments and supported some of them with my grant money. So it's been a sort of cowardly out-of-sight, out-of-mind situation. And yes, I regret this.

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