Most laboratory animals live in bleak environs. With mice, each cage typically contains a single animal. There is bedding, food, and water. There is very little space.
A lab mouse will be illuminated for many hours each day – sometimes twenty-four, sometimes slightly fewer – by fluorescent lights. It will hear the constant thrum of ventilation fans and refrigerator compressors. At least once a week, an apex predator – wafting stress-inducing smells, especially if it’s male – will reach into its home and grab it.
Chances are, it will see other mice. A rotating cadre will fill adjacent cages during its tenure in the lab. They will never touch.
Our cruelty makes for bad science, too.
When social animals are stored in isolation, their bodies and brains decay. Neuron growth slows, which impedes learning. Lifespan is curtailed. Obesity rates increase.
If we stop mistreating laboratory animals, though, new research might be inconsistent with past results. When describing mice, scientists don’t say that deprivation stunts brain development. Instead we write things like, “If a lab is studying the impact of stress on the growth of new neurons, for example, and then it lets mice exercise on a running wheel – which has been shown to spark neuron growth – the study could be jeopardized” (from David Grimm’s recent news article for Science magazine).
We give ourselves a very skewed view of neurology if we let ourselves think that a creature’s normal habits are stimulating neuron growth, rather than admitting that deprivation stops it. For decades, most researchers thought that neuron growth ceased in adults. Even in the 2005 paper demonstrating structural plasticity, the authors wrote that “such changes are only seen in response to external perturbation,” because brain development is sluggish in lab mice housed in normal conditions, i.e. those little cages.
Of course, some scientists do care about the well-being of their furry test tubes. For instance, biologist Daniel Weary, who told Grimm “Our dream is that our animals live a better life with us than if they had never been born.” Animals in Weary’s lab get to touch actual dirt.
Maybe not the highest bar, but the lives of most animals on our planet are worse than if they’d never been born.
Most social animals – like mice, rabbits, and humans – aren’t going to be very happy when they’re housed in isolation. Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy considers loneliness to be a public health crisis, leading to health risks as bad as smoking or obesity.
Unfortunately, most biomedical research is done with research animals amongst whom pervasive loneliness is standard. And our political system gives outsize influence to wealthy corporations that earn more money when people feel lonely.
We shunt humans into jail when we feel that their behaviors are unacceptable for the world at large. Incarceration sends a message: don’t beat your family; don’t steal; don’t sell drugs; don’t take drugs; don’t be late for an appointment with your parole officer; don’t be too poor to pay your court fees. To my mind, some of these offenses are worse than others.
The hope is that either the threat of incarceration deters people from these things, or that the experience of being incarceration cures them of the inclination. (Or a third rationale – that seeing offenders punished will pacify others’ sense of fairness – which seems to encourage the evolution of cooperation, but, like many other evolved behaviors, seems unnecessarily vicious for the modern world.)
We’ve known for years that punishment doesn’t work well as a criminal deterrent. And the experience of incarceration seems to make most people worse, not better.
Instead, we’re imposing loneliness on people who most need the help of friends and neighbors to turn their lives around. Somebody screws up? We store that person like a lab mouse.
I was recently chatting with somebody who’s done nine months so far for a parole violation – and is still waiting for his court date, which keeps being rescheduled. (He’s already told the judge that he’ll plead guilty, and the prosecutor wanted to send him to rehab, but his PO nixed the deal.)
“It’s a lot better now, in J block. Everybody said, you don’t wanna move from A block, you’ll get no bingo, you’ll get no … I don’t care about any of that. We can look out the window, see people walking on the street.
“I spent almost an hour, the other day, watching this leaf blowing back and forth in the wind. I was staring, thinking I’d say to the judge, ‘you can pile on whatever other charges you want, I’ll still plead guilty, I’ll plead guilty to all of it if you just let me out there to look at that leaf blowing around up close. Just five minutes, just lemme see something!
“In D block, that was the worst. All we could see was the parking garage. On weekends, we’d see nothing, not even cars. So I was starting fights every day. I’d be like, hey, turn the TV to, I don’t know, some channel I don’t even like, just so I can start something with somebody. Cause a fight would at least be something to do.”
John-Michael Bloomquist’s poem “The Prodigal’s Return,” about teaching poetry in jail, ends:
Each day that I visit
the jail full of men, who hug me the way
their families cannot, write poems about childhoods
I couldn’t imagine, I feel the love of my father.
After nine months inside – un-touched, un-hugged, un-loved, under-slept – perhaps our man will finally be released. Surely his time there will have cured him of his addiction!