If you work with animals, or even work for an institution that works with animals, you know the feeling—you’re at a party and, after proper introductions, someone asks you what you do for a living. You tell him that you’re a scientist studying hormone regulation in several animal species. Awkward silence ensues for a second or two that seems like minutes. Time enough for you to hear in your head his accusation of animal cruelty and to rehearse your defense about IACUCs, about the time you spend justifying the value of each study, about the care that is taken to prevent pain and suffering in biomedical laboratories.
He is speaking now, and you are snapped back into real time. “Well, let’s not talk about that at dinner time.” What can you say? You are at loss for words that won’t sound defensive. Fortunately, another guest cuts in to get his reaction to the sale of the local NBA team franchise. What a relief!
i remember being at a JHU-sponsored event with a colleague that ended up with the two of us sharing a 4-seater table with another pair of ladies. now, this buddy of mine has a healthy dose of fear what with car bombings and home assaults against researchers making the news now and again, and she tends to not tell people what she does. fair enough, and totally reasonable. not, however, a sentiment i share.
As a scientist perhaps you’ve already done the experiment that inspired us: we went to the local bookstore and found 34 inches of books (measured across the spines) on animal rights—a lucrative topic for publishers … but not one book that was supportive of animal research! It’s not just that the stories about good things coming from research don’t sell too well, but that we scientists have difficulty in explaining what we do to the general public. Animal rights activists do not share our difficulty in communicating. They have made people laugh by putting up billboards encouraging children to drink beer instead of milk; they pose near-naked women with body parts that are marked like a beef cow…
that’s the trick right there: “animal rights activists do not share our difficulty in communicating.” you have a lot of very loud, very flashy, and yes, sometimes very violent people stating simplified concepts in a clear and impassioned voice. and to counter these half-truths and total misrepresentations? crickets cheeping in the wind. because it’s difficult to explain to people, or you’re simply “at a loss for words that don’t sound defensive.” my dinner companion had a brief pause that evening when our tablemates struck up friendly conversation and asked what our line of work was. “oh, we’re both veterinarians for laboratory animals,” i piped up, not needing to think about it, or perhaps naïvely not thinking to veil it with a euphemism. “really? what do you do, then?” the older of the two asked, more out of actual curiosity than just politeness. i launched into the brief explanation – making sure animals are healthy and free of extraneous disease, helping researchers design experiments to minimize animal numbers, consulting on pain relief medications, inspecting to make sure facilities are up to standards. they thought it was interesting (funny, so do i), and the conversation eventually moved on, no biggie. oh yes, it could have been a disaster, and i apologized to my colleague later for putting her out there like that. but it’s a risk i’ve taken several times, at the theater, on airplanes, and yes, at the above-mentioned dinner party at a friend’s house. that last one did indeed turn a hair defensive – a covance infiltrator’s tape (heavily edited) had just been put up on the peta website – but was still a reasonable and civil debate, not paint-splashing name-calling. i figure someone needs to speak up, since all the extremists don’t have those communication issues, and i’m pretty harmless. not the devil of disembowelment in a gore-encrusted lab coat, just lil’ ol’ me. and these guys’ book? a nice step in the right direction, but they’ll have as tough an uphill battle as they alluded to in the pre-writing stage; 2 out of the 3 “also bought” recs on amazon are for volumes of a decidedly opposite viewpoint. now the next thing they need to do is write a pocket companion for my colleagues: “101 animal science icebreakers, or, how to chat about what you do in sparkling cocktail party conversation”.