They All Had Eyes: insight from former biomedical researcher Michael Slusher

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They All Had Eyes: insight from former biomedical researcher Michael Slusher

Medical testing is one of the first animal issues that I became aware of. In the early nineties there seemed to be posters leaflets and protesters everywhere showing gruesome images of experiments being conducted by scientists. These experiments were ‘cruel and unnecessary’, the literature informed me. How could I avoid the conclusion that the people who conducted this research were monsters? This is one of the issues that divides ‘sentimental animal people’ from ‘callous rationalists’ and the rhetoric that surrounds the debate tends to reinforce and perpetuate both mischaracterizations.

Michael Slusher’s soon to be released book, They All Had Eyes: Confessions of a Vivisectionist, aims to expose the biomedical research industry. In Michael’s words, his book ‘shed[s] light on some of the horrific and yet accepted animal torture practices with the intention to shut down animal research labs and laboratory animal breeders’.

The idea that scientists are nothing but blood-thirsty monsters… Are they apathetic? Yes. Purposefully cruel because they enjoy it? Not in my experience.

I wasn’t interested in talking to Michael about the brutal details of animal experimentation. I’m too squeamish to subject myself to those, and I’ve already arrived at an ethical position on the issue. What I was keen to discuss with him is the mindset of the people who conduct the experiments. If we, as animal advocates, don’t want to be dismissed as sappy idealists, then I think it behooves us to try and understand the motivations of animal researchers. To make our moral case as powerful as possible we need to understand the people arguing against us. I also wanted to talk to Michael the guilt which motivated him to write the book.

Micheal funded the production of They All Had Eyes through Indiegogo, a crowdfunding website. Here’s a short video of him introducing his book and requesting support (the campaign has ended, but the video is still worth watching). Now Micheal’s book is about to be released. The best way to support his work is by pre-ordering a copy through Amazon.

Hi Michael, Thanks so much for taking the time to speak to me. Firstly, what motivated you to pursue a career that involved animal testing?

I didn’t actually pursue that career, I just sort of fell into it. Ever since I was a child, I loved anything to do with animals and my father was very involved in all aspects of the sciences. His interest in the sciences rubbed off on me quite a bit, so while I was floundering in my early 20s and found a job at a lab weighing rats, it was an exciting prospect – animals AND science!

The subtitle of your book is ‘Confessions of a Vivisectionist’. Just to clear up our terminology, what is the difference between ‘vivisection’ and ‘animal testing’ or experimentation?

‘Vivisection’ is an old word used mostly by the animal rights community as a catch-all phrase for all forms of animal testing and experimentation, regardless of whether it’s biomedical research, medical or military training, product testing, or classroom dissection. It is never used by the scientific community – probably because its literal meaning, “to cut apart while still alive” is considered too gruesome, however true it may be. They prefer more cold and clinical terminology, such as “using an animal model for research or testing”.

I used ‘vivisectionist’ in my title because there is no other equivalent single term that describes my former occupation. It also reveals to which camp I now belong.

Within animal research there are guidelines in place which are intended to protect the welfare of animal subjects which stem from the three principles*:

Replace the use of animals with alternative techniques, or avoid the use of animals altogether.

Reduce the number of animals used to a minimum, to obtain information from fewer animals or more information from the same number of animals.

Refine the way experiments are carried out, to make sure animals suffer as little as possible. This includes better housing and improvements to procedures which minimise pain and suffering and/or improve animal welfare.

In your experience how effective are these guidelines and how do researchers conceptualise the ‘welfare’ of the animals?

At the time that I worked in the two different lab settings (both industry and academic) I never saw or read those guidelines. The spirit of the second guideline (Reduce) was followed to a certain extent, simply to keep costs down. It would have had nothing to do with protecting animal lives, however. Rats and mice are cheap and disposable. Monkeys are very expensive, while dogs fall in between. We didn’t worry at all about the numbers of mice and rats and only worried about the numbers of monkeys and dogs because of cost.

Concern for the suffering of animals was a factor, meaning that it was always a goal of all researchers that I met to keep suffering to a minimum, but the research always came first and as long as we didn’t violate organizational policies or government laws (what few there are), our top priority was to obtain usable data. For the most part, industry-standard procedures were used, and in the mindset of those involved, they were adequate. I witness very little purposeful malevolence, but pure apathy was always present in many people.

In personal accounts I’ve heard scientists referring to the animals they use by name, but when reading journal articles the animal subjects of any experiment seem to be always referred to by a code letter or number, and with the pronoun it. To me this seems like an odd contradiction. Do you think scientists experience ambivalence towards the recognition of animals as individuals?

I was always cautioned by my supervisors against becoming attached to any of the animals, because with few exceptions, I was going to eventually kill them. In all fields, scientists are always discouraged from allowing emotion to cloud their work. Keeping an emotional distance from animals in research is really the only way normal people can conduct these types of studies. I never worked with any animals (such as chimps) where the human/subject bonding would be very long-term or tight. I did work with some monkeys who were not likely to be killed and were effectively lifelong residents of the lab, but again, it was frowned upon to name them or become attached.

When you first started your career, how did you relate to the animals you were working with?

Well, since I had always had rats and mice as pets, I knew a lot about how to handle them and knew their behavior. Unfortunately, because I also had used them since childhood to feed pet snakes I and my dad used to keep, they were also easy for me to see as utilitarian commodities – a tool to be used to achieve a larger goal.

I didn’t like working with dogs because I could relate to them so much as pets. Again, maintaining emotional distance and a cold, clinical approach was how I related to them. Likewise for the monkeys, although because they were nearly always aggressive, it was easy to not grow attached and relate to them indifferently. They were somewhat frightening, I must admit.

During your career were you exposed to any arguments from animal advocates and if so, how did you respond to them?

Sadly, I was not exposed to, nor confronted by animal advocates. I’m not sure that at the time I would have been sympathetic, since I was convinced that the work I did was helping find treatments or cures to human ailments. I probably would have accused them of being ignorant about how science works (something that would have been quite ironic, knowing what I know now about how animal models are nearly worthless in pharmaceutical research).

Are there any common arguments made by animal advocates that the scientific community dismiss or ridicule because of inaccuracies or faulty reasoning?

The idea that scientists are nothing but blood-thirsty monsters, for one. Are they apathetic? Yes. Purposefully cruel because they enjoy it? Not in my experience.

Also, the idea that there was NEVER any benefit to using animals in research is also wrong. Medicine (and certainly anatomy and physiology) did benefit from some animal experiments in the past. However, the many other wrong paths and detrimental assumptions made by using animals certainly diminish the overall value any of these claims may have had. Also, in a modern context, there is absolutely no justification, despite what we may have learned from it 100 years ago.

The use of religion to support animal rights is also (quite rightly) ridiculed, as it has no basis in scientific reality.

Most people outside of the vegan community (not just scientists) also dismiss the concept of animals being equal to humans. When that is given as the rationale for not using animals in research, scientists only need to point to meat consumption to claim hypocrisy amongst animal rights supporters. This has obviously become less valid now that veganism is being recognized as the true moral baseline among AR activists.

What lead you to begin questioning the morality of animal testing, and what challenges did you face leaving your field?

Sadly, I didn’t question the morality until long after I left the field. I left the field due to poor employment opportunities in my life at that time/place. I wish it had been because of a moral awakening.

How do you approach conversations with your ex-colleagues or other scientists who still engage in animal testing?

So far, I have not had any contact with them since becoming vegan. If I were to engage them, I would certainly use the current data that reveals mostly poor results from the use of animal models. I feel that an appeal to logic is the only tactic that would be effective against arguments made by researchers. While that may not work when trying to convince the general public, where an appeal to emotion is preferable, presenting logic and facts is certainly the only method that scientists will give any credence to.

The title of your book, They all Had Eyes is chilling — at first I read it as a recognition of the selfhood of every animal you worked on, but on reflection I realized that you were also acknowledging the fact that you had been ‘seen’ by them as a victimizer. How do you deal with the psychological scars left from your participation in what you now recognize as ‘gruesome atrocities’?

I’m very glad you recognized the more subtle point the title makes. You are the first person to mention that they saw it both ways.

A big part of how I dealt with it before was to avoid it altogether. It just seemed like a different lifetime to me. I suspect there have been some symptoms of delayed onset PTSD, especially as I pondered the idea of writing of this book. I am aware that I strongly avoid all gory imagery of animals now, especially when in a lab setting. I cannot look at the rodents in pet stores at all. One of the reasons I wrote the book was so that I could confront my demons and hopefully slay them. I had been having nightmares (and still do) and knew I needed to deal with the subject, in the open for all to see, if I was going to move on. It’s a process – the guilt doesn’t subside easily.

It still depresses me greatly that I didn’t see what I was doing at the time. I can’t change the past and that makes me very sad. All those little lives are gone and there is nobody but myself to blame. It has been pointed out that like the slaughterhouse worker, I am also a victim of a horrible industry that puts money ahead of lives, but that really doesn’t take the blame off my shoulders. I chose that line of work and even though at the time I thought I was advancing the well-being of humanity, knowing now that it was a delusion doesn’t make me feel any better about it.

When I announced my book, I was highly afraid of how the AR community would accept me, but so far I haven’t been hated (too much) for my past sins. I certainly hope this book not only helps me heal myself, but also makes something of a difference in the lives of millions of animals currently facing torture and death.

Thanks Michael for your thoughtful and candid answers.

Michael’s descriptions of the scientists who conduct animal testing as apathetic and detached is sad but encouraging. It seems as though these are people who have been trained not to care rather than people who are incapable of caring. In fact the reason many biomedical researchers pursue a career that involves animal testing is because they care about the suffering of human beings. Animal models are used in this research because we know how similar animals bodies and brains are to humans. If biomedical researchers care about suffering and recognise the similarities between human and non-humans it seems to me that we have an excellent base of concord on which to build our argument. It also clarifies the point of disagreement which is how should we weigh animal suffering? How much is an animal’s life worth?

As Michael points out a non-vegan arguing against animal testing is unconvincing because by their actions they assert that an animal’s life is worth less than their enjoyment of a meal.

As a vegan I empathise with Michael’s guilt and I think that most vegans should. Although the majority of us did not engage in direct harm to animals the average person commissions the suffering and death of many more animals than those Michael experimented upon in his time as a biomedical researcher. I am glad to hear that Michael has not been ‘hated (too much) for his past sins’ by the Animal Rights community. When we villainize someone we do not seek to understand them and if we villainize Michael and excuse ourselves we avoid vital self-examination.

They All Had Eyes will be the first book that exposes the animal research industry from an insider perspective. I think it has the potential to change the public’s minds about animal testing by revealing what usually happens behind closed doors and hopefully improving the way we conduct our advocacy by revealing the thoughts and feelings of the people involved.

Thanks again to Michael for taking the time to speak to me. His book is due to be released in early 2016 and is available to pre-order at Amazon right now. I look forward, with some apprehension, to reading it.

Rebecca Fox is as likely to be found meditating and burning incense as she is in an academic library, and yet is a passionate atheist and a skeptic. Her artistic career is fuelled primarily by ingestion of soy lattes. Her artwork can be found at Her vegan and skeptical activism is fuelled by critical thinking and compassion.

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