Talking about animal research: Thinking with fiction
Talking about animal research: Thinking with fiction
By Pru Hobson-West, in conversation with Carlie Sorosiak
In March 2023, the Animal Research Nexus team held their final conference in London, where we reflected with colleagues about the collaborative, qualitative research we have done over the last six years. Lots of interesting topics were covered and discussed, but one key issue was the extent to which creative methods can be useful in relation to public engagement, as part of attempts to maximise and diversify the kinds of voices that get to participate in animal research policy and practice.
A few weeks after the conference and still very much in reflective mode, Pru Hobson-West had a conversation with Carlie Sorosiak, a US based children’s fiction author, about the ideas and motivation behind her book: Always Clementine. The book, recommended to Pru by her own daughter, is about a genetically engineered, super intelligent lab mouse called Clementine, who escapes from the laboratory, learns to play chess, and becomes a TV star. The book is structured as imaginary letters, written by Clementine to her friend Rosie, a chimpanzee still in the laboratory. In this blog, Pru uses the original themes of the Animal Research Nexus programme as jumping off points for joint reflection on the sometimes challenging topic of animal research.
History and Culture
In the History and Culture project work of the Animal Research Nexus Programme, the team explored the historical transformation of the UK animal research nexus. Whilst Always Clementine, is set in a present-day US laboratory, what is striking is that the book also directly raises the topic of path dependency, and the close association between the history of science and the use of animals. Most clearly, in the book, the character of the researcher defends their activities by claiming that ‘our animals receive the best possible care. They’re an integral part of the scientific progress. The history of medicine IS the history of animal testing’. This claim closely chimes with the language used by some academic historians: For example, Rupke talks about the way in which animal research played a crucial role in medicine’s claim to be a legitimate science. Sticking with the topic of time, the author also dedicates Always Clementine to ‘all the lab animals, past and present’. Notable, here, perhaps, is that the word future is absent. Indeed, in their discussion together, Carlie confirmed that not including the word future was deliberate: ‘I purposely didn't do that. And again, I'm not super well-versed on scientific models and mathematical models and how we would transition to a time where we're not testing on animals, but I mean they've already done it in the cosmetics industry…And I feel like there must be a way’. This conversation succinctly gets at wider debates about the 3Rs of replacement, reduction and refinement, and the complex relationship between these ethical principles.
Species and Spaces
In the Species and Spaces theme, the team explored the challenges that different species and sites introduce into animal research, and what these challenges might mean for established infrastructures, practices, and cultures of animal care. In their conversation, Pru and Carlie also discussed the reasons for species choice in Always Clementine. In the book, the main character is a mouse who escapes, but the medium of storytelling is via Clementine’s imagined letters to her friend, a chimpanzee called Rosie. Carlie explained that early on in the book’s inception, species choice was a significant topic of editorial meetings. For example, a dog was mooted as a possible main character but that this was considered ‘maybe even too sad to read because we have dogs in our homes’. In writing fiction for children, Carlie therefore describes a delicate process of species choice, taking into account assumptions about the audience for whom she is writing. This is, perhaps, reminiscent of the way animal research is governed and, in the UK, the way in which certain species that may be assumed to cause societal concern are subject to greater layers of regulation.
Markets and materials
The team working on the Markets and Materials part of the programme, focused on complex questions of supply chains, and the origins and fates of the animals used in research and testing. Always Clementine also grapples with these big questions. For example, towards the end of the book, we learn that Rosie the chimpanzee was born in a laboratory. However, the public outcry caused by Clementine’s TV appearance ultimately leads to the closure of the lab, and the eventual move of Rosie to a sanctuary. Given the very small proportion of laboratory animals that tend to leave the laboratory, Pru was particularly interested in this aspect of the plot. Indeed, in interviews she has given, Carlie has previously explained that one motivation for writing the book was her personal experience of growing up with a rabbit, rehomed from a laboratory. In discussions with Pru, the author also explains that she currently lives near a primate research sanctuary, and that this probably fed into the choice of ending. As Carlie summarises, an end location had to be found in order to unite the main characters, and this meant including a sanctuary: ‘in America, that was going to be pretty much the only option for her, and I did want to give her a kind of realistic path’.
People and Professions
The People and Professions thread of the Animal Research Nexus programme was designed to explore how the professional roles of laboratory staff are constituted, enacted and challenged. Given this, Pru was particularly interested in how individual laboratory researchers were portrayed in Always Clementine. Whilst one member of laboratory staff did help ‘liberate’ Clementine, others are discussed in quite a negative light. Carlie explained that, in her case, she purposefully used a lot of references to the coldness of the laboratory environment, and that ideas of sterility spilt over into descriptions of the staff. She also stressed that, especially for the young target audience, the book had to have some kind of ‘villains’, and that this was considered necessary for the arc of the story. During their conversation, Pru and Carlie also discussed questions of hierarchy in the laboratory, and potential differences between the role of technical staff, project licence holders and veterinarians, in relation to their role in the lives and deaths of laboratory animals.
Engagement and involvement
This stream of activity sought to explore the new forms of public and patient engagement and involvement across health research and clinical delivery. The Animal Research Nexus Programme researched Patient Involvement and developed of new methods of Public Engagement. Policy recommendations have also grappled with the question of whether and how different public groups want to know more about animal research, depending on their position. This was also echoed in other Annex writings on knowing and caring, and in lively discussions at the final conference. During their conversation, Pru and Carlie discussed whether care (and emotion) is always the route to change, and the extent to which care is rooted in empathy. Indeed, on this topic, Carlie cited concerns she may be accused of anthropomorphising Clementine as too ‘humanistic’. However, she also expressed the view that associating animals with human-like characteristics is just ‘acknowledging the animal in ourselves and the animal in them’ and that ‘the more we go on, the more we realise that the same things in us are also in animals. And I don't think that's anthropomorphism. I think that's just looking at an animal and actually recognising that there's probably a lot going that we haven't figured out yet’.
As a member of the Animal Research Nexus programme, Pru inevitably read Always Clementine with a particular lens. It is therefore not surprising that the big themes from the programme – of history, species, animal fates, professionals and ideas of engagement and representation, emerged as key themes in the discussion on which this blog reports. However, more broadly, it is also interesting to reflect on the extent to which fiction can sometimes serve as a more powerful tool than academic work. As Shannon Lambert notes in relation to animal research, perhaps fiction ‘offers a space for negotiating the kinds of complexity that often attend sensitive socio-cultural issues’. Whilst we as academics did not write any books for children as part of this collaboration, we have played with fictionalised conversations, fictional ethics committees, and fictional medicine labels. Looking beyond the Animal Research Nexus programme, we hope that more attention is given to these kinds of creative methods, and to the way in which writers, both inside and outside of academia, try to tell their own kinds of stories, about the humans and animals that constitute contemporary laboratory science.
Pru Hobson-West would like to thank Carlie Sorosiak for being willing to discuss Always Clementine in such detail, and for her generosity of spirit in engaging with many questions about fiction, non-fiction and animals.