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"Poem to my Litter" by Max Ritvo. An Analysis about Laboratory Mice and their Misuse

Essay 2018 5 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Literatur


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Poem to my Litter: An Analysis about Laboratory Mice and their Misuse

Nowadays experimenting with and especially on animals seems to be the norm not everyone likes to discuss about: Animals like mice, dogs, cats, monkeys, fish, guinea pigs and rats are used in laboratories to develop general biological and anatomical knowledge, verify chemical substances, test make up products (outside Germany), or even test new medicines and drugs to calculate the consequences for human beings, who have a similar DNA structure. The used animals differ from their free relatives as laboratory rodents are bred to have the characteristics they need to serve society and fulfill their morally questionable purpose. Three million laboratory animals have to die yearly as a consequence of experiments in Germany. The number is far less then the number of slaughtered animals, who die for the meat production. In 2015 1.2 million people demonstrated in front of the EU Parliament; not to intensify the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act but to finally stop experimenting on animals. In other countries of the world, for example the USA, well-known organizations like PETA fight to stop animal-testing.

The animals which are used the most in science are mice, because their genes correspond to 98% with human genes (the mouse genome was decoded in 2002). Mice have a similar nervous system and procreation. Human beings suffer from many diseases, which can affect mice too: cancer, infections or diabetes. Most of the therapies and medicines to cure cancer that are known today exist only because of the scientific research. Knock-in or knock-out mice are rodents, whose genes are off or specifically turned on. Those changed DNA structures often result in changes of the mouse's outward appearance, its behavior and other characteristics. Science uses this technique to gain conclusions about the function of the changed genes. Scholars use those knock-in and knockout mice to investigate illnesses and conclude about humans. Experiments on animals are not only 1 morally questionable but often very expensive, especially since there seem to be cheaper alternatives: In Germany a machine has been developed to recreate the behavior of the human body, for example when being confronted with exhaust emissions. Furthermore the German company TissUse developed a chip, which is capable to adapt human organs and their interactions in a circulatory system. For the future TissUse plans to recreate the whole human body on a tiny chip. To reduce experiments with laboratory animals, reduce suffering and act more responsible scholars need to follow the ethical “3R-principle”, which was invented by two British scientists, the zoologist William Russell and microbiologist Rex Burch in 1959. The British scientists explain their principle, which today is used in the USA, Germany and in many other animal protection laws, in their published book The Principles of Human Experimental Technique. The 3R-Principle is Replacement, Reduction and Refinement. Replacement means that scientists need to use alternative methods such as computers or bacteria as often as possible. Reduction means that in animal based experiments the number of the used animals has to be reduced to a minimum. Refinement means that the laboratory animals have to be kept appropriate to their species, receive special animal practice and receive treatments like narcosis to reduce suffering and stress.

Additionally in Germany a recent secret laboratory report unveiled a huge scandal: the famous automotive company Volkswagen (VW) used monkeys to examine the consequences of exhaust emissions on a living creature. Therefore VW used two different car models (the VW Beetles of 2013 and a Ford Pickup of 1997), aiming to prove that the recent model produces far less emissions. For the questionable experiment some employees of the VW automotive company decided that four Javaner monkey had to inhale the emissions of both of the cars. The result was devastating so that the responsible scientists faked the report. Some weeks ago the real result was published: the monkeys did suffer from the highly synthetic pollution and the newer car model was even more harmful. The legal proceeding is set for the 26th of February 2018 and it will show the further course of action.

The poem Poem to my Litter by Max Ritvo, a young man who was diseased with cancer some years ago, consists of eighteen strophes with two verses each. The poem was published soon after the young man died. It is written freely and does not have a rhyme scheme. In the poem the lyric I (Ritvo) describes how doctors implanted his genes in mice to find the cure against his tumors. The doctors split the tumors up and scattered them (Ritvo, strophe 2). His tumors have spread ten years ago and then “they went to his lungs, and down his femurs, and into the hives in his throat that hatch white cells.” Furthermore he declares that the mice “only” have a tumor each in the leg and that they have never grown up. (strophe 6 + 7) The morally difficult fact is that the laboratory mice, which Ritvo all called Max, bleed to death after their legs are cut off. (strophe 8 + 9) Also the doctors have to infect the mice with the AIDS virus to ensure that they can harbor Max Ritvo's genes. (strophe 11) In the end of the poem Ritvo concludes that the mice are like traumatized and tortured children (strophe 14) but he only wants peace for them and himself. (strophe 18)

From the poem the reader learns that Max Ritvo's feelings were divided: On the one hand he drew new hope from the doctor's knowledge. He had to spend more than a decade with his growing and spreading tumors, ruining his childhood and youth. Ritvo probably already gave up believing, when his doctors likely told him before that he had not long to live. So Ritvo believes in the mice and even names them after himself and looks forward finding a cure (a poison against cancer cells), but on the other hand he imagines (as he probably is not allowed to meet “his mice/litter personally) how the rodents suffer, especially when they bleed to death. Ritvo is in a moral inner conflict situation and only wants to find peace, meaning health for the mice and himself. The poet and young husband, who wrote several books and was published for example in The New Yorker also emphasizes, that the mice' tumors did neither spread nor fully grow. It needs to be discussed how much he really cared about the animals, since he did not name them individually and still always prioritizes his own sickness and lethality.

In the USA there is a Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, which was written by scientists and for scientists. The guide can be accessed electronically via the government's website and the newest (8th ) edition was published by the National Academic Press. The guide provides information about laboratory animals, testing, research, the right treatment and it also mentions the “3R-Principle” of Williams and Burch. It states that “the goal of the Guide is to promote the humane care and use of laboratory animals by providing information that will enhance animal wellbeing, the quality of research, and the advancement of scientific knowledge that is relevant to both humans and animals. […] Throughout the Guide, scientists and institutions are encouraged to give careful and deliberate thought to the decision to use animals, taking into consideration the contribution that such use will make to new knowledge, ethical concerns, and the availability of alternatives to animal use (NRC 1992).“

According to the Guide not only the staff has to be well-educated about animal care, but every facility that uses the vertebrates for laboratories has to have a disaster and emergency plan: Animal facilities must be prepared for unexpected conditions that “result in the catastrophic failure of critical systems or significant personnel absenteeism or other unexpected events that severly compromise ongoing animal care and well-being.” The so-called disaster plan needs to define the actions necessary to prevent suffering, distress and death due to the failing of ventilation, heating, cooling, provision of food and water or other things. Every animals that could not be saved from such catastrophes need to be humanely euthanized. Also law enforcement and emergency personnel with a copy of the plan and the ability to develop further plans to avoid more emergencies has to be provided by the facility. Also there is “the animal use protocol, which is a detailed description of the proposed use of laboratory animals.” Finally the guide also recommends other organizations which provide information about animal care, such as veterinarians, the IO, IACUC Chair, and AV. In the United States there are also (like in Germany) sanctuaries, which try to safe retired laboratory animals from euthanasia by offering them a long term home. Also there is the possibility to adopt former laboratory animals.

In “Representation and Practical Accomplishment in the Laboratory: When is an Animal Model Good-Enough?” Jamie Lewis declares how animal facilities choose their animal models: the chosen animals have to be similar to human beings (warm-blooded mammals with a similar DNA structure),but simultaneously different from humans: animals, which do not have the same cognitive (thinking) skills, the ability of language (talking/writing) but still can feel and show (bodily) functions and consequences. Therefor rodents are best and used mostly. Lewis also states that “the use of a model depends on practical judgments about which features of the disease can be expressed and manipulated in the model and which aspects can be left out. It also depends on the practical work of simply making the experiment work.” (Lewis, 786) Advantages of using rats or mice for the experiments are that they are cheap, high in number and they are also easy to train (research technicians and laboratory workers train some models to gain specific behaviors). A disadvantage is, for example, that all the mice in stock have to have the same DNA patterns, so the scientist breed them. Bred animals with a similar DNA structure are susceptible to be weaker, resulting in becoming sicker and sicker and eventually die before the experiment even started.

In conclusion it is difficult to judge whether experiments on animals are morally justified. Common statistics say that most of the animal experiments do fail, meaning that what might or might not have worked for the mice must not automatically work for humans. On the one hand alternative methods such as machines, computers or the “human body chip” do not yet seem to be developed far enough to substitute animal models completely: they are not realistically able to show which part or function of the “body” hurts or is disturbed. Also characteristics such as gender, age or origin might play a role for diseases models: those characteristics are difficult to recreate. On the other hand it would also be irresponsible to use medicine, new cures or drugs on animals or humans before they have been tested at least once. My personal impression is that there are still too many experiments on animals: for example I am convinced that things such as cosmetic products should 5 only be tested on humans. The human “models” who would test the products would need an observation by their doctors, be “pain resistant” and acknowledge their allergies. Also experiments like the exhaust emission scandal (monkeys inhaling car emissions) are morally not tenable in any way. Also it is visible, yet very important that the government and other facilities provide educational work to improve animal care. The scientists and the personnel who works with animals within a scientific facility still needs to be careful, empathizing and be well-educated in the future. People like the VW directors, who decided to test on monkeys, need to be punished properly or even be imprisoned. Also the public and eventually even (school) kids should be informed to avoid more “myths” about animal experimenting. Finally I am convinced that science might have extended their research enough to have gained greater knowledge and replace most of the animal experiments.

Works Cited

“Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.”National Institutes of Health,U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “HOME.”Max Ritvo, “Affen-Skandal: Auch Daimler schickt Mitarbeiter nach Hause.”FAZ.NET, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 31 Jan. 2018, affaere/versuchemit-affen-vw-abgase-doch-schaedlich-15425552.html.

Lewis, Jamie, et al. “Representation and Practical Accomplishment in the Laboratory: When is an Animal Model Good-Enough?” Sociology, vol. 47, no. 4, Dec. 2012, pp. 776–792. JSTOR, doi:10.1177/0038038512457276.

Ritvo, Max. “"Poem to My Litter".” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 10 July 2017,

Schmitt, Stefan. “Labortiere: Tierversuch=Menschenschutz.”ZEIT ONLINE, ZEIT ONLINE,26 May 2015, “Tierarten und ihr Einsatz in der Forschung.”Tierversuche verstehen, “TissUse GmbH.”TissUse GmbH Emulating Human Biology,



ISBN (eBook)
Institution / Hochschule
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main
Laboratory Mice Poem to my Litter Max Ritvo Misuse Analysis



Titel: "Poem to my Litter" by Max Ritvo. An Analysis about Laboratory Mice and their Misuse