Of Mice and Men

The Shinto sense of gratitude once led Kokichi Mikimoto of cultured pearl fame to hold a requiem for the oysters who gave their lives that he might make a fortune in the pearl industry. I thought of Mr. Mikimoto when the 2007 Nobel Prize in medicine went to Mario R. Capecchi of the University of Utah, Oliver Smithies, of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and Sir Martin J. Evans of Cardiff University in Wales.

These three scientists developed what is known as “knockout” technology — a technique which allows scientists to “knock out” targeted genes in laboratory mice. Because mice have the same organs as humans and genes that are about 95 percent identical to that of human sequencing, scientists have been able to understand many human ailments. In effect, being able to knock out genes in mice has paved the way to saving human lives. Because they’re so important, thousands of “knockout mice” are now kept available for scientific research.

I’m not against using animals for medical research. If a mouse in a laboratory can save the lives of millions of humans, I’m all for it. But I hope those mice are viewed with the same respect that Kokichi Mikimoto held for his pearl-making oysters. When we humans lose a sense of companionship with animals, we lose a precious part of our own humanity. In the same way that serial killers begin by torturing animals, an entire society can lose its sense of compassion and respect for life by cutting itself off from a sense of kinship with animals. Native Americans once thanked the buffalo and deer they killed for food. I hope that every laboratory scientist using animals for the benefit of mankind breathes a silent “thank you” as they work. For all our sakes.

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