Lesley A. Sharp


On her book Animal Ethos: The Morality of Human-Animal Encounters in Experimental Lab Science

Cover Interview of May 15, 2019


One can never predict how one’s work will be received. What has intrigued me thus far, in the few months since the release of Animal Ethos, is the interest it has sparked among lab-based personnel, especially those whose day-to-day work concerns lab animal care and welfare. I have received requests to participate in discussions and initiatives about how to think creatively about lab practices as well as how to speak publicly about realms of research, and associated daily work, that involved parties assume are highly stigmatized.

More specifically, researchers and other lab personnel are reluctant to tell others—including close friends and family—about any work that involves animal experimentation. Their interest and invitations stand in stark contrast to my earlier work on organ transplantation: as I soon learned there, biomedical personnel express faint interest in reading analyses of their professional work, whereas involved lay parties, such as the recipients of transplanted organs and the kin of deceased donors, are avid readers, including anthropological studies of their lives.

On yet another front, I’ve been surprised by the responses I’ve encountered among members of my own profession: whereas successful anthropological field research is based on the premise of cultural relativism, a project that addresses the lives and deaths of research animals exposes a fragile line demarcating where one’s own moral principles can eclipse a professional ability to suspend one’s judgment of a specialized social domain. In several instances I’ve faced the perplexing question, “why don’t you tell us how to think?” My purpose, however, is not to craft others’ moral frameworks but, instead, to open up a world that is troubled on a daily basis by the messiness of the moral. The lesson here is that animals—especially research animals—inspire highly emotional responses in many of us, regardless of one’s training and profession.