Felicia the ferret: animals and science

Felicia the ferret. Image taken from Fermilab.

Scientific knowledge comes from inquiry into the natural world.  It is a valuable and important part of human existence.  As we learn and invent, it is equally important that we constantly reflect on how we do science — it is just as important to refine — to do science better.

I believe that using animals for experimentation is unethical.

I have a brief pause, reading the old articles about Felicia the ferret, who helped to clean the tubes at the National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois.  There is something sweet about Felicia’s work that belies my understanding of animals in research laboratories.  Here are a few examination of the 1971 newspaper descriptions of this ferret used for science.

1. Natural aptitude

It seems as though each article describes the natural skills that make Felicia the ferret particularly capable of the tasks she is given (running a string through 300 foot tubes).  David Anderson’s article highlights the role of Robert Sheldon, the scientist who suggested that the lab try a ferret.

Being British, Sheldon remembered the use of ferrets by poachers who sent them into burrows after rabbits on English estates. Gamekeepers could hear the shooting of guns, but never the silent ferrets.

“Felicia is ideal for the work,” Pelczarski said. “The ferret is an animal filled with curiosity and seeks out holes and burrows. Its instinct is to find out what’s at the other end of a burrow, or, for that matter, a tube or a pipe.”

via Fermilab History and Archives Project | Natural History – Wildlife – Felicia Ferret.

2. Feminizing Felicia

Felicia the ferret is feminized at a number of points in the articles. Consider Peter Vaughn’s Minneapolis Star essay.  The introduction begins:

It is one of those success stories you read about: A small-town girl fresh off the farm finds fame and fortune.

Well, Felicia, who spent her early years on the farm of Stan Fredin near Gaylord, Minn., isn’t the average Minnesota farm girl.

In the first place, her hair is three different colors – brown, white and black.

Also, she is small as Minnesota girls go, barely topping 4 inches when on all fours.

Felicia is a ferret and left Fredin’s farm early this summer for a job with the National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, IL.

via Fermilab History and Archives Project | Natural History – Wildlife – Felicia Ferret.

Several of the articles suggest that Felicia be rewarded with a mate — each time the suggestion was denied because if she became pregnant she might not fit through the small holes she was being trained to run through.

She has her own special set of weight watchers, including Sheldon, who just doesn’t intend to let her get too big for the job.

Asked why there was only one ferret, Sheldon laughed and said, “If you think she needs company, you’re not really thinking ahead. We have to. Motherhood might just put her out of a job. Her career depends on her size. She’s important to us, but one is enough.”

via Fermilab History and Archives Project | Natural History – Wildlife – Felicia Ferret.

3. Memorializing Felicia to justify the use of animals in science.

Many of representations in these four articles are justifications for breeding, enslaving and using an animal for someone’s gain.

Part of the problem is that Felicia is a particular case — her work didn’t involve being cut open or enduring a painful series of experimental drugs.  Everyone can be sold the bogus particular story of a cute rodent running through the tubes bravely helping the scientists.  Contrast that to the 13 million animals being used in research.  The American Anti-Vivisection Society note that most of the test subjects are mice, rats and other rodents . . . like cute little Felicia!

Though the scientific value and ethics of animal research are increasingly being questioned, it is estimated that over 13 million animals are still being used in a wide variety of research projects every year in the United States. Purpose-bred birds, rats, and mice, as well as fish and other cold-blooded animals, make up the vast majority of the animals used in research (over 90 percent), yet are specifically excluded from the Animal Welfare Act. As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not keep records of the use of these animals, nor is there any legal requirement to afford these animals even the minimal standards of care provided by the Animal Welfare Act.

via Animals Used in Research – The American Anti-Vivisection Society (AAVS).

Which makes the particularizing and justifying of this individual animal’s story so worthy of amplification.  Kathryn Winslow’s plaintive profile of the ferret is a pretty stark contrast to the usual life of a ferret in a research laboratory.

Felicia turned out to be a virtuoso at her work. She carried whatever was fastened to her harness for long distances, sometimes around many obstacles on the course. Those working with her were so pleased that they wanted to reward her at the open end of her journey, but they could not find a tidbit she particularly longed for. She was happy enough to see her cage at the end of the journey, the only lure that was ever used to bring her out at the other end.

She was soon famous. She has been talked about on radio, seen on television numerous times, and been written up in magazines and newspapers with national and international coverage. She stars in a television film to be released soon in Europe. Her personal “manager” at the laboratory is Walter Pelczarski, who lives in Clarendon Hills.

via Fermilab History and Archives Project | Natural History – Wildlife – Felicia Ferret.

This particular article notes that Felicia became famous for her participation in the cleaning of the tubes — an animal celebrity.   Why would this ferret get it’s own movie?  From an anthropocentric perspective this cute furry animal that solves a little problem in this giant scientific endeavor grounds the abstract science in a narrative that is comfortable.

Felicia didn’t want to go through those tubes, she was bred and raised particularly for this task.  She was trained and rewarded, and of course kept in a cage for most of her life.

When Felicia’s job running a string down the particle accelerator tubes was given to a small robot, the romantic save-the-particular-animal trope becomes more visible.  Again Kathryn Winslow in the Tribune:

This good life may soon end for Felicia. The laboratory scientists have designed and built a mechanical ferret, a device activated by compressed air and controlled by wires. They don’t need Felicia anymore. This was always the plan, with Felicia to be used only temporarily, while they built her robot.

But now Felicia is famous and she has a following of people concerned for her welfare; people who do not want to see her sent to a museum as an exhibit, which is what the laboratory may do with her two weeks from now.

They are thinking of sending her to Oak Ridge, Tenn., where there is a live museum of animals and creatures that have made a contribution to science. There are mice, guinea pigs, and snakes there, among other exhibits.

But it’s no place for Felicia, who is a pet and needs the affection of human beings. Will it take an act of Congress to save Felicia?

via Fermilab History and Archives Project | Natural History – Wildlife – Felicia Ferret.

Here is to an act of congress that frees all animals in captivity being used for experimentation.  If it’s good enough for Felicia, I bet it’s good enough for the ferret getting injected with Influenza virus down the road.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for the link to the Fermilab history and Archives project!)

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Filed under Animals, communication, juxtaposition, memorial, nature, representation, science

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