Interview with an animal advocate and former microbiologist

Can you please introduce yourself? 

My name is Norma Graves. For most of my working life, I’ve been a social worker in mental health. However, before that, I was a medical scientist and worked as a microbiologist for three or four years in infectious diseases. This was in Perth. I was in a hospital where they had an animal house, with rabbits, dogs and rats. Over the years, they had different employees coming and going and none of them seem to have any compassion or care for the actual animals. And that upset me terribly. If an animal didn’t do what they wanted, they’d just sort of chuck it across the room. And I found that I couldn’t take that. It was too distressing for me. I couldn’t cope with it.

What first motivated you to become an advocate for animals?

I always felt a comradeship with animals. I always felt that when an animal screamed or cried or was in pain, it was no different to a human. I just felt an affinity with animals and I couldn’t see why they should suffer for the benefit or amusement of humans. And I wanted to do something about it. Ever since I was a child, I felt that way.

Was microbiology your first introduction to animals being used in experimentation?

I’d heard about it, but I didn’t realize how bad it was and it is really bad, especially when humans do it for no other reason than to get their name on some sort of publication or paper. I was married to a medical scientist, a doctor before we got divorced. It was very important to them, who the leading author was and how many papers they’d got published. And it was all for their own betterment. I had many arguments with my ex-husband about that. And the usual answer given was, “Well, we have to try it out on animals first because otherwise, how do we know?”.

But I also knew from being a microbiologist that you can’t transpose an animal model onto a human model without knowing for sure that it’s going to work, because when you’ve done the animal model, you then have to test it on human volunteers first—what they call clinical trials—before continuing on. So, my philosophy was why not just cut out the middleman, why not cut out the animals and go straight onto the human volunteers?

Why have you continued to support this cause over the years?

I don’t know if you know about the sad story of thalidomide. Thalidomide was tried and pronounced safe because they used it on animals and it caused horrific deformities when they transferred that same model to be used in humans. And I happened to be a social worker and saw some of those children that had been born with half arms and half legs. That was a failure of the system because it was pronounced safe on animals.

Why is ending animal experimentation a matter of importance to you?

I don’t believe in sadism and cruelty in any way. I’m vegan myself, so I don’t like killing things. I spend my life signing petitions against trophy hunting and breeding animals for killing and hunting and all that sort of thing. It’s really important to me. There’s a very deep division down the ecological movement. There are people who believe in using animals and those who believe in not using animals. And I believe in not using animals.

What words of encouragement would you offer anyone considering supporting HRA and the work we do to end animal experimentation?

I would point them in the direction of applying to be a volunteer in a clinical studies trial.  And ask them to consider how experiments with animals can be considered a “success” if they haven’t been tried on humans. For me, it’s not just about animal cruelty but improving human health. Clinical trials always need volunteers. And if you want to help, that’s one way to do it.

A large portion of our support comes through the generous donation of gifts in wills. Do you have any words of encouragement for anyone who might be considering leaving HRA a gift in their will?

If you are leaving a gift to an organization that produces suffering in animals, for the ultimate good of humans, it makes no logical sense to me. Why not give a gift to a charity that doesn’t cause any suffering at all? It may produce the same good that you were hoping for, but in the process also doesn’t produce suffering to anyone—animals or humans.

What do you see as the greatest obstacles to organisations campaigning for an end to animal experimentation today?

There’s a general feeling in the community that animal welfare advocates are a bit on the nutty side, you know, like how vegans used to be seen as a being a bit on the nutty side. But now, being vegan has become much more mainstream. So, I think the main obstacle up until now—and I hope it’s changing—is the perception that we are well-meaning, but unrealistic. And the misbelief that it’s necessary to experiment on animals.

Do you have any final words about animal experimentation or is there anything else you would like to say that hasn’t been covered in the questions above?

I just wish there was more publicity for alternatives to animal experimentation. And more publicity for the fact that you can’t transpose a model from an animal to a human and be sure that it’s going to work. Plus of course, the horrible, horrible cruelty that’s involved in animal experimentation.

I’m sorry I wasn’t a microbiologist and that I didn’t realize what it was going to entail, but I’m glad I left it. I feel that at least I know from firsthand experience how horrible it was, and it’s not something that I’ve only just read about.

If I had the power to give a lot of money to alternatives, either to do the research or publicity to encourage people to be clinical studies volunteers, that’s what I would do.



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