Conner Sessions’s decision to combine his love of science and animals nearly destroyed him. Growing up in rural Washington state, he spent his early life surrounded by cows, horses, cats, and dogs. He cared about all of them and considered a career in veterinary medicine. But after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, in 2016, he saw a job ad that changed his mind.
The hard practicality of much animal research is that some animals will suffer and die. Accomplished animal-based researchers understand and accept this. They are a fundamental component of their chosen career. But do we give a thought to animal technicians and junior researchers who may not have considered this when accepting a job? This Science piece discusses the personal torment of an animal technician who genuinely cares for animals. Institutions have a duty of care to offer support and assistance to junior research staff struggling with these matters.
Sessions grew especially attached to the dogs, which was tough: Some were bred for two different forms of muscular dystrophy, one 100% fatal. He raised the puppies from birth, sometimes tube feeding those that had trouble nursing. “I trained one litter to line up in their kennel for treats,” he says. Then he would walk in one morning and find some of them dead in their enclosures—victims of their disease.
Over the next few years, Sessions came to expect this. But it never got easier. Every time he entered the underground facility where the animals were kept, he panicked, fearful of what he might find. He became anxious and depressed, and began obsessively checking on the dogs throughout the day, a feeling that followed him home. “I’d be doing the dishes at 8 at night and wondering, ‘Should I go back and check if my animals are OK?’” He hesitated to go on vacation or even take weekends off, worried one of the dogs would die or be euthanized while he was away. “I wanted to be there for them,” he says. “It’s almost like they become your pets.”