In our modern world, many of the things that contribute to the mostly smooth running of our day-to-day lives are largely invisible to us. We tend to notice them only when they break. Uncaged, a thriller by Paul McKellips, identifies animal research as one of the activities in the background supporting the quality of life we take for granted, and explores what might happen if all the animal research in the U.S. ended overnight.
Part of the fun of a thriller is the unfolding of plot turns and the uncertainty about which characters who come into focus will end up becoming important. Therefore, in order not to spoil the book for those who haven't read it yet, I'm not going to say much about the details of the plot or the main characters.
The crisis emerges from a confluence of events and an intertwining of the actions of disparate persons acting in ignorance of each other. This complex tangle of causal factors is one of the most compelling parts of the narrative. McKellips gives us "good guys," "bad guys," and ordinary folks just trying to get by and to satisfy whatever they think their job description or life circumstances demand of them, weaving a tapestry where each triggers chains of events that compound in ways they could scarcely have foreseen. This is a viscerally persuasive picture of how connected we are to each other, whether by political processes, public health infrastructure, the food supply, or the germ pool.
There is much to like in Uncaged. The central characters are complex, engaging, and even surprising. McKellips is deft in his descriptions of events, especially the impacts of causal chains initiated by nature or by human action on researchers and on members of the public. Especially strong are McKellips's explanations of scientific techniques and rationales for animal research in ways that are reasonably accessible to the lay reader without being oversimplified.
Uncaged gets to the crux of the societal debate about scientific animal use in a statement issued by the President of the United States as, in response to a series of events, he issues an executive order halting animal research. This president spells out his take on the need -- or not -- for continued biomedical research with animals:
I realize that the National Institutes of Health grants billions of dollars to American universities and our brightest scientists for biomedical research each year. But there comes a point when we must ask ourselves -- that we must seriously question -- has our health reached the level of "good enough"? Think of all the medicine we have available to us today. It's amazing. It's plenty. It's more than we have had available in the history of humanity. And for those of us who need medicines, surgeries, therapies and diagnostic tools -- it is the sum total of all that we have available to us today. If it's good enough for those of us who need it today, then perhaps it's good enough for those who will need it tomorrow as well. Every generation has searched for the fountain of youth. But can we afford to spend more time, more money, and -- frankly -- more animals just to live longer? Natural selection is an uninvited guest within every family. Some of us will die old; some of us will die far too young. We cannot continue to fund the search for the fountain of youth. We must realize that certain diseases of aging -- such as cancer, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's -- are inevitable. Our lifestyles and nutrition are environmental factors that certainly contribute to our health. How much longer can we pretend to play the role of God in our own laboratories? (58-59)
In some ways, this statement is the ethical pivot-point around which all the events of the novel -- and the reader's moral calculations -- turn. How do we gauge "good enough"? Who gets to make the call, the people for whom modern medicine is more or less sufficient, or the people whose ailments still have no good treatment? What kind of process ought we as a society to use for this assessment?
These live questions end up being beside the point within the universe of Uncaged though. The president issuing this statement has become, to all appearances, a one-man death panel.
McKellips develops a compelling and diverse selection of minor characters here: capitalists, terrorists, animal researchers, animal rights activists, military personnel, political appointees. Some of these (especially the animal rights activists) are clearly based on particular real people who are instantly recognizable to those who have been paying attention to the targeting of researchers in recent years. (If you've followed the extremists and their efforts less closely, entering bits of text from the communiques of the fictional animal rights organizations into a search engine is likely to help you get a look at their real-life counterparts.)
But, while McKellips's portrayal of the animal rights activists is accurate in capturing their rhetoric, these key players who are central in creating the crisis to which the protagonists must respond remain ciphers. The reader gets little sense of the events or thought processes that brought them to these positions, or of the sorts of internal conflicts that might occur within animal rights organizations -- or within the hearts and minds of individual activists.
Maybe this is unavoidable -- the internet animal rights activists often do seem like ciphers who work very hard to deny the complexities acknowledged by the researchers in Uncaged. But, perhaps naïvely, I have a hard time believing they are not more complex in real life than this.
As well, I would have liked for Uncaged to give us more of a glimpse into the internal workings of the executive branch -- how the president and his cabinet made the decision to issue the executive order for a moratorium on animal research, what kinds of arguments various advisors might have offered for or against this order, what assemblage of political considerations, ideals, gut feelings, and unforeseen consequences born of incomplete information or sheer ignorance might have been at work. But maybe presidents, cabinet members, agency heads, and other political animals are ciphers, too -- at least to research scientists who have to navigate the research environment these political animals establish and then rearrange.
Maybe this is an instance of the author grappling with the same challenge researchers face: you can't build a realistic model without accurate and detailed information about the system you're modeling. Maybe making such a large cast of characters more nuanced, and drawing us deeply into their inner lives, would have undercut the taut pacing of what is, after all, intended as an action thriller.
But to me, this feels like a missed opportunity. Ultimately, I worry that the various players in Uncaged -- and worse, their real life counterparts -- the researchers and other advocates of humane animal research, the animal rights activists, the political animals, and the various segments of the broader public -- continue to see each other as ciphers rather than trying to get in each others heads and figure out where their adversaries are coming from, the better to be able to reflect upon and address the real concerns that are driving people. Modeling your opponents as automata has a certain efficiency, but to me it leaves the resolution feeling somewhat hollow -- and it's certainly not a strategy for engagement that I see leading to healthy civil society in real life.
I suspect, though, that my disappointments are a side-effect of the fact that I am not a newcomer to these disputes. For readers not already immersed in the battles over research with animals, Uncaged renders researchers as complex human beings to whom one can relate. This is a good read for someone who wants a thriller that also conveys a compelling picture of what motivates various lines of biomedical research -- and why such research might matter to us all.