Laika: One of the Lucky Few

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This is the story of Laika. I am sure most of you know about Laika. It was in the year 2002, when my mother told me about Laika. I was just 6 years old then and naturally, was terrified and shocked on being informed that a dog had been killed due to overheating. I did not know much about the details then. My mother, an ardent animal rights activist, was outraged but my father said it was ‘for science. It was justified.’ I am sure that many of you have either of these two point of views about what happened to Laika. But there are also some people who do not know about Laika, but her story must be known. So here’s how it all began.

Laika was FIRST animal to orbit the earth. She was one of the FIRST animals to be in outer space. We all know how much FIRST times matter because at that point of time, the Soviets were in a furious competition with the United States to create another ‘first’ in the space race. They wanted to send the first living creature into the orbit. Sputnik I have successfully been launched and now a living being was needed to be on board of Sputnik 2.

Three stray mongrels were collected from the streets of Moscow- Laika, Mushka and Albina. The reason why they were chosen is rather interesting. The scientists knew that these strays were already used to extreme weather conditions and hunger so their chances of survival were more than the other animals brought up in captivity. (That is an interesting point to note about the conditions that other strays face every day.) Of course, they were not meant to survive the trip. Everyone knew that there would be no return.

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All three of the dogs had to undergo the same training exercises. They were kept in confinement and every day the size of their cages were progressively reduced. Sputnik 2 was going to have a tiny cabin and hence movement or even turning around was not going to be an option in outer space. They would be harnessed so that only standing, sitting and lying down would be possible. Due to the unnatural confinement, the dogs started showing signs of deterioration. They became restless and could not urinate or defaecate. Laxatives did not help either, they had to adapt to their new form of living through practice. They were also placed in centrifuges that simulated the acceleration of a rocket launch and in machines that simulated the noises of the spacecraft. This made their pulses double and their blood pressure increase to a critical level. But the tests went on in order to prepare them for the flight.

Among the three, Albina had already traveled to space twice so she was supposed to act as Laika’s back up. Mushka was supposed to stay on the ground and act as the control. The instrumentation and life support would be tested on her. Laika was chosen to be the flight dog. She was placed in the capsule 3 days prior to the launch and kept under careful scrutiny. Before the launch, certain areas of her body were dabbed with iodine in order to place the sensors that would monitor her bodily functions.

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Now the question arises, how and when did she actually die? The truth about her death was not revealed till 2002. There were reports that she died due to oxygen depletion and to humanize that, there were reports that she was euthanized prior to her oxygen depletion. The controversies regarding animal abuses did not start until it was finally revealed that she died due to overheating six or seven hours into her flight. There had been some malfunctions regarding the thermal insulation and the temperature in the cabin had risen above the critical level.

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The contemporary society was not worried about the ethical issues of sending a dog into space from where she would never return. The Space Race was their main concern and the political controversies were of prime importance. It was not until a decade or two that people actually started wondering whether this decision of intentionally sending an animal into outer space with no prospect of saving its life, had been justified or not. The debates were mainly concentrated in the United Kingdom and the United States. Russia felt that such a sacrifice for science had been justified.

From this point, Laika’s story becomes a bit subjective. I can, under no circumstances, support animal experimentation for whatever purposes. The Greater Good does not justify individual acts of cruelty or murder. But I have to clarify a few facts. Laika was not mistreated throughout her life. He short existence was interspersed with a few happy memories and acts of kindness. Before the launch, one of the scientists took her to his home to play with his children. Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky wrote, “I wanted to do something nice for her: She had so little time left to live.”

Before her capsule was sealed off, the scientists kissed her nose and wished her bon voyage knowing that she would not return. There were arrangements to euthanize her before she died a cruel death, though such plans proved to be futile. I do not want to imply that these little acts of goodness justify killing her off. But at least she was treated with some respect. At this point of time, I do not feel the shock that my mother felt in 2002 when she got to know the unfortunate circumstances of Laika’s death. Somewhere in my mind, I know that she was one of the luckier animals. Animal experimentation is not a part of history. It is a present reality and not all animals are given the same respect or dignity. Their lives are spent in constant pain. Till the day they die, they are not considered as heroes, but disposable specimens. Laika was one of the luckier ones.

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In 1998, one of the scientists responsible for sending Laika into the orbit, said “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it… We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.”

This sympathy is rare. Animal experimentation is not justified. I respect the people who feel sorry for Laika, but do not restrict yourselves to one example. Millions of animals have suffered more terrible fates. Even today, behind the closed doors of the laboratories- millions of animals’ screams go unheard. Listen to them. Remember not only Laika, but Mushka, Albina, Pchyolka and Gordo.

Baker