She was a stray pup in the streets of 1950’s Moscow. She couldn’t have known that her motherland, the Soviet Union, was in a mad race to be the first to put a man in space. They would start with a dog. And so Laika, as she was named— the most common name one could give to a dog (“barker”, it meant)— was plucked off the street one night. She was a good dog, with a sweet disposition, obediently complying with the rigorous training of the space exploration program. And here is the duplicity of the situation: the lead scientist, Oleg Gazenko, developed a bond with her, even demanding that a window to be installed in her tiny space shuttle. The day of the launch of Sputnik II came in 1957, and after Laika was strapped in, he remained by her side on the platform. He knew she was doomed— the shuttle was designed to not be retrievable. He knew her death would be agonizing, a result of stress and overheating. Many years later he would recall how he walked past the post-launch reception and out into the nearby forest, where he cried. “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,” he said in a public statement in the late 1990’s, after the Soviet Union was no more.

Regret is a running theme in Maximum Tolerated Dose—the first feature length documentary on animal testing. Part of the story is told through revealing testimonials of vivisectors who had a crisis of conscience at one point during their research— like the cardiologist, who finally made the connection between the dogs he was experimenting on for work and his beloved pet dogs at home; or the lab worker who bonded with the rats from her lab. They made the decision to walk away from animal testing forever, unable to compartmentalize their inherent compassion any longer.

The film is beautifully made—in spite of the harrowing subject matter it covers. A lot is inferred through sounds off-camera, first-person accounts, and footage of animals post-research. One such animal is Darla, a profoundly traumatized monkey, who is retired to a sanctuary after nearly two decades of being experimented on. There are scenes that pierce one’s soul: like the capture of a macaque from the wild, who is pulled from a tree with methodical precision, and restrained— arms bound behind his back as though under arrest. The look of desperation and confusion on the animal’s face devastates. Director Karol Orzechowski surrendered completely to the film, diving deep into the murky waters of animal testing. He ended up battling depression for a few months, as a result of the grueling filmmaking experience and the demanding schedule that followed the film’s release. “Hopelessness is a real feeling, and I empathize with anyone who ends up in that kind of thinking,” he told us, when we spoke to him recently about the film. “But I really think nothing is ever 100% hopeless. As long as someone is still out there working towards the same goal as you, you are two.” Although deeply shaken by the realities of vivisection, we left the film armed with a wealth of new information and a resolve to bring this practice to an end. Here, we talk to Karol more about Maximum Tolerated Dose and the plight of animals in testing.

What prompted you to make this film?
Back in 2010 I interviewed former research cardiologist Dr. John Pippin and a former commercial lab worker named Isabelle, and during those interviews, I realized that the experience of working in a laboratory and being traumatized by it was perhaps more common than we realize. Around the same time, I was fortunate enough to meet some chimpanzees who were used for decades in laboratory research, and their stories – their traumas, their healing, and their perseverance – deeply affected me. I was already involved in animal work, and filmmaking, so it made sense to combine the two in a larger project. Through those interviews and meetings, the subject matter pretty much just found me.

Karol shooting from inside of a chimpanzee “metabolism cage.” Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur

How important was artistry and production value during the filmmaking process?
That was one of my main goals: I wanted to make something that was a good documentary film first, and a piece of activism second. It was strategic, but it was mostly a function of how I think of art and of myself as an artist. There is already a huge amount of video out there that covers virtually all aspects of animal exploitation, and it serves a particular activist purpose. I’ve done a bunch of that stuff, and will in the future. But I think we don’t have a lot of films that explore animal issues in a way that doesn’t betray the aesthetic aspect. MTD is really my humble attempt to create a good film that also explores an issue that I feel strongly about. I’m not sure if I succeeded in rising to the level of a cinematic work, but I tried my best. And I think in striving for that goal, I also created something that has the potential to have a deep effect on the viewer.

Tell us a little more about Darla.
Meeting Darla for the first time was one of the moments that inspired making the film. Darla lives at Fauna Foundation in Montreal, and I first met her in 2010 on my first visit there. I was able to build a relationship with the Fauna folks, to the point where they allowed me to include Darla in the film, and to return to the sanctuary to film her and interview staff there about her story. Meeting her those times deeply affected me… and just a few months before filming Darla’s story, I was visiting monkey farms in SE Asia, either the same places or similar to the kind of place that Darla would have come from. The juxtaposition of those two aspects of the production were really difficult to stomach, because it gave that much more weight to her life story.

To put it in blunter terms: Darla is a beautiful, strong, and severely damaged individual. She was used for 17 years in a laboratory before being sent to sanctuary, and even though her life now is infinitely better than it once was (she has monkey companions at the sanctuary, access to a large space outside, comfort and care from the human staff, and much more), she will likely never fully recover emotionally from her time in the lab. Fauna is an amazing place, and the fact that they have given Darla and many other space is a beautiful thing. The labs that send animals to the sanctuary are not required to divulge any information about what they were used for. What we do know is that Darla was used at Queen’s University, and that she may have actually lived at two facilities because she has two tattoo numbers. In her time as an university lab test subject, she was used in tests related to menstruation (where her uterus was removed), and later anorexia experiments where she was starved for periods of time. We only know this through the tearful confessions of what the researcher who adopted her out to Fauna Foundation said during a couple of visits after Darla’s “retirement.”

Watching her in the film really illustrated the scope of an animal’s life in vivisection, beyond the experiments. Was that intentional?
Particular tests or procedures, and even the moments of death, are just a sliver of the entirety of animals’ lives in the lab. I’d like to see more of a discussion of the “true costs” of keeping animals in labs for their whole lives, not just what we do to them in a particular test. Monkeys trapped in Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand end up on farms, where they are bred for years and eventually exported to China and Vietnam. From there they are “laundered” to bend international species trade regulations, and then exported to labs all over the world. Farms in Laos are the midway point between when monkeys are trapped, and when they are actually exported. So in many cases, a macaque in a lab may have, at some point, been living in the wild, trapped, and used for breeding for years before being used for many more years as experiment subjects.

A monkey farm in Laos. Photo by Karol Orzechowski

You mention The Foundation for Biomedical Research on the film’s site. Can you explain what that is, and why it’s important for activists to be aware of these types of groups?
Ah yes, “The Foundation.” I learned about The Foundation for Biomedical Research a few years ago, and it’s always fascinated me. Essentially, it’s a PR group / Lobby group that serves as a propaganda arm of the various biomedical research industries in the US (and I suppose, by extension, the world). Does it have a real influence? That’s hard to say, because it’s hard to know what kind of budget they’re working with for their efforts. But, they are definitely out there, trying to spin animal testing in a positive way. They also have a feature film in production by their media arm, FBR Media, called Uncaged. The trailer is actually kind of comical, in the way that it blends big titles that say BLACK PLAGUE with a shot of THE ONE SCIENTIST WHO CAN SAVE US, mixed with shots of fighter jets, mixed with shots of healthy looking lab mice with DNA diagrams floating in the background. But regardless of how comical or easy to deconstruct we may find their work, I think it’s really important that we engage with it, and regularly. The FBR is one example of the type stuff that is out there, that may or may not be consumed by the general public, and that we need to know how to counter. How can we counter it if we don’t know what they’re saying?

So are you seeing reasons for hope?
I think there is much to be hopeful for. There are lots of groups all over the world working really hard, using a wide variety of approaches, to bring about an end to vivisection. As a movement, we’re also fortunate that there are a whole slew of scientists (some of whom aren’t motivated by animal welfare, but by scientific efficiency and accuracy) who are working on research alternatives that will help in that fight too. Activism on this issue is extremely varied and becoming more and more prevalent. What’s more, I think research institutions and governments are also starting to recognize that the tide of public opinion is shifting, and rather than fight it, they are moving with it. That is a very good thing.

Rita, rescued from a laboratory dog breeding facility in Spain. Photo by Karol Orzechowski

Maximum Tolerated Dose is currently being screened in select cities. And this summer, it will also be the shown during a ground-breaking animal rights tour called Open The Cages. Traveling along the East Coast of the United States and Canada, it will make stops in 16 cities— each chosen specifically due to their proximity to laboratory facilities that test on animals such as primates, mice, rabbits, beagles and other dogs, as well as cats, guinea pigs and rats. Every stop will include protests at the facilities, workshops on animal rights and activism, as well as music performances. For tour founder and long-time activist Mike XVX this was an intentional method of connecting people to a social justice movement like this one. “My big catalyst for breaking into Animal Rights was through the music I listened to. I grew up in the punk scene in Southern California and I was greatly influenced by the lyrics of the bands I’d go and see on the weekend,” he explained when we spoke to him recently about the tour. “Everyone has that big ‘A-ha!’ moment at different times in their lives… it’s very difficult to discern when individuals will reach that point, but this tour is essentially a platform that allows those moments to happen.” One of the goals of the tour is to jumpstart the grassroots movement across North America, he explained. After witnessing some disheartening infighting within the animal rights community, Mike is determined to show that “we are much stronger fighting together than fighting separately,” he said.

A demonstration at Oregon National Primate Research Center. Photo by Jennifer Bundock

OTC already proved this during its West Coast tour in the Summer of 2012. A multitude of artists, activists, and musicians successfully came together to educate, inspire and motivate each other, and the communities in the cities they visited. The tour helped reenergize local anti-vivisection campaigns, and is aiming to make similar strides in 2013. “We need to be out there (not just on the internet!) meeting people, building connections, and sharing ideas on how we can push forward. We can’t forget that the lives of animals hang in the balance of our willingness and ability to cooperate with each other,” Mike explained. With the ultimate goal being the abolition of animal testing and all animal exploitation, “We’re in this for the animals and the animals only,” he emphasized.

The forthright activism of initiatives like Open The Cages, honest artistic statements like Maximum Tolerated Dose, and the shifting attitudes towards animal testing not only within the public, but the scientific community itself— give substantial reason to believe that an end to vivisection is not only achievable, but with our collective influence, closer than we even think. “Every research institution and commercial lab and ethics oversight committee worth their salt espouses something called the “3 Rs” of animal experimentation: Refinement, Reduction, and Replacement. This is something that the animal experimentation industries themselves are saying,” says Karol. “The idea that vivisection should and will be phased out, is already recognized by the industry. This should be encouraging, and should motivate us to push even harder, in as many ways as we can think of.”

An effective way to make a difference right now is to simply not support the companies that test on animals. We’ve put together an abbreviated list of resources below, and we also highly encourage our readers to research the topic on their own. And together, we can change the plight of animals like Laika and so many others, and turn We shouldn’t have done it into We’ve stopped doing it for good.

Resources on cruelty-free options:
+ Leaping Bunny
+ A comprehensive list of companies that DON’T test on animals, including cosmetics, self-care and household products

General resources on animal testing:
+ A comprehensive list from Maximum Tolerated Dose
+ PCRM and their program Humane Seal

Major corporations that DO test on animals:
+ Unilever
(Dove, Lipton, Skippy, Ben and Jerry’s, AXE)
+ Proctor & Gamble
(Tide, Bounty, Tampax, Gilette)
+ Johnson & Johnson
(Band-Aid, Listerine, Splenda, Neutrogena, Aveeno, Tylenol, Motrin, Stayfree, K-Y)
+ S.C. Johnson
(Drano, Glade, Pledge, Shout, Skintimate, Ziploc)
+ Reckitt Benckiser
(Lysol, Resolve)

List of companion food companies that DO test:
+ Iams Cruelty

Major pharmaceutical companies that DO test on animals:
+ Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.
+ Merck
+ Novartis
+ Pfizer


Laika illustration by Meera Lee Patel for Laika Magazine

Written by Julie Gueraseva