When 25-year-old veterinary student Caterina Simonsen posted an update on a Facebook page supporting the use of animals in medical research before Christmas, she was trying to say how lucky she felt to be alive. The Padua native suffers from four rare genetic pulmonary diseases that require her to use breathing tubes and experimental medication to thin the mucus in her lungs in order to breathe. Her extreme illness makes her quickly immune to treatments, and, as a result, she has been a human guinea pig in a host of medical trials as doctors search for ways to help her live longer. At 18, her doctors told her she couldn’t be cured, but this year, she had survived another birthday and simply wanted to say thanks. “I am 25 thanks to genuine research that includes experiments on animals. Without research, I would have been dead at nine. You have gifted me a future.”
Simonsen’s comments, on the heels of a hotly contested national telethon in Italy soliciting money for medical research, triggered a flurry of hate comments from animal-rights extremists. “You could die tomorrow, I wouldn’t sacrifice my goldfish for you,” a poster named Giovanna wrote on the Facebook page “A Favore Della Sperimentazione Animale” (In Favor of Animal Experimentation). Another wrote, “If you had died as a child, no one would have given a damn.” In all, Simonsen received 30 death threats and 500 cruel insults, which are being investigated by local police.
After the barrage of insults, Simonsen went on the offensive to defend the use of animals in research to help people like her, launching a national debate on the hot-button topic. Italy’s top politicians, including new center left leader Matteo Renzi, tweeted his support for Simonsen: “I am with Caterina.” A survey by Sky Italia spurred by the controversy showed that 76 percent of Italians agree with animal testing for pharmaceutical (not cosmetic) purposes. Italy already has some of the strictest laws in Europe when it comes to using animals in clinical tests, pushed forward by a strong animal-rights lobby in the country. In April, a small group of animal-rights activists broke into a lab in Milan and chained themselves to the doors while others changed the labels on some 800 cages of lab mice undergoing research procedures. The protesters released scores more. Many of the animals ended up dead on the streets of Milan, unable to survive outside the lab. In June, counter-protesters supporting the use of animals in laboratory testing clashed with animal-rights activists in front of the same Milanese lab. Police had to use tear gas to break up the scuffle.
Simonsen, who has a tattoo on her left ankle that says “breath by breath” in English, has become the new face of the ongoing battle. She has given countless print and broadcast interviews since her Facebook post, trying to put a human face on the practice of animal research in pharmaceutical development. But her strategy has only garnered more hate, prompting her to publicly state that she is not being employed by a pharmaceutical lobby or political group. Still, she vows to persist. “Nazi animalists won’t stop me,” she told La Repubblica newspaper on Sunday. “I am fighting for my life.”
Simonsen, who hopes to become a veterinarian one day, points to the fact that even the animals that activists defend often depend on medicine to survive. “I am getting a degree to save animals, but until there is a valid alternative, medical experimentation on animals is necessary,” she told Sky Italia.
Over the weekend, Simonsen also published a home video in an attempt to explain in human terms what her daily life was like with her rare disease. She showed her sterile bedroom, complete with home respirators that bubbled in the background. She pointed out the difference between various plastic tubes that allowed her to sleep, eat and take a shower, and the pile of medicines she must take to survive. “My therapy takes several hours a day,” she says, clearly unable to take a deep breath to finish even a short sentence as she speaks through a plastic mask she wears to breathe. The video received another round of nasty comments, asking her if she really thought her life was more valuable than the lives of animals: “Is that the best you’ve got, Caterina? Have a good life then. I would prefer not to live if my life depended on the suffering of others or taking millions of lives, because their life is worth less than mine. Shame!”
Simonsen’s battle won’t be easy. The 25-year-old was admitted to intensive care on Sunday after contracting a serious lung infection, which her doctors believe is stress-induced. She spent 12 weeks of the last year in the hospital and 24 weeks in intensive therapy, which she says was far less than previous years. “My best friends are those I met in the hospital,” she said in the days before her rehospitalization. “I am alive because of medicine. I get up in the morning because of medicine. Thanks to the medicine, and thanks to the animals that were sacrificed to develop it, I am sitting here.”