Laika the Space Dog: The Ethics of Animal Experimentation

The story of Laika, the dog sent into outer space by the Soviet Union, raises questions about the morality of using animals for scientific research, many of which are still relevant today.


Scanned by user Neozoon, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After her mission was announced to the public, Laika became a celebrity in the Soviet Union, appearing on products ranging from stamps to matchboxes.

During the dramatic and eventful period of time during the Cold War known as the Space Race, Soviet and American scientists rushed to be the first to successfully land a person on the moon. This was not an easy task, however, and it required extensive amounts of research, trials, and error.

1957 was a tumultuous time at the beginning of this race, with the Soviet Union having already launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite. The Soviet Union predicted that this advancement would cause the United States to expedite their education and time on space research. In order to prevent the United States from catching up too quickly to their recent achievement, the Soviet Union knew they needed to come up with something more extraordinary, more complex, and more impressive. They ultimately decided on engineering a second Sputnik satellite, which they decided would be the first spacecraft to carry a live animal.

Soviet engineers rushed to complete the blueprint of Sputnik 2, as former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev wanted the spacecraft to launch on the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, in which Russia abolished the Tsar rule and adopted a socialist government. Soviet scientists believed that stray dogs had already adapted to the harsh conditions of Russia, so they decided that they were perfect to use for the launch of Sputnik 2.

Swept off the streets of Moscow, a small female mutt named Kudryavka, along with a group of other female strays, participated in a series of tests which evaluated their ability to be trained and adapt to the equipment.

Having successfully completed her tests, Kudryavka was chosen to board Sputnik 2. While being introduced to the public on Moscow Radio on October 27th, 1957, Kudryavka barked and was given the name Laika, Russian for “barker.”

Laika gained a lot of attention from the public after the mission was announced, becoming an icon in the Soviet Union. She appeared on a variety of products, including stamps, postcards, and matchboxes. However, while the Soviets treated Laika as a symbol of scientific achievement, the West sympathized with her, believing she would be an unnecessary death resulting from tensions between the two global superpowers.

On November 3rd, 1957, the time had come for Sputnik 2 to be launched into orbit. Laika’s respiration during the launch shows that she successfully made it into orbit alive. Unfortunately, a few hours into orbit, Laika passed away from overheating in her capsule due to the poorly designed cooling system of Sputnik 2. This was an unexpected result on the Soviet’s end; they hoped she would survive for several days before a painless death from oxygen deprivation.

Laika’s story raises various questions regarding the ethics of using animals for scientific research. “Even if they were just stray dogs, this is very similar to animal testing for cosmetics and medicine. It is immoral for humans to test upon animals for the better of human society,” said Venujan Suhanthan ’24. Laika’s story is comparable to the hundreds of other animals who have been tested in order to further our understanding of scientific concepts. Just like Dolly the sheep, the first mammal cloned from an adult cell, and Pavlov’s dogs, who aided in the discovery of the psychological process known as classical conditioning, Laika made invaluable contributions to our knowledge of science.

Some people believe that Laika’s contribution was necessary for us to realize our potential for future space exploration. “I think that Laika definitely had an important role in the development of space exploration. Her launch spurred the realization that, while still some ways away, the idea of humans in space was becoming a possibility,” said Orithri Ehsan ’24. Unfortunately, the poorly planned experiment she was put in led to her death.

Laika’s death set a precedent for using live animals to understand how space impacts their biological processes. Numerous other countries sent a variety of animals into space as well, including mice, rabbits, guinea pigs, and tortoises. One of the most known of these animals is Albert I, the first monkey sent to space by the United States, who ultimately died of suffocation during the flight. The U.S. would later send four more monkeys named Albert into space, all of whom died either during their mission or on impact when returning to Earth due to parachute failures.

Eventually, the U.S. was finally able to send a monkey named Miss Baker to space in 1959 and had the animal safely return and continue to live after the mission. Miss Baker’s success could be used to argue the necessity of the previous animal experiments. However, some are still unconvinced that Miss Baker’s success proves that all the deaths suffered by the previous monkeys were necessary.

“After the death of the first monkey, they could have stopped using monkeys until there was more certainty something like it wouldn’t happen again,” said Suhanthan.

Indeed, there is a responsibility for scientists to carry out animal experiments humanely and to avoid unnecessary harm. This was clearly not the case in Laika’s story, where the Soviet Union’s ambition and competitiveness were prioritized over this moral responsibility. “It was clear that there was not much thought put into creating a comfortable environment for the dog and not much care was put into how she would be affected. Perhaps if they were not rushing, and actually put a bit more thought and effort into the ethical components of the launch, sending animals into space would sit better with me,” said Ehsan.

Many laws have been put into place to protect animals from cruelty and experimentation. In the United States for instance, President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Animal Welfare Act in 1996 to ensure the protection of animals in zoos and laboratories. Moreover, the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, founded in 1965, assesses laboratories for humane animal treatment. Similarly, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee was established in 1985 and oversees the treatment of animals, specifically in a laboratory setting. It ensures that proposed animal experiments include a justification for using animals, details about the animals used, the scientist’s plans for minimizing the animals’ pain, and proof that the experiment is not repeating previous research.

Unfortunately, despite the Animal Welfare Act and the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, over 100 million animals die each year from chemical, cosmetic, drug, and food experimentation. The Animal Welfare Act excludes birds, rats, and mice, due to claims from researchers that regulating the large number of these animals used in experimentation would be too expensive, leaving these animals vulnerable to painful experimentation methods.

“I think more should be done because it is not always guaranteed that everything will go smoothly and safely. There is always a small chance. Stricter laws on when they can use animals for experimentation should be put in place,” said Suhanthan.

Due to the physiological differences between humans and animals, experiments that use animals as a source of data tend to be less trustworthy. This not only causes unnecessary pain for animals involved, but also puts the humans who are the next to test a certain drug or product at a greater risk. The National Institutes of Health states that 95 percent of all drugs that successfully pass animal experimentation fail in human trials, which raises a question of the extent to which animal experimentation in the drug and cosmetics industries are necessary.

While Laika was just one example of an animal’s life being sacrificed for human knowledge, the issue remains prevalent in our society today. Animal testing statistics from 2020 show that 20 million animals are used for experimentation in the United States alone. More education on the ethics of animal experimentation is needed to ensure this harmful practice will not be a permanent part of science.

Laika’s story raises various questions regarding the ethics of using animals for scientific research. “Even if they were just stray dogs, this is very similar to animal testing for cosmetics and medicine. It is immoral for humans to test upon animals for the better of human society,” said Venujan Suhanthan ’24.