Loving Laika, 65 Years Later
On November 3, 1957, Sputnik 2 became the second manmade satellite to orbit earth; however, unlike its predecessor, Sputnik 2 carried a passenger: a small dog named Laika.
You may have heard of Laika. You may have even seen pictures of the little dog in books, in artwork and in popular culture. But who was Laika? And 65 years later, what can those of us who fight for the end of animal experimentation learn from her story?
Selected from a group of hardy Moscow street dogs, Laika underwent weeks of training for her space mission during which she captured the hearts of the Sputnik 2 research team. She earned many affectionate names like Kudryavka (Little Curly), Zhuchka (Little Bug), and Limonchik (Little Lemon) before being dubbed Laika (Barker) when she became very vocal during a radio broadcast. The evening before Laika’s flight, one researcher brought her home to play with his children while another went against protocol and snuck her a final meal before launch, both recounting that they had wanted to do something nice for the little dog. When they went to close the hatch, technicians took turns kissing her goodbye on the nose.
Laika was loved. Laika was sent to die.
By design, Sputnik 2 was launched with no mechanism for return. The plan was to send Laika up with enough food and oxygen to last her seven days before remotely euthanizing her. However, an extremely rushed building schedule meant that Sputnik 2 was poorly constructed, and when thermal insulation tore loose during launch, the capsule quickly overheated and Laika died just a few hours into the flight.
But death did not slow the tide of love for Laika. If anything, her adoration was magnified as she was transformed into a doggy pop culture saint: her orbit of earth branded a miracle and her death re-painted as martyrdom. In the decades following her death, Laika’s likeness began to appear on monuments, postage stamps and cigarette boxes. Today, we read our children sanitized picture books that either conveniently omit her ending or fully rewrite history to include a heroic return to earth. We get misty eyed over art depicting her floating haloed above the earth, and nod along solemnly to articles that recount her “noble sacrifice.”
There is a flaw in loving Laika this way, as surely as there was a flaw in the love shown to her by those who signed her death warrant.
The modern framing of Laika’s death paints her as a willing and necessary sacrifice in the pursuit of great knowledge. In reality, of course, Laika had no agency over her involvement in the Sputnik 2 mission, and the value of the information attained by her journey is questionable at best. Soviet researcher Oleg Gazenko recounted his involvement with the Sputnik 2 mission, saying:
“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.”
We are faced with a similar truth 65 years later, when we look at the tens of thousands of dogs who are harmed—and who go unwillingly to their deaths—in pursuit of scientific “knowledge” that is at best flawed and at worst harmful to advancing human science. Most dogs used in research today are used in pharmaceutical testing, even though upwards of 95% of drugs tested on animals fail when they move to human clinical trials. Whatever it is we “learn” from harming dogs has little or no useful application for humans.
So how should we love Laika? Not by building another statue or writing another song in her honor. Instead, we should fight to make sure that no other animal is allowed to needlessly suffer and die in the name of science like she did.
There are currently 60,000 dogs just like Laika being used in research labs in the US—not to mention uncounted millions of other animals. We may not know their names, and their stories may not be immortalized in literature, but they are just as deserving of the love we feel when we remember Laika.