The maximum tolerated dose in animal testing is the amount that will kill the subject animal in an experiment. But in the Karol Orzechowski film, “Maximum Tolerated Dose” has a second meaning; what amount of pointless cruelty can researchers tolerate before scientific orthodoxy can no longer mask the useless and ethically intolerable suffering of living beings. 

The narrative power of Maximum Tolerated Dose comes from the human protagonists of the film. They are  are “conscientious objectors” who left the animal experimentation industry after being unable to maintain cognitive dissonance when exposed to massive and gratuitous cruelty. Many of these scientists continue to be haunted by their experiences and suffer post traumatic stress symptoms. But were it not for these courageous researchers to step outside the box, millions of creatures’ tribulations would remain unwitnessed  and unregistered in our social conscience.   

Maximum Tolerated Dose posits that animal testing to understand human pathology is not always essential. Yet millions of sentient creatures endure daily torture in order for their flesh and feelings to be converted into data. Beings that are innocent in every regard are bred and captured for unspeakable cruelty, ostensibly in the name of human knowledge.

One researcher, Rachel Weiss, is haunted by a chimp named Jerom who was infected with HIV virus. Rachel describes his suffering and tears of misery as he suffered unrelieved for years until he was euthanized. The lesson learned from this creature’s ordeal was what was already known, that HIV causes AIDS. Another primate, Darla, endured 17 years of medical experiments. The look in the eyes of that creature are reminiscent of those of death camp survivors. But Jerom’s story was the maximum dose of futile cruelty that this lab worker could endure.

For another researcher the maximum dose was more mundane and horrible. He was part of an ethics review board which was to decide whether an experiment should be allowed. The experiment suspending a lab rat in a cage to feed mosquitoes. To this researcher this appeared to be a gratuitous cruelty. He voted no, while the rest of the committee voted yes. His arguments and single vote could not alter the fate of that rat. Of course that rat was only one of the millions that die in animal experiments and in classrooms. 

Though rats and mice are the most common animals killed for “research,” man’s best friend is not exempt. The film takes us inside a Spanish operation that breeds Beagles for the specific fate. One research cardiologist studying radiological tracers tells the story of injecting a dog with these tracers, then extracting the animal’s heart to view the cells under a microscope. The realization that this poor creature differed from his own dog only in that he was less “lucky” was the maximum tolerated dose for this cardiologist. 

But the most searing scene in Maximum Tolerated Dose is the capture of a family of macaques in Cambodia. Upon seeing them in their natural state one cringes at the thought of the fate that awaits this mother macacque and her two babies. The capture of these creatures by poor hunters is unspeakably callous. The creatures go from free sentient beings to a commodity in seconds. It is difficult to imagine a crueler fate for any creature, as they are sent to a breeding farm in Laos, then nailed into boxes and flown off to North American and European research labs to endure a life of unspeakable torture. This particular scene is unfathomable and chilling because it has occurred to hundreds of thousands macaques in the span of a few years — rasising the horror to the level of a holocaust.

Maximum Tolerated Dose does not dwell unnecessarily on horrific images, nor does it set up a divisive debate. Rather, this groundbreaking, highly aesthetic, pioneering film focuses on its unexpected protagonists as heroes — what director Karol Orzechowski rightly calls “conscientious objectors” — those who worked in the animal experimentation industry and subsequently left on ethical grounds once liberated from their cognitive dissonance.

The aesthetic visual style, sound design, and graphics in Maximum Tolerated Dose achieve the level of artistic understatement necessitated by the horrible subject. In many ways the film is like a really good, cerebral, horror movie. The incorporation of animal testing footage is sufficient to be suggestive of the horror, but not unendurable.

The use of archival fifties animal research footage with its mandatory paternalistic narration even provides some occasional ironic/comic relief. But in the end it only demonstrates how little attitudes have actually changed when it comes to archaic cruelty. 

Post Script: Rachel Weiss and other conscientious objectors are reaching out to other former and extant vivisectors via a support group — Laboratory Primate Advocacy Group. More information and resources are available at the film’s website. Maximum Tolerated Dose will be appearing at film festivals throughout Winter 2012 / Spring 2013.


Humberto DaSilva is a union activist whose ‘Not Rex Murphy’ video commentaries are featured on rabble. 

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Humberto DaSilva

Humberto DaSilva

Humberto da Silva was born and lives in Toronto. An early desire to conquer the English language resulted in literary pretensions and numerous short story publications. The inclusion of “Compassion...