Looking After Animals Kept in Research Laboratories

The following discussion took place on AWI's Laboratory Animal Refinement & Enrichment Forum [LAREF] in December 2003. Four animal technicians (AT-1,-2,-3,-4) of different research institutions in North America, one attending veterinarian of a North American research laboratory (V), and two scientists from different research facilities in Europe (S-1,2) posted opinions, which have been edited by Dr. Viktor Reinhardt, moderator of LAREF.

"I think all animals kept in research laboratories need a basic trust of their caretakers. An animal's trust is a tool for me to make her or him feel more at ease during routine handling procedures that would otherwise trigger apprehension, fear and possibly even distress" (AT-1). However, "the pressures of time and money do not allow most laboratories to provide a truly caring, loving environment for their animals. Human interaction is usually limited to relatively brief spells in which the animal experiences a highly aversive, enforced procedure such as capture, gavage, injection or blood sampling. .. Certainly, this does not engender a feeling of 'trust' toward the human" (S-1).

"Categorizing the animals in my charge as either predators or prey helps me interact appropriately with them. Prey animals, such as rodents and rabbits, need to be assured through my behaviors, movements and gestures that I do not intend to attack and eat them, otherwise they will be afraid and hence ready to bite me in self-defense. Usually an animal bites only when there is mistrust" (AT-1). Yes, "the animals we are dealing with 'are' not aggressive, but we 'make' them react in aggressive ways through our species-inappropriate behavior (e.g., looking into the eyes of a macaque), quasi-aggressive approach (e.g., trespassing individual distance), mistrust and/or fear (e.g., you cannot cheat animals; they spontaneously pick up your intentions and feelings) and through the species-inappropriate confinement conditions under which we imprison them" (V). "Predators, such as dogs and cats, tend to have issues with the unknown. They seemingly don't understand why they are in the situation they are in and, therefore, are especially dependent on positive human interaction and/or the presence of conspecifics to feel relatively at ease with the artificial environment they live in" (AT-1).

"Novel objects are quasi-unpredictable and, therefore, often scary for laboratory animals. I have observed in rodents and monkeys that the animals initially shun away from a new toy and only hesitantly dare to touch it briefly over and over again to test its 'trustworthiness'. Therefore, when I give my animals a new enrichment object I first put it out of reach allowing them to 'safely' view it for a few days. Once the animals show signs of curiosity towards the object I place it directly into their cage" (AT-1). It is true, "animals can be habituated to probably almost anything. The problem is whether it is appropriate, perhaps ethical, to habituate them to environmental enrichment objects that we, as humans, think anthropocentrically might be beneficial. Habituation will always involve causing the animal some distress through anxiety or fear. I therefore see little point in having my animals go through a potentially distressing habituating process to a toy or other new object which they find inherently fearful" (S-1). "Unlike most commercial toys, enrichment objects of biological relevance are usually accepted by laboratory animals without noticeable signs of apprehension or fear" (AT-1). "My coworkers and I are disturbed that 'built in' biologically relevant and practical enrichment isn't an industry standard in cage design for all species yet" (AT-2). For example, "each rodent cage should be equipped with a species-appropriate shelter to make it possible for the animals to retreat to a quasi-safe refuge in alarming situations, and each monkey cage should be equipped with at least one high perch to give the animals access to the arboreal dimension to which they are biologically adapted" (V).

"My decisions about what are 'good' enrichment choices and what are appropriate technical procedures are based upon my observations of the animals' behaviors and responses to changes in their environment. From my own experience many of our animal care and veterinary technicians are much more 'in tune' with the behavioral repertoire of the animals in their charge and more knowledgeable about the behavioral and environmental needs than many of the research associates" (AT-2). "Fortunately, not all researchers are out of touch with the animals assigned to their protocols and with husbandry issues related to those animals. The field of research will make it in many cases an imperative for the investigator to keep in close touch with his/her animals. No ethologist, for example, can do valid research without taking the time to get to know his/her animals and take the time to assure that they are properly kept and cared for. The situation can be very different in biomedical research labs. When I worked in such institutions it always struck me that investigators hardly ever showed up in animal rooms. Some of them probably have never seen the animals assigned to their projects. They were familiar with the IDs and the subjects' history, but that was often the end of the 'touch'. A prestigious biomedical scientist conceded in a scientific journal that 'most investigators think only briefly about the care and handling of their animals and clearly have not made it an important consideration in their work'. To work 'under' such researchers can be extremely frustrating for animal care personnel who are sincerely concerned about animal welfare issues" (V).

"I have experienced both situations, in the ethology research setting where husbandry work is shared between researchers and animal care personnel, versus in the biomedical research setting where most researchers never enter the animal facility and the animals are cared for solely by professional caretakers. My own experience with the do-it-yourself approach isn't entirely positive. Since I'm responsible for the budget, for the experimental design, for data collection and for writing up the results, there is a great conflict of time and attention when I have to do the husbandry work myself. Nevertheless, it is essential that researchers take the time to at least find what their animals look like and how they behave" (S-2). "There should not be a real need for a researcher to do much husbandry work, but he/she has a scientific obligation to verify for her/himself how his/her animals are housed and handled" (V).

"In my experience in a biomedical research setting it is exceedingly rare to have researchers who 'get into the muck.' We have quite a few who don't even want to walk through our dirty side cage area to drop off empty caging. Many investigators don't seem to have much understanding or appreciation of their animals' welfare needs" (AT-2).

"In my facility the researchers also usually have grad students doing research and using the animals. It's not very often that the actual researcher will turn up in the animal holding and treatment areas, while some I have yet to ever see. We had some grad student sent to work with mice or with primates but had been given no training whatsoever. They had absolutely no idea how to work with these animals" (AT-3). "When I was a student, I had to learn by watching others and barely saw the principal investigator. She did not spend any time with the monkeys and was never involved in training us, probably because she was always very busy with preparing grant proposals, teaching classes, and writing papers" (AT-4).

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