Making Positive Changes for Animals in Laboratories: A LAREF Discussion

AWI’s Laboratory Animal Refinement and Enrichment Forum (LAREF) is an online discussion forum where individuals working with animals in research share their ideas and experiences related to improving the welfare of animals under their care. Recently, Dr. Joanna Makowska, AWI’s laboratory animal advisor, asked members a question that generated a lively discussion, reproduced below. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

photo by Zane Michael Cooper
photo by Zane Michael Cooper

Could you please share what change/improvement you have made at your current or previous institution that you are most proud of? This could be related to changes for animals or changes to staff that resulted in a cultural change. I look forward to your stories! (Joanna Makowska)

I am most proud of two things: (1) Introducing enrichment to caged rabbits. Long ago, we had five rooms of single-housed rabbits who had no enrichment other than the brief human interaction when they got hay. There were a lot of behavioral problems, as you can imagine (growling, stomping, charging at staff). I purchased canning jar lids and gave each one the ring portion. The lids were a huge hit! That was the tipping point, and now rabbits, and our other USDA species, all have a large variety of toys and items to manipulate. (2) Revamping the training program. On my first day as a care tech, I was handed a badly drawn map of the facility and a written room assignment. That was essentially my training. Today we have a wide variety of training videos with quizzes that each staff member (not just care staff) are assigned before they even begin to work with their group. (Lorraine Bell)

Enrichment as a standard. Almost 30 years ago, I started not giving principal investigators (PIs) a choice: they had to have enrichment in all cages. I am fortunate now to be a consultant and get many new companies started off with robust enrichment as standard. (Michele Cunneen)

We have a few long-term resident cats at our facility. Though they have lots of enrichment, they would often lie around, and we worried about managing their weight. I introduced a giant cat wheel, which included a gradual introduction to the group as well as rewards for coming close and investigating it. It was a great success, and you can hear the cats using it throughout the day. It was so successful during the training process, when the cats would hear the technician coming down the hall they would jump on it and begin using it, sometimes two at a time! (Jackie Watson) 

When starting to care for a large colony of single-caged rhesus macaques and a small colony of single-caged stump-tailed macaques in 1986, it was very clear to me that I had to find ways to address the behavioral and emotional needs of these social animals. I developed two protocols based on simple ethological facts, and—over a period of about four years—transferred 668 of 728 single-caged rhesus macaques and 40 of 40 single-caged stump-tailed macaques to compatible pair-housing without any assistance. 

Up front, I encountered a lot of opposition, mostly due to concerns about aggression and injuries. I did not get intimidated because my pairing protocols clearly showed that these concerns were not based on facts but on traditional beliefs. Rhesus monkeys do get along with each other as paired cage companions if they are introduced to each other in considerate ways and then housed in considerate ways. I collected data and presented my findings at numerous national and international scientific meetings and published them in various scientific journals and books. My efforts helped turn pair-housing into a standard-housing arrangement in most primate facilities/centers/laboratories. This made me—and many animals—happy. (Viktor Reinhardt)

The improvement that I am most proud of is reducing the amount of single-housed primates in my facility. In my 4.5 years here, I have paired over 1,500 animals and placed several others in group housing. I have made it my mission to leave no stone unturned when it comes to socialization options for the animals under my watch. 

Viktor helped pave the way for people like me. Even though the evidence is extremely clear, a lot of people still hold an old school view of how science “should” be done. It is a constant uphill effort, but one that I find the most rewarding. I continue to be the squeaky wheel, updating standard operating procedures and policies to enact change. Luckily, most people have eased up and now trust me to do my thing. I love that my job allows me to make positive changes in our animals’ lives every day. I still see a long way to go for improvements. There is no ceiling when it comes to welfare; we can and should always be working to improve our practices. (Lace Lively) 

I started working with rhesus in 1993. All the monkeys were single-housed. I had heard of this person, Viktor Reinhardt, who was encouraging the research community to at least pair-house these animals. Thank goodness the researcher I was working for agreed that the first animals we purchased should be paired and that we would get new caging that allowed for pair-housing. I called this new cage “the apartment.” It was lovely because it could be divided when needed, yet the animals could live together. We were the first research group at the university to pair-house rhesus macaques. I’m proud of the fact that the researcher I worked for was open to Viktor’s ideas and so very glad that the rest of our group joined in. The Animal Care services department jumped in with both feet in pair- and group-housing the monkeys. Now, the facility has some of the best caging created for these animals, and more complex enrichment went hand in hand with this improved environment. (Ann Lablans)

Amazing! This conversation prompt is a fantastic exercise in seeing how refinement and advocacy have worked over the years. It takes a village. These are two of my contributions: (1) Designed and implemented a positive reinforcement training (PRT) program for our nonhuman primates (NHPs). The pushback I got included that the animals aren’t with us long enough to justify the time spent on training and that the techs are already overworked so they will not want to be responsible for this, too. I overcame these obstacles by doing a literature review and creating a report on the status of its use in research and its value, visiting neighboring facilities that have it as a standard, and training myself to reliably perform PRT—all off the clock. I presented my findings at the weekly conference with the director, veterinarians, and PIs working with NHPs. The program has been very successful and remains so after eight years. I’ve trained 10 vet techs to do the initial PRT, and over 30 animal care techs to maintain that training in the NHPs. (2) Running an in-house study on rodent nesting material for our 60,000-cage facility. Troubleshooting improvements based on results. Implementing new optimal material for our facility and achieving buy-in from husbandry staff, vet tech staff, and management (this took three years). 

Pushback came from everywhere and on every level, except the director and veterinarians. Making positive change for these animals is intoxicating. I can’t get enough. (Jeannine Rodgers)

I’m most proud of finding a new, cheaper, and more optimal way to house our mole-rats. I was having trouble finding a master’s thesis topic many years ago. I wanted to do something that could hopefully lead me down a path to becoming a behavioral husbandry manager in the future. One day I overheard one of the PIs saying that he was struggling to optimize the housing of the mole-rat colony and that all of the students (mostly undergrads) who tried the project walked away from it. Said PI had been a professor of mine when I was an undergrad, so he had known me, at that point, for half a decade. We got to talking and I realized this was a much bigger project than any undergrad should take on.

Starting with a natural history deep dive, I found that most institutions are unintentionally lackluster in the way we care for mole-rats—naked mole-rats, especially. These animals are made for underground engineering—they can live in pure gypsum stone—and yet we give them loose cellulose or cob as substrate. I wanted a better way, but obviously, it needed to be lab friendly. After much Pinterest board surfing, enrichment-Facebook-group polling, and brainstorming, I came across compressed paper-pulp briquettes for fireplaces and it all fell into place.

photo by Jouvay Pantophlet
photo by Jouvay Pantophlet

First, we tried small blocks of the stuff and eventually worked up to a 2.5-ft-high, 0.5-ft-wide column of compressed paper. And for the first time, we were able to see the naked mole-rats being themselves. It was incredible! And it proved to the rest of the staff that it was worth investigating this further and trying to shift over to a mostly paper pulp–based system—something we are still working on now! (Jouvay Pantophlet)

This is brilliant. Did the PIs have any concerns about a fireplace-type material being used in the animals’ cages? Contaminants, etc.? I love this. (Michele Cunneen)

The PI and I worked closely for many years trying to find something appropriate, and, to be honest, he was more ready to just try it out than I was. I wanted to do contaminant testing and all that well before we tried even a small block of it. The saving grace with these guys is that they are highly resilient, and there aren’t many pathogens that they seem able to catch. In the process of making the compressed column, I soak the newspaper in a bleach solution as I’m processing it. The solution gets thoroughly washed out before compressing everything, so we assume the bio-burden is reduced in that way. We were actually just awarded an AWI Refinement grant to check for pathogenic threats and contaminants, as well as just to get more insight into the type of microbiome these guys live in at our facility. Will report back when we know more! (Jouvay Pantophlet)

This is great and important work! I wonder if your work is published somewhere and could be referenced. We have a few researchers using naked mole-rats in Canada; my CCAC colleagues and I could help them improve the welfare of their rats by informing them about your work during our assessment visits. Thank you! (Sylvie Cloutier)

Thank you so much for the kind words! Everyone’s reaction has really made my week and it’s ultra encouraging. I published one article that explains how to make the paper column, and another article describing the resulting modular housing system. The cool thing with it is that you can use the same process (which is basically just paper maché) to make all sorts of shapes—I’ve so far played around with it for rodent huts and stuff for our mice. (Jouvay Pantophlet)

I am most proud of being one of the driving forces in replacing two horrible mouse toxicity tests when I was attending veterinarian. It took perseverance (13 years!), taking the concerns of the animal technicians seriously, learning an insane amount about a niche topic, gaining the support of the folk whose products were being tested, pushing the animal use regulators to accept that there could be refinements and alternatives (frankly, it was pretty acrimonious at times), and never giving up.

The lessons I learned were that key people can make a big difference, whatever their seniority in an organization. Caring and wanting to make a change is the driver—if no one cares, nothing ever happens.

You guys are all those key people—people with a vision to make things better and drive things to improve for the animals—whether we make it better for one animal or 100,000; every little thing is a step forward. Being a welfare “champion,” encouraging team work, not being put off by the knock backs (there are always some) and continuing to believe and persevere for however long it takes—that’s how change and improvement happen. (Ngaire Dennison) 

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