special report » Alternative Approaches: Seeds of Change

Training the Next Generation

As an educator in an urban veterinary technology program, I often encounter students beginning their professional studies who are passionate about their commitment to a career working with animals. Typically, they have also firmly decided that they will never accept a job in the animal research field. They object to animal research in general because of what they assume is the abject mistreatment of animals housed in laboratories.

Chatting again with these students two years later as they prepare for graduation, however, I am increasingly finding that many reconsider those firm convictions. In fact, even in a strong job market for veterinary technicians, some of these graduates are actually choosing to enter the laboratory animal care field.

What is causing such an about-face? Listening to their experiences, I have noted that this change is due, in no small part, to the impact of working with and learning from deeply caring professionals during their required summer externships at major research institutions. Students see for themselves what actually takes place in a biomedical research facility. And the more supervisors take time to involve students in ensuring high standards of humane animal care in the laboratory, the more these soon-to-be graduates understand the vital role they can play in improving animal welfare. Students often return from these externships profoundly changed: more serious about their chosen profession, more attentive to the subtle needs of animals in their care, and with a deeper consciousness of the responsibilities involved in safeguarding animals. Several of these alumni are now budding leaders in laboratory animal welfare, presenting at national conferences and sharing their own projects and ideas to improve animal care.

Ten years ago, my responsibilities as both program director and the attending veterinarian for the institutional animal care and use committee at LaGuardia Community College (part of The City University of New York) caused me to delve deeper into student training in laboratory animal care and handling. Since that time, I have been edified by the level of commitment and caring I have encountered in the laboratory animal care professionals with whom I have collaborated. Much of their focus today is centered on the ongoing search for new and better alternatives to longstanding ways of handling and caring for animals. (I use the term alternatives here as it relates to the three Rs: replacement of animals with nonanimal research models, reduction of total animals needed by a given study, or refinement of current procedures to minimize distress and improve well-being.)  Given the challenges and ethical conflicts surrounding work in the laboratory animal care profession, this is no small feat.

Teaching animal care personnel about the replacement, reduction, and refinement of animal use in medical experiments is a work in progress. It is important to acknowledge that this effort was fueled, as Bernard Rollin notes in his essay in this volume, by the key 1985 amendment to the Animal Welfare Act and related legislation, such as the Health Research Extension Act in 1985. Now, the animal research community itself is very much at the forefront in crucial efforts to improve care and welfare of animals in laboratories. This movement is evident, for example, in recent revisions to the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals. First published in 1963, the eighth edition, in 2010, goes into more detail than ever regarding species-specific social housing needs, animal welfare, and the crucial role of staff education and training.[1]

A key means to improving animal care and welfare is to train those working with animals in the most current information about species-specific behaviors and needs and their varying expressions of both distress and pain. Conferences, webinars, and internal facility training are increasingly focused on improving overall animal well-being. “Twenty years ago, we rarely spoke of enriching an animal’s environment or species’ needs, or the necessity of identifying potentially stressful procedures,” said Leticia Medina, a laboratory animal veterinarian at Abbott Laboratories, “but now these [topics] are always at the center of conversations and are among the most sought-after sessions at conferences.” This was my own experience when asked to present animal ethics lectures for laboratory caretakers and researchers during this past year. Attendance exceeded expectations, and interest among session participants was keen.

Despite the costs, institutions are creating staff positions directly related both to the three Rs and to the teaching of best practices in animal care and assurance of animal welfare. Typically, three Rs “specialists” work closely with technicians and other experienced members of animal care teams to evaluate and refine current procedures and implement alternative approaches that are potentially capable of reducing stress and improving an animal’s quality of life both with regard to standard husbandry procedures and in the actual research techniques themselves.  In New York City, for example, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Weill Cornell Medical College, and The Rockefeller University collaborate to run a tri-institutional training program in laboratory animal science.

A number of training modalities are currently being used and developed among institutions nationwide. Aside from training mannequins and models, Web seminars, simulated laboratory training sessions, and contracting with outside experts for in-house training are becoming increasingly common. The Laboratory Animal Welfare Training Exchange established in 1994 by a small group of laboratory animal care professionals, for example, provides a forum for exchanging best practices in laboratory animal care training and welfare. With limited resources at many facilities, the availability and exchange of high-quality training materials, particularly relating to species-specific care and handling refinements, can positively affect animal welfare. “It is no longer acceptable to just put an animal in a cage and get our research results,” one veterinarian told me recently. “It’s about acting responsibly, about doing what is right ethically in order to ensure humane care for every animal.”

Until the last two decades, training included little information on animal distress or on the recognition and treatment of animal pain. As Rollin and others have discussed, this was due to a number of factors, including a lack of appreciation in the scientific community for the ethical importance of alleviating animal pain and distress. But the scientific community has become more attuned to this issue because of increased public awareness and concern for animal welfare, advancements in understandings of the physiological and behavioral complexity of animals, and greater availability of suitable pain relief protocols for animals, to name a few factors.[2]

Training and Animal Welfare

Laboratory animal veterinarians, with support from technicians and caretakers, oversee disease surveillance, facility rounds, and care for sick animals. Veterinarians and animal welfare specialists are usually involved in the training and education of researchers and staff, drafting standard animal care procedures for husbandry and establishing medical and surgical protocols. Veterinarians are directly responsible, as members of institutional animal care and use committees, for approval of new and existing research studies. Because of this, they can have a tremendously positive impact on animal welfare considerations related to a given study.

Technicians are also crucial members of animal care teams because they are responsible for a large majority of daily, hands-on animal care and direct observation. Thus, training personnel to minimize animal stress through housing changes and environmental enrichment can markedly impact the quality of life for animals entrusted to their care. It is recognized, for example, that laboratory rats demonstrate a preference for cages that provide nest boxes that allow them to seek darker and more protected refuge.[3] Proper training of technicians and caretakers would include education in the correct placement of the nest boxes and in their cleaning and upkeep.

Similarly, in order to minimize distress, some researchers and technicians are now taking significant amounts of time to train higher functioning animals to cooperate for quick procedures like blood collection by using paired rewards such as treats, play sessions, petting, and other positive-reinforcement approaches. This serves both to decrease the need for animal restraint or sedation and to provide animals with additional enrichment during the course of research studies.

Good training also involves recognizing pain and distress in laboratory animals. While a general benchmark is that any procedure that would be painful to humans should be considered painful to animals, different species demonstrate pain differently. Signs of pain in mice will differ from those observed in cats, and certainly from those seen in zebra fish.

Chatting again with my students as they prepare for graduation, I am increasingly finding that, even in a strong job market for veterinary technicians, some of them are actually choosing to enter the laboratory animal care field. What is causing such an about-face?

Pain is now considered to be much more complex than just the acute, sensory components of physical pain. More attention is being given to the emotional aspects of pain, which include fear, anxiety, depression, inability to express species-specific needs, and the long-term, systemic effects on an animal’s overall well-being. A 2008 National Research Council committee publication, Recognition and Alleviation of Distress in Laboratory Animals, issued a call to the scientific community for better collaboration, communication, and adherence to the growing body of information regarding minimizing distress in animals housed in laboratories.[4] Strengthened language in the 2010 Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals also states that all persons involved in the care and use of animals are to be “adequately educated, trained, and/or qualified in basic principles of laboratory animal science to help ensure high-quality science and animal well-being.”

Personnel who are able to recognize signs of animal pain and distress can represent a crucial link in improving animal welfare. A recent article in the Journal of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science, written by veterinary staff at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, describes the implementation of an intensive training program for technicians and husbandry staff working with the center’s rodent colony. After learning about early recognition and treatment of diseases in the animals, the staff felt empowered to be more proactive. They were able to notify veterinary staff of the animals’ diseases earlier and to begin preliminary treatment for ill animals. This resulted in a decrease in illness-related animal deaths.[5]

Supporting Efforts to Develop Alternatives

Several pharmaceutical companies and academic research centers have instituted programs to encourage employees to come up with ideas for reducing and replacing animals used in research and for refining how animals are treated. Abbott Laboratories, which has a strong institutional animal welfare policy, established a Global Animal Welfare Award in 2009 to honor employee efforts toward new and innovative ideas in caring for laboratory animals. A voluntary, company-wide committee provides a forum for pursuing new alternatives. Interdepartmental cooperation and collaboration among Abbott researchers in 2010, for example, allowed revisions to microsampling blood collection techniques that resulted in a 50 percent decrease in the number of mice required for one research study.[6]

Efforts in recent decades to improve animal welfare and generate needed alternatives have not, however, been well communicated to the general public. Due to strong sentiments about animal research, open discussions and transparency have historically been avoided, if not feared, by the scientific community. Timothy Blackwell and Bernard Rollin, in a 2008 article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, suggest that the resulting void of information has ultimately risked increasing negative public opinion towards animal research.[7] Temple Grandin, a Colorado State University animal sciences professor, makes a similar argument when she suggests that it is necessary to “open the doors electronically” to the public. In a December 2011 interview at the University of Washington Health Sciences Center, where she was speaking to researchers, she commented, “If you don’t show what you do, then people are going to imagine and it’s going to be even worse.”[8]

Similarly, in the 2010 Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) book, Caring Hands, editor Viktor Reinhardt chronicles 1,900 electronic comments and suggestions for improving animal care and welfare contributed by technicians, caretakers, veterinarians, and other participants in an ongoing AWI Laboratory Animal Refinement and Enrichment Forum. In his introduction to the book, Reinhardt eloquently speaks of the book’s twofold purpose: it is both for persons “genuinely concerned about the welfare of animals kept in laboratories” and for those in the animal rights community “who don’t know that most animal caretakers and technicians, many veterinarians and some researchers do their very best to refine the traditional, often inadequate housing and inhumane handling practices so that the animals experience less distress.”[9] A concrete example of efforts by caretakers to develop refinement alternatives, the book is filled with pictures, explanations, and discussion threads around recommendations for husbandry and handling. One part of the book, for example, contains detailed responses to the question of how best to prepare enrichment materials for pigs that allow foraging and rooting activity. Photos speak volumes about the energy and compassion of many of those generating these ideas.

The Foundation for Biomedical Research and similar organizations use various media to communicate the important role of animal research in the search for cures for serious diseases. The foundation did this recently with a television documentary on breast cancer research, which was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2011. Academic institutions such as the University of Wisconsin and Penn State University’s Animal Resource Program have public Web sites about their animal research work, training, and facilities, with Penn State offering a virtual laboratory tour. In addition, several major companies, including Charles River Laboratories and Novo Nordisk, are sharing information on their Web sites about their animal welfare standards and practices. “There is an important story to be told,” reflected Theresa Cunningham, director of the Center for Laboratory Animal Services at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. “The more we work at training and refining standards for animal care and communicating with the public on our current humane care and use of research animals, the more it can build trust and understanding for the work we do—and it also supports us in finding possible alternatives to using animals.”

Even with improvements in animal welfare, invasive research on animals can be emotionally distressing to research staff. Humans form relationships with the animals in their lives. Evidence of this bond stretches back to prehistoric times. No matter how firmly a person believes in the value of medical research and the necessity of experimenting on animals (at least for now), there is no getting around the reality that animals pay a huge price. The death of a lab animal can cause veterinarians, lab technicians, and others who have worked with and become attached to it to grieve. Furthermore, as technicians, researchers, and others in animal care teams are encouraged to show ever-greater compassion and care for the animals entrusted to their care, the bond between the animals and their caregivers deepens. Recognizing this, labs have started conducting commemorative events in gratitude to their laboratory animals.[10] These events have their roots in religious and secular rituals performed around the world to pay tribute to animals for the many roles that they play in humans’ lives—as companions, in military and police service, and in agriculture.

The Center for Laboratory Animal Services at the Hospital for Special Surgery, for example, has prepared two such tributes over the past four years that were supported at all levels of the hospital. Researchers, physicians, and hospital staff and administrators were present at these tributes, which were extremely well received. “Animal use to bring ahead medical progress is a privilege, not a right,” one participant told me, “and something that everyone, at every level of an institution, needs to be reminded of.”

Susan Kopp is a veterinarian and professor of health sciences in the veterinary technology program at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York, where she teaches courses in veterinary nursing and ethics. A scholar at Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, she also co-convenes the Center animal ethics study group and teaches a summer seminar in animal welfare and veterinary ethics.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. 1. National Research Council Committee for the Update of the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, 8th ed. (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2010).
  2. 2. J.S. Gaynor and W.K. Muir, Handbook of Veterinary Pain Management (St. Louis, Mo.: Mosby Elsevier, 2009).
  3. 3. E. Hutchinson, A. Avery, and S. VandeWoude, “Environmental Enrichment for Laboratory Rodents,” Institute for Laboratory Animal Research Journal, 46, no. 2 (2005): 148-61.
  4. 4. National Research Council Committee on the Recognition and Alleviation of Distress in Laboratory Animals, Recognition and Alleviation of Distress in Laboratory Animals (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2008).
  5. 5. C.R. Lockworth et al., “Training Veterinary Care Technicians and Husbandry Staff Improves Animal Care,” Journal of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science, 50, no. 1 (2011): 84-93.
  6. 6. N.A. Bratcher and L.V. Medina, “Use of a Full-Time 3Rs Scientist/Alternatives Coordinator to Promote Refinement, Reduction, and Replacement in a Drug Discovery and Development Paradigm.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Association of Laboratory Science Association, San Diego, Calif., October 4, 2011.
  7. 7. T. Blackwell and B. Rollin, “Leading Discussions on Animal Rights,” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 233, no. 6 (2008): 868.
  8. 8. K. Sienfeld, “Animal Expert Temple Grandin Says Fear Can Be Worse Than Pain,” KPLU National Public Radio, December 8, 2011, at http://www.kplu.org/post/animal-expert-temple-grandin-says-fear-can-be-worse-pain.
  9. 9. V. Reinhardt, ed., Caring Hands: Discussions by the Laboratory Animal Refinement and Enrichment Forum, vol. II (Washington, D.C.: Animal Welfare Institute, 2010).
  10. 10. S.A. Iliff, “An Additional ‘R’: Remembering the Animals,” Institute for Laboratory Animal Research 43, no. 1 (2002): 38-47.