Research

Working with test animals

Researchers are not immune

Is it possible to love animals while also ‘sacrificing’ rats and mice for scientific research? ‘There are things I’d rather not do.’
By Freek Schueler / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen / Photo by Reyer Boxem

Emma Wams’ cat sitter was appalled to find out that the owner of the cats she loved so much experimented on animals every day. How could she, when she was such an animal lover?

According to Wams, post-doctoral student of Behavioural Neuroscience at the University of Groningen, this happens a lot. People think that animal testing takes place in dank little backrooms, with animals in filthy cages, when in fact, the practice is highly regulated. People also tend to think that lab animals are used for cosmetics testing. ‘That has been illegal in the Netherlands for seventeen years! But somehow, the public still thinks this is happening.’
Nevertheless, she deals with animal lives, and taking those lives is sometimes inevitable. How do researchers deal with this? Can Wams still face her cats?

Inevitable

She originally studied to be a psychologist. After Wams got her PhD at Oxford University, where she researched the sleep patterns of Alzheimer patients, she started her post-doc at the RUG. Initially she studied people, and later rats and mice. According to Wams, there are certain questions that cannot be answered only using human subjects.

 

The law

Each researcher that uses animal test subjects has to take a course in laboratory animal science. They have to submit their research proposal to a national authority: the Central Committee for Animal Testing (CCD).

This proposal should say what the researcher will be doing: the reason behind the research, the type and quantity of anaesthesia, the number of animals, and the potential discomfort they will be feeling.

Finally, the Animal Welfare Body (IvD), connected to the RUG, also has to approve the proposal.

Three Rs

Reseachers who do animal testing abide by the ‘three Rs’ to ensure that the number of animals used is as low as possible: replace, reduce, refine. Whenever possible, animal-free experiments replace animal testing. New techniques allow researchers to grow organs in a Petri dish, reducing the need for live animals.

When replacement isn’t possible, the other two ‘Rs’ come into play: reduce the number of animal test subjects as much as possible, and avoid suffering whenever possible.

For example, she studies the way information from the senses is processed in the brain. The neurons in the brain transmit electrical signals that can be measured. This process is potentially disrupted in people with Alzheimer’s disease or autism. ‘We have to insert electrodes into the brain to map these processing routes, to see how the brain reacts to certain impulses’, says Wams. ‘Obviously, ethically we could never put electrodes into people’s brains.’

While Wams may be convinced that using laboratory animals is necessary, it does not mean that it comes naturally to her. From the very first time she operated on a mouse’s brain, she realised that she was taking healthy animals’ lives.

At the end of the surgery, the mice were ‘sacrificed’, a term researchers prefer over ‘killed’. It was not easy. ‘It takes some getting used to. Once you’re able to contextualise it, it gets easier. It increases the chance that my next surgeries are successful, with no infections or other discomfort. And the training mice were anaesthetised, so they didn’t suffer.’

Difficult

Behavioural biologist Bauke Buwalda also uses lab animals for his research. He studies social behaviour in rats, in particular their reactions to the environment in stressful situations. He puts animals together in cages and watches them duke it out.

The losing rat feels stress, which the researchers measures by checking hormone levels in the blood and observing its behaviour. Just like people, some rats are perfectly capable of handling stress, while others become anxious or exhibit depressed behaviour.

Buwalda studies these differences and tries to figure out what causes them. The research is relevant not just for human beings, but also for the cattle industry, which usually involves animals living in stressful situations.

In spite of years of experience in stress-related research, Buwalda has not become immune to the suffering of his lab animals. ‘There are things I’d rather not do. It’s different for everyone. I’d really rather not study anything to do with pain.’

And yet, even that kind of research is fairly important, he says. People suffering from chronic pain would love a solution to their problem, but the experiments needed for that have an immense impact on animals. It’s something each researcher has to decide for themselves, Buwalda says: ‘Is the animals’ suffering worth it?’

Personally, he will not cross the line into the unnatural. He would never purposefully stress out all animals just to elicit the highest stress reaction possible. ‘I’m mainly interested in stimuli that only some animals feel, while others don’t. The difference in sensitivity that also occurs in human society.’

Good reason

Animal caretaker Brendan Verbeek probably has the most contact with the animals in the Linnaeusborg, even more than the researchers. After all, the hundreds of rats, mice, hamsters, fish, and birds – the testing facility houses approximately ten to fifteen species – need taking care of.

Verbeek knows the animals (‘I know that fish number 31 one in aquarium 2 isn’t feeling well’), and that makes his job even harder than the researchers’ sometimes. Sacrificing the animals is the most painful part of the job. ‘But I know why we do it; there’s a good reason for it.’

It’s his job to protect the animals’ welfare: ‘Some researchers just want a ready supply of animals, for optimal research purposes. But we want to breed as few animals as possible.’ It leads to a healthy partnership: as few laboratory animals as possible, with the research of the highest possible quality, Verbeek says.

Paperwork

Yet it’s not just the researcher who decides whether or not to use animal test subjects. Each experiment has to be tested and approved, involving quite a bit of paperwork. Wams: ‘Sometimes it’s actually easier to be approved for human studies than it is animal research. As long as your test subjects consent, you can do quite a bit. But animals can’t consent, obviously.’

More flexibility would be good, Buwalda says. ‘When you apply for research you have to provide an estimation of what you’ll be doing over the next five years. But in two years, I might just read something in an article that I’d never thought of before.’

He would like more trust and less pressure to regulate things. ‘Good researchers get nothing out of bad experiments. Each researcher I know is trying to do best by the animals.’

Wams agrees. ‘Everyone here is an animal lover. We all feel the need to take care of our test subjects.’ However, she’s not worried that she’ll get attached to her lab animals. ‘In my experience, mice only ever want to bite you’, she laughs.

Check out Fewer animal experiments

 

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