This is the second of a two-part series on animal testing at Wesleyan. The first part was published on Friday, March 27.
Like many students, Rebecca Winkler ’16 has switched majors. But her reason is uncommon. As she explains it, the switch was as much an ethical decision as it was a personal one.
Winkler, who switched from a double major in Neuroscience and Behavior (NS&B) and Feminist, Gender, & Sexuality Studies (FGSS) to a double major in biology and FGSS, is considering becoming a veterinarian. She has a rabbit in her Hi-Rise apartment, which she allowed to roam around the room as I met with her.
As a neuroscience major, she took Behavioral Neurobiology, in which she learned about the history of neuroscience research. Afterward, she said, she felt uncomfortable conducting research that built on these historical studies.
“I knew going into the [neuroscience] field I could do things that didn’t involve [heavy] testing on animals and a lot of animal experimentation,” she said. “But the fact that basically all of your starting point information comes from this history of really abusive animal testing—I just didn’t feel right about it.”
In the early days of animal research, there was little oversight. Since then, a lot has changed. In 1966, largely as a result of bad press—an article in Sports Illustrated about a family whose dog, Pepper, had been stolen and used in an experiment, and a video released by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) that showed personnel smoking in an unclean laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania used for brain damage research on baboons—Congress passed a piece of legislation called the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), placing regulations on animal research.
Today, all institutions with federally funded animal research or any research using primates or other mammals are required to have an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), which reviews research protocols and determines if animal use is justified. These committees have the option to approve a protocol as is, approve it with modifications, or reject it.
Stephen Devoto, Professor of Neuroscience & Behavior and Biology, as well as chair of the University’s IACUC, wrote an email to The Argus stating that no more than half of IACUC proposals at the University have been approved as written, but all have been approved eventually.
Part of the job of IACUCs is to determine whether animal research is needed at all. Increasingly, in vitro models (growing cells on a petri dish) and computer models can be used to replace animals in research.
According to Professor of Biology and Neuroscience and Behavior Janice Naegele, the IACUCs are effective at ensuring that animals are the only good model for research. Part of her research uses tissue cultures to study how neurons are connected in the nervous system.
“That allows us to reduce the number of animals that we use,” Naegele said. “The IACUC is a really critical structure at Wesleyan for not only making sure that rules are enforced, but also for providing information and training and helping scientists think about alternative methods to the use of animals.”
Critics of animal research practices agree on the importance of these alternatives but believe that they are not considered often enough. Winkler believes that many scientists are too willing to use animals.
“I really don’t think [using animals] should be the fallback,” she said. “I think we should try and be more creative with figuring out ways to test things. And if there are no other options and we’ve really looked into different methodologies, then, with really careful review, testing animals may be merited.”
Scientists say that, in many cases, animal testing is necessary, especially in neuroscience research. The goal of many studies is to learn how the brain functions—something that is largely unknown. The lack of understanding of the brain’s functions often prevents computer models from being helpful. And in vitro models have limitations in their application, as graduate student Kemal Asik explained.
“We can grow cells in a culture—in a petri dish—and look at how the cells interact with each other,” he said. “But we can’t grow a brain on a petri dish. So we won’t be able to put that cell that you’re looking at in its actual, natural environment—that is, inside the brain.”
As a result, scientists often aim to treat the animals well, instead of eliminating their use in research. Students in each laboratory are taught how to care for the animals. According to Iris Chipendo ’16, who works with zebrafish in Devoto’s lab, this training protects the welfare of the animals.
“Before I started working in the lab, I had to work with Peter Shatos, [supervisor of the Animal Care facilities],” she said. “So I had to go with him. He showed me how to feed the fish, he showed me how to collect the fish, he showed me how to treat them, how to make sure that, even while we’re euthanizing them, they feel as little pain as possible.”
Associate Professor of Biology and Neuroscience and Behavior Gloster Aaron said that, in his lab—which uses brain slices from euthanized mice to study epilepsy—he instructs students on how to handle the mice before they are anesthetized. A mouse, he said, should be picked up securely by the scruff of its neck, upon which it relaxes.
“If you do it right, the mouse doesn’t even make a sound,” he said.
Sound treatment of animals, the scientists say, leads to sound science. Derivations from an animal’s natural habitat can prevent a study from informing how things work in nature.
“What’s important to realize is how motivated every scientist is to make sure there [are] no outside variables,” Devoto said. “I mean, it’s selfish, it’s ego-driven.”
For the same reason, Naegele said it is important to keep animals healthy and to prevent them from being sick.
“There are many biochemical changes, many molecular changes in the body of a sick animal—just like a sick person, when you have a virus, or something else that makes you ill,” Naegele said. “And so scientists are very, very careful to control the environment that the animals are in.”
Stress and isolation, too, are factors. As a result, Naegele said she provides time for the mice in her lab to socialize with one another and supplies nesting materials—anything she can do to replicate their natural habitat. Asik, who works in the lab of John Kirn, chair of the Biology Department and Professor of Neuroscience and Behavior, said that the zebrafinches in his lab are housed in groups. Assistant Professor of Neuroscience and Behavior and Psychology Mike Robinson, who researches various types of addiction, including gambling, junk food, and drugs, uses something called the enriched cage system, where the rats he uses can interact and play with toys.
For Winkler, the scientific benefit of new, less harmful methods of animal testing demonstrates the necessity of treating animals well during research. It shows the necessity, too, she said, of moving away from the history that drove her away from the neuroscience major.
“If we force ourselves to be more creative and to use this better fallback, prehistoric model testing as our method, we’ll get better results and we’ll make more progress,” she said.