UC MERCED LAB TOUR: The Vivarium

Roy Hoglund, Director of the Department of Animal Research Services at UC Merced, gazes at me levelly over his cup of coffee as I sip my own. I am approximately 20 feet underground in a brightly lit office. There is a dry-erase board across from me with a single bright message of ‘DLM reporter’ scrawled across today’s date. Two other staff members, both in colorful scrubs, are crammed in wherever we can fit. I get a chair. I feel important.

This morning I learned about the three Rs of Replace, Reduce and Refine, far different from what I am accustomed to. They are tenets that govern how animals are used in research, here at the root of the Science and Engineering Building, just outside the secure doors that protect the UCM Vivarium. This is where the research animals for studies and teaching at the university are kept. These little Rs, and the people around me, are the guardians whose No 1 responsibility is animal welfare.

Roy sets down his cup and expands what he does for me. In scientific research, nearly all treatments and studies that pertain to human beings are tested on animals. Before a drug treatment can be used in humans, it must be tested in animals. It’s the researchers responsibility to determine be the minimum number (Reduction) necessary to be scientifically relevant in any study.

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Photo by Tom Price
Roy Hoglund demonstrates how he and his staff handle the mice used at the UC Merced Vivarium.

Sometimes an animal study that needs raw data does not have to use living animals, and this is where Replacement comes in. If tissue is readily available, such as something that would ordinarily be thrown away in a slaughterhouse or some other byproduct of the food industry, that will be used in all possible cases.
A lot of people have a misconception of animal laboratories as a harsh, terrifying environment out of the Rats of Nimh. The entire medical field has an occasionally shameful past, from graverobbing for dissections a hundred years ago and mistreatment of test animals, but that is precisely what no longer happens. There is a legal sledgehammer waiting for anyone who mistreats their own pets, and even more legal protection for laboratory animals.

This is not a cold, sterile environment for sociopaths. Although it is far cleaner and healthier for the animals here than for any human being who works in an office. Assuming that your office is modern enough to have air conditioning, the fans in the ductwork will change out the air in office building rooms 3-6 times in an hour, which is why you can smell someone’s microwave popcorn for an eternity sometimes. In the Vivarium, there are 10-15 air changes per hour, the staff is exhaustively trained, and every single animal is seen every single day. The Animal Welfare Act and Health Research Extension Act are federal laws that dictate how animals are used in research. It’s quite likely many research animals are taken care of in cleaner and healthier environments than many family pets.

To do this type of work, if you don’t have an interest in animals and care about animals, you will not do well. I am curious. What kind of person works in a vivarium? Megan, who writes poetry in her spare time, pipes in: “It seems like a small thing, to take care of them, but it’s huge. If they’re not well taken care of, the science doesn’t go well. They (the researchers) don’t have to worry about something that’s not their specialty-we take care of the animals, and they do science.”

Jordan, who made my coffee with the cheerfully exacting care of the true caffeine fanatic, is able to identify the mice he works with. To someone unfamiliar with the hundreds of squeaking white forms, they all look the same, but for him they’re nearly as distinct as people.

“This is not something I ever saw myself doing, but every day is amazing,” he says.

There is always some degree of conflicting emotion. Any of the staff would willingly allow physical harm to come to themselves before anything hurt the animals in their care, but they also acknowledge that there is a great deal of important research to be done, and that the animals here are the key for a huge number of biomedical advances.

That is not to say that their job is just cuddling research animals. It can be a physically demanding job, because even something as deceptively simple as replacing bedding can require ergonomics of its own, if a single person may clean more than a hundred cages in a shift. In the vivarium, cleaning is not as simple as hosing out a cat’s litterbox.

“Whether or not someone thinks animals have rights, does not lessen our obligation to them.”

— Roy Hoglund, Director of the Department of Animal Research Services at UC Merced

The cages are carefully changed, entirely scrubbed, and then autoclaved. An autoclave is a machine that works to sterilize whatever is inside with a combination of steam and pressure. It runs at 180 degrees, it is extremely sanitized and looks like a giant dishwasher.

None of this is what bothers many people about animal research. If you’ve ever seen news coverage of animal-rights protesters outside a facility, holding signs and yelling slogans, what seems to be the cause of concern are either how the animals are treated, or often enough, that any animal, ever, is used in research.

Some studies, particularly those in which new drugs are tested, or if the animals are genetically-engineered, for example studies developing treatments for cancer and diabetes and such other diseases, end with necropsies of the animals. The laboratory animal, at the end of the study (the guidelines for which are always set in advance) will end with the humane euthanizaiton of the animal after which every possible bit of information will be gathered. Tissue samples, observational data, everything. However, this is nearly always misconstrued by those who are either not aware of what is happening, or do not believe that animal testing is ever necessary. Much of the research today involves the interaction of complex biological organ systems that cannot be computer modeled.

Have there ever been protests at UC Merced? Well, apparently not yet. Roy has been involved with animal research for decades, at world-class facilities both public and private, and has seen all attitudes toward animal research.

Roy leans forward and asks if I would like to see the animals. Oh yes. And I find out, as I pass through a series of doors, that I will be playing dress-up. Slip-on booties, to cover my shoes and protect the animals from anything I may be tracking in. Sterile lab coats to cover my clothing, just in case. There are quarantines, painted lines on the floor (Do Not Cross), reinforced doors and evacuation procedures. And a cheerfully relaxed atmosphere from the staff. They are here every day, regardless of holidays or birthdays or weekends, but there is no hint of drudgery. I walk beside Megan after I have finally managed to put on my lab coat. She has a veterinary tech background, and views the animals here as essential, like a farm dog or a beef steer.

“They’re working animals-they do their job, and we do our job by them,” she says.

The light, temperature and humidity are all regulated down here, using a state-of-the-art system that took years to perfect. There are rooms and equipment for nearly any conceivable scientific test or procedure, but what sticks in my mind most is are the family of little pink newborn mice and their mother in a carefully cleaned enclosure, with ‘litter’ and the date of their birth printed on their identifying card, and the expression on Roy’s face as he picks up a bright white mouse, who sniffs about curiously on his gloved palm, peering at all of us clustered around. He allows the DLM team to take a picture, and the mouse raises up a paw, then leans toward the camera, whiskers twitching in fascination.

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