Lab animal treatment monitored

By Markos Moulitsas

While animal experimentation continues to be a subject of controversy, NIU must follow stringent guidelines to ensure the welfare of the animals the university performs tests on.

Both the psychology and biology departments at NIU utilize animals for research and educational purposes.

Researchers at the university use several types of animals for their research, including rats, mice, three species of wild rodents, frogs and snakes. The university operates several laboratories in which these animals are kept, run by both the psychology and biology departments.

Some of these animals are also used by both departments for academic purposes.

Both departments offer undergraduate courses that utilize animals, such as PSYC 411, experimental psychology. James Corwin, professor of the course, explained the use of rodents in his class.

“This is a lab course and lab courses are for students to have hands-on experience and provide the context to handle, collect and analyze data,” he said.

He explained that his course consisted of three experiments, all approved by the university, in which the worst the animals suffered was thirst deprivation. “We don’t use shocks. We can demonstrate basic principles without it. There is no mishandling of the animals,” Corwin said.

Although not all uses of animals at NIU are as benign as PSYC 411, the university places a high priority on the well-being and welfare of the animals.

“Irrespective of one’s philosophical views on the use of animals, there are many assurances that the animals are treated humanely,” said James Willot, professor of psychology and chair of the Institution Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) at NIU, a federally-mandated monitoring group.

He said the last decade had seen a whole variety of “rather thorough” set of regulations developed by the government concerning “every conceivable facet of animal care.” These regulations specify such things as the size of cages and other aspects of animal care. All of these regulations are policed by the Department of Agriculture, which conducts regular unannounced inspections.

To care for the animals, the university employs a full-time animal-care supervisor and three to four assistants. The university also contracts veterinarians who are on call.

To further improve the quality of life for these animals, the state had just finished funding a $250,000 renovation of the psychology building’s animal laboratory, most of the money going towards air conditioning improvements, Willot said.

“The animals are treated better than the people in the building,” he said. “If the (air conditioning) system went out, the lab would get the highest priority in the building.”

Animals requiring to be killed, or “euthanized,” as Willot preferred to call it, are given an overdose of anesthetic to minimize their suffering.

“They just go to sleep,” he said.

In addition to the Department of Agriculture, the welfare of animals at NIU is also monitored by IACUC, which files an annual report with the government. The committee consists of scientists, veterinarians and members of the community with interests in animals.

IACUC is also charged with approving requests for research requiring animals.

“No vertebrate animal can be used for research unless the committee approves. Protocol papers list criteria for animal research,” Willot said. He also said although IACUC was not in the business of hindering research, “(IACUC) is not a rubber stamp. It more often than not requires revision (of the original request).”

Researchers are bound by the protocols even if it involves temporarily capturing animals in the wild, Willot said.

Among the experiments currently using animals in the psychology department are studies on the effects of aging and tension on the brain, Willot said.

Brett Drysdale, laboratory animal care supervisor for the department of biology, gave a general overview of the experiments being conducted by the department.

Current experiments include the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome on growth hormones and genetic manipulation on animal embryos, Drysdale said.

The controversial aspects of animal testing became apparent when a psychology department secretary, responding to a request for information, said, “Animal testing is controversial … (so) I’d rather not give that information out. We don’t give interviews to the Star” regarding animal research.

The secretary refused to give her name.