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Caring for animals in medical research – a job you probably didn’t know existed

It’s not often you hear about the people working in animal research. Sure, there’s an occasional story about a new and promising drug which might mention it was initially tested on mice. But for the most part, people are unaware of how much work, and more importantly, how much care goes on behind-the-scenes in animal research.

At Ingham Institute’s Biological Resources Unit (BRU), Natalie Stunnell (Manager), Alison Richards (Research Support Officer), and Crystal Espinoza and Virginia Dehl (Animal Technicians), make up the animal care team. Together they look after the health and welfare of the mice in the animal facility, which predominantly has cancer research as its focus. People who’ve never stepped into an animal research facility (that’s most people), might think that their job seems like a pretty easy one. Seriously, how much care does a mouse need?  It turns out, in fact, that they need quite a lot.

The animal research industry is a heavily governed industry. In order to conduct any research on animals, animal facilities must pass stringent accreditation requirements by the Department of Primary Industries. The unit must also report to Animal Care and Ethics Committees who can inspect premises, not only at any time, but as many times a year as they think is necessary.

Researchers must put in detailed proposals to the ethics committee before every new research project. This includes how many mice will be required as well as what procedures will be undertaken. Even breeding of the mice requires approval.

The BRU team work tirelessly to ensure that the unit not only passes accreditation but does so at the highest possible standard. Recent accreditation reports have been full of praise for the unit, which was described as “an exceptionally well-run facility”, as well as praise for the animal care team: “Excellent in-house training for researchers provided by animal care staff.”

But back to the question about how much care a mouse needs? Every day, each cage is moved and every mouse is observed for signs of ill-health. Food for the mice is irradiated before it comes into the facility, water is purified and cages are sterilised. Part of a researcher’s role is to visit their mice every day. Yes, in case you were wondering, that includes weekends.

“It’s a big commitment on the part of the researchers,” explains Natalie.

There are even strict protocols on which mice are visited first and it has nothing to do with favouritism.

“There is a hierarchy when checking the animals, based on their health status. The mice are SPF – Specific Pathogen Free. Following set protocols, research and animal care personnel help to maintain this high health status,” explains Alison.

Contrary to popular belief, Natalie explains that people working in animal research love working with, and caring for, animals. Indeed, research personnel often suffer due to the compassion they feel for the animals.

“We are animal lovers and we want to look after the animals the best we can,” says Natalie.

We don’t hear much about the people working in animal research, but we should. That’s because we need to know that there’s much more to animal research than science. There’s also care and compassion. There’s time, commitment and dedication, not only to the research, but to the animals themselves. As Natalie so eloquently explains, “We take our work with the animals very seriously. Our motto here is: it’s not a right to work with animals, it’s a privilege.”