In my journey as a scientist, I recently started questioning myself. How necessary is animal sacrifice in order for us to conduct research? The conflict arises because I know the benefits of using mice for research, but at the same time, I understand the ethical dilemma. What difference is there between millions of bred mice by the Jackson Laboratory and the headless Chickienobs used for human consumption of chicken breasts in Oryx and Crake. Since I’ve been only doing in vitro (test tube experiments), I never realized where the cells came from. However, the first day I collected cells from the mice’s leg, reality hit me. The legs were so tiny but so realistic at the same time. While I was removing tissues and breaking the bones, I couldn’t stop questioning what I was doing.
Approximately 110 million lab rodents are used in the U.S. alone every year. That’s one-third of the U.S. and double South Korea’s population. Despite the numerous amount of mice used every year, animal rights policies for lab animals are tough to find. The Animal Welfare Act or AWA is the primary federal law that addresses the standard of care for animals in research facilities. However, mice aren’t included in the AWA, and researchers aren’t even required to report non-AWA-protected animals. Other nonprofit organizations such as AALAC do require reporting of animal care, including mice and rodents. However, the regulations aren’t sufficient. The nonprofit organization ‘Stop Animal Exploitation Now’ filed federal complaints against Vanderbilt University for negligence after two dozen animals were reported dead in 2019. Furthermore, from Dec. 19, 2018, to Oct. 30, 2020, Vanderbilt was required to enhance reporting to the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare due to repeated mice deaths.
So what can we do to protect laboratory mice?
During an annual inspection from the United States Department of Agriculture on June 18, 2019, VUMC was reported for three violations which were listed as “critical,” “repeat,” and “lack of communication.” The report clearly illustrates the first problem: A lack of communication between people who are in charge of the mice. It’s each individual’s responsibility to keep track of the mice’s condition and document injections and breeding. Since multiple mice are simultaneously used, vets, researchers, and laboratory animal care technicians need to be aware and be updated on any changes. It’s important to implement programs such as Topaz to which everyone can have regular access.
From a policy standpoint, it’s crucial to protect laboratory animals through external nonprofit organizations such as the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory animal mice, AALAC, or Institution Animal Care and Use Committee, IACUC. Especially in an institution like Vanderbilt University with an extensive research facility, labs must follow ethical protocols and appropriate training. Currently, Vanderbilt University and VUMC both require researchers to go through AALAC and IACUC training, yet additional regulations such as monthly inspections are required.
Most important, future researchers must learn about the sacrifices made in using laboratory animals. The current school courses lack material that teaches students how to treat animals ethically. Students need to understand the magnitude of the responsibility. They need to learn how to carefully plan beforehand to conduct research that causes the least pain and harm to animals.
Although animals don’t always receive the attention and respect they deserve, there are examples of hope in this area. For example, in Russia, there is a monument to laboratory mice. The monument was built at a Russian institute for genetic research to honor and respect the countless number of mice sacrificed for DNA research. I believe the monument reminds every new and current researcher of the responsibility of their work. Even though monuments may be an extreme example of reverence, the spirit of the gesture can easily be replicated in other contexts through appropriate institutional and educational changes that support the proper care of laboratory animals.