A safety net for animals

By Kelsey Gobroski
Sun Star Reporter

As a land, sea, and space grant institution with a life sciences facility in the works, UAF’s identity intertwines with its research. What isn’t immediately apparent in that identity is who represents the voices of the lives affected during some research projects. Not just the lives of the scientists, the funders, or the public, but also the animals. If research is the backbone of UAF, regulation is its central nervous system. Animal research requires rules to tell it where to go, when to tense up, when to relax, and how to maneuver.

A female Sprague-Dawley rat that is part of the breeding colony at the Biological Research and Diagnostic Facility at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Heather Bryant / Sun Star

“We want to make sure that the use of live animals is justified,” said Milan Shipka, associate director of the Agriculture and Forestry Station.

In 1966, Congress legislated animal ethics in the Animal Welfare Act, soon after LIFE magazine published a photo essay about the dubious origins of research animals at the time.  The federal government regulates animal care in science through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW). At the UAF level, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) has responded to issues on campus since 1985. IACUC approves research, but also responds to complaints and investigates issues such as recent deaths of seven muskoxen.

Although the committee is local, it follows federal regulations. OLAW and USDA require a veterinarian, Blake, to make sure the animals are well cared for. Kathy Chapados is a nonscientific community voice on the eight-member committee.  Scientists, including Shipka, fill the remaining slots. Together, they review about 100 proposed protocols a year.

“Each one of us that is on the committee brings a different knowledge set,” Shipka said.

The multi-layered regulatory system isn’t perfect. USDA and OLAW regulations don’t always mesh.  For example, USDA rules exclude rodents, farm animals, and birds. Some animals “could fall through the cracks,” said Assistant Vice Chancellor for Research John Blake, but IACUC helps fill in the federal gaps.

All UAF animal facilities are regulated by the Animal Welfare Act. West Ridge alone has three animal facilities, according to IACUC. Irving has animal quarters for arctic ground squirrels, rats, voles, and ducks. The Arctic Health Research Building hosts young salmon. The Biological Research and Diagnostics Facility holds rats, mice, fish and frogs. Embedded in the north campus trails, the Biological Research Reserve houses black bears and more arctic ground squirrels. An additional Agriculture and Forestry Experiment Station in Palmer handles beef cattle, moose, and caribou.

Each animal on campus can have only one major operation for the sake of research, Blake said. Large animals like muskoxen often live long enough to participate in many minor studies. Reindeer might be slaughtered for meat.  The smaller animals, like rats, are usually euthanized.  The university doesn’t use companion animals such as cats or dogs, Blake said.

“Even if rats are still alive after the end of studies, they probably wouldn’t make good pets,” Blake said.

At UAF, scientists working with dead dogs and all living vertebrates need permission from IACUC to use the animals. The rules also pertain to projects that include observing animals in the field. The committee meets monthly and sends annual updates to OLAW. Twice a year, they inspect the animal facilities down to every last chip of paint. Wildlife biology professor Perry Barboza said the committee’s presence in research “is required – it’s part of the landscape.”

Students also learn about animal care and safety at on-campus jobs. Everyone working with animals needs to take the UAF Occupational Health and Safety Program for Animal Facilities. That includes dead tissues, such as those in museum collections.

IACUC also oversees classes that handle live animals. Sasha Kitayskiy, a member of the committee, recently brought 10 bettas into his class. He uses muskoxen and fish in his animal behavior course, BIOL441. He’s been using the bettas for years, Blake said. This year, something went wrong. Sometimes fish die soon after he buys them, a side effect of buying pet store fish. This was different, unexpected.

The class worked with tank temperatures to shifting from 72 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit so they could observe the bettas’ reactions. The heater malfunctioned, and the resulting heat wave killed all the fish overnight.

Veterinary Services received the carcasses. IACUC would have investigated if they didn’t know why the fish died, but this time the cause was obvious. After some discussion, they decided to test equipment in the future and Blake talked to the class about the incident.

Scientists are encouraged to attend IACUC’s monthly meetings to clarify their research intentions, Shipka said. When scientists write protocols, their research proposals, they need to write both in field-specific language and in plainer terms. This draws committee members outside the scientist’s field into the discussion. Take the betta deaths.

“I’m not a fish person. I like to fish,” Shipka said.  “… but I’m not a fish biologist.”

Hence the professionally diverse committee. If Shipka were to have questions about fish ethics, he could lean over and ask the fisheries biologist on the committee. IACUC gives research projects a chance to be scrutinized outside their field. The community, other scientists, and a veterinarian have a say in the project review process. IACUC began not to curtail animal research, but to help focus it towards justifiable projects.  Through federal regulations, the web of conversations between diverse fields conglomerates into a distinct voice: the interests of the animals.

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