Saturday, May 11, 2013

Working in an Animal Research Lab: My Perspective

Today I'd like to tell you a bit about my work, in part because I think I have a pretty unique perceptive on a hot-button issue, and also because I feel rather proud of myself for getting my career off the ground.  In an economy where everyone bitches constantly about unemployment, it only took me three months and ridiculous tenacity to get my dream job.


Mind you, I haven't updated in a while because I don't feel like I have much to say but I don't want to disappoint my adoring readership (which, based on my IP tracker, is a combination of my boyfriend and my overly nosey parents repeated reloading my page.) (Hi Mom.  Hi Dad.  Just a friendly reminder: Don't read this blog if you don't feel like getting upset, and let's face it, you're going to find reasons to get upset.  Please don't use my own words against me.)

So things are going exceptionally well here in California.  Andrew and I painted the mailbox (robin's egg blue with a white fleur-de-lis... pictures to come, I'm quiet proud of it) and planted a cactus garden, and went rock climbing last weekend at the Malibu State Creek.  We took Carlisle because why not; he and I went swimming down a canyon because I didn't trust him on the traverse (you have to climb a vertical ledge to get to the climbing site), but on the way back we just carried him in a backpack because he was tired.

Also, we've really managed to resolve things with our grumpy neighbour, Fernando.  Turns out that putting your enormous pet rabbit in a floral dress harness and walking her about the neighbourhood is a fantastic way to engage your neighbours in friendly conversation.  And, as far as Jenny goes, she's finally agreed to stop bugging us, which is nice, because getting bitchy letters in the mail every week was getting to be old.

I attribute most of the good things in my life right now to my gainful employment.  They say that money doesn't buy happiness, but what it does buy is security, and it's very difficult to be happy if you don't feel secure.  Also it's regulated my sleep cycle, my eating, and my drinking, which is doing wonders for my health, although my generous benefits package has probably contributed on that front as well.

"Nine out of ten doctors said, 'Who is this?  Why are you calling so late?'"

My job (and I hope maybe career?) is as an Animal Technician, which makes it sound like I manipulate tiny animal robots but is actually less interesting.

Could've put a clip of Flipsy from the Simpsons here, or Robopuppy from Futurama, but instead watch this ketchip robot.  I laugh every time at this.

My job has three major components: directly working with animals, cleaning their poo off of everything, and then doing some very light paperwork and communication.

An average day begins for me at 5:35 am, when I leave the house to get to work at 6.  Although I don't think of myself as a morning person, the truth is, I am.  Once I'm out of bed I enjoy getting up early, I enjoy putting on a cardigan and walking the dogs in the cool morning air, and I enjoy driving on an uncrowded freeway toward the Los Angeles skyline, lit up like a Christmas tree and crowned in a smog-blurred sunrise.  I also like the K-Earth 101 morning segment "Dude's Little Joke of the Day," which comes on a 5:40 am when the city is just to my left (right after the exit for the 60 to Pomona).

Announcer: It's time for Dude's little surfer joke of the day.
Dude: HEEELLLLOOOOO, everybody!
[prattling for 5 seconds]
Dude: What do you call a camel without a hump?
Announcer (sort of condescendingly): What do you call a camel without a hump?
Dude: ...HUMPFREY.
Announcer (groaning): Duuuude.
Dude (laughing): Ha-ha, dude.

...only in California.

Anyway, I get into work and punch in at 5:55 on the dot, and immediately change into scrubs and a bunch of protective gear.  Think shoe covers (blue), hair covers (white), a disposable gown (yellow), a respirator mask (blue but not the same as the shoe covers), and gloves (purple or tan).  The scrubs are red.  I hope that nightmare colour combos aren't distressing to animals because otherwise we have a serious confounding factor in all of the research., you know, whoa, man.

The facility ("vivarium") is in a secured basement, which you need a keycard to get into, and move around in.  It's a very nice clinical setting, rather like a high-tech Avengers movie where maybe they're developing something awesome.  Oh wait.  They totally are.  Like the artificial retina that can make blind people see.

Behind closed doors, each locked (you need a real key in addition to your keycard) are the animals.  Most rooms are just racks with self-contained units of mice or rats, up to 70 cages on each side of the rack.  Most of them aren't isolated; they like to have buddies in there with them.  And yes, they have toys; mice get little fluff squares to rip up and make nests with, and the rats have tubes and pipes to play in.  The racks are hooked up to air and water so the animals have controlled air flow, temperature, humidity, fresh water, et cetera.  They're like condominiums, in a way.  Aside from the racks, most rooms only have a hood, which you need to use if you're going to change cages or pull out mice to examine them.

In the mornings, I go to the rooms I'm responsible for and either change cages (hundreds and hundreds; mice get changed weekly and rats biweekly) or just check the mice to make sure they have food and are doing okay.  I have to report overcrowded cages, separate mice that have been fighting, report any sickness, injuries, new litters (baby mice look like meat jellybeans), and change flooded cages.  (If you ever change a rack, occasionally one or two water valves will leak.  Since the mice get checked at least every 24 hours, they won't drown, but they will be soggy and grumpy and sometimes we'll put them on a heater to fluff them out and make them feel better.)

I found this picture of a mouse on a floaty on a page titled "The Benefits of Astaxanthin for Endurance and Fat Loss."  Apparently flooding mouse cages are a big problem in other labs as well.

After checking on my mice (or rats; I have about 33 cages of rats) (we have all sorts of animals but currently I only work with rodents; the vast, vast, vast majority of our vivarium is rodents), I clean the rooms and fill out some paperwork.  How many were dead, injured, sick?  Is everyone okay?  Most days, everything is fine.  The most common injuries I see are dermatitis, usually caused my excessive barbering (when a dominant mouse or rat chews hair off the submissives).  I e-mail both vets and contact people to let them know if I found anything off or needed to move an animal.

The second half of my day is cleaning.  The facility's core is an elaborate assembly-line-type washroom.  Well, two rooms.  One is "dirty" and the other is "clean."  Cages go in one room, are loaded on a conveyor belt, and move to the other side, clean, where we put bedding and toys in and then autoclave them for good measure, then put them away for the next time we need them.  It seems like a little bit of a laugh that I needed a college degree to scrap poo off of cages, but hey, whatever.

"Thanks Penn State!"

Ultimately, though, I love my job.  The characters are great; my boss announces himself when he walks into a room via birdcalls, and gives out candy on Fridays.  Everyone is pleasant and kind and happy.  The work should be tedious but isn't; you fall into a lull and get a lot done and it passes in a happy time warp of looking at animals gambolling about in furry piles.  I like the hands-on type of work it is, combined with the science behind it.  Also there's the sense of importance, knowing you're having some small hand in helping cures diseases, that you have to take your work seriously and be careful because you're the first line of defense for both the comfort of the animals and the integrity of the research.

As someone who owns animals and hasn't eaten meat in 20 years, I think it's interesting to consider animal research.  I've always thought of it as a grey area, but having worked at this facility for the last five weeks or so, I can say my experience has been positive.  When asked about it, though, I think it's important to note that, if ANYONE is qualified to work with research animals, it should be animal lovers.  Animal lovers are the ones most likely to care about the comfort of the animals; these are the people you should be most willing to trust with the handling of your subjects.

One thing to consider is why test on animals.  The simple fact of the matter is that in vivo studies are far and away the best models we have to see how things work.  Experimental surgical procedures, for example, really have to be done on a living creature to know they work.  You can't test pharmaceuticals on a cadaver; no amount of cold medicine will make that guy feel better if he's already dead.  The "why" of animal testing is because it's the best and last resort for researchers, and the more we learn, the more that benefits all living creatures as a whole.  Most of our animals are used for drug testing, drugs that should work and we hope work, and most of them don't appear to suffer any real side effects at all.  Remember, most of these mice were bred with various conditions.  A mouse might be born with diabetes and we're the ones curing that diabetes.  That's a good thing.

It's also worth noting here that the president of PETA is a diabetic who takes insulin, and that that insulin injection research is a result of testing on dogs.  And all that allergy and asthma medication that I take to allow me to work with the animals?  Also a result of animal research.  You'd be amazed at what's come out of animal research. 

I don't want you to think I'm biased in any way toward or against this, though.  It's still a grey area for me.  I'm not trying to champion it or to change anyone's mind about it, but I do think that the public's general opinion is uninformed and very unfounded.  These are just my observations.  At the end of the day, animal research and testing isn't the same as it was twenty years ago (at least not in America and not at prestigious universities).  It's not like in the book "Plague Dogs," that's for sure.  In fact, I would definitely argue that the animals at our facility have better lives than the average "pet" mouse picked up at Petco by an eight-year-old's mother wanting to teach "responsibility."

You know how kids are.
When I was 7 and got a pet kitten I played "Kangaroo" by stuffing him down my pants and jumping down the stairs.  In the lab we would never do that.  Not enough funding, for one thing.

It's true that, on Thursdays, I euthanise animals, but even that is done respectfully and humanely.  (For example, when I go around the facility with a cart collecting the animals to be euthanised, I don't yell "BRING OUT YOUR DEAD!" or "DEAD MOUSE WALKING!" even though I just know it would be hilarious.)  (For those wondering how we do it, gassing, followed by a secondary method just to make absolutely sure they don't wake up.  The gassing is done in their cage with their buddies so they never really know what's happening; they just go peacefully to sleep. Secondary method is usually cervical dislocation, which I learned last summer at an internship working with injured owls who had to have their mice cut up for them.)  This is not even the worse part of my day; the worst part is the commute home on the 10, which takes about 20-35 minutes depending on traffic and is a reminder that some people would be better off without artificial retinas since they clearly aren't using them to watch the goddamn road anyways.

So that's a pretty solid run-down of my average experience in a day.  I get home from work by 4 at the very latest, affording me time with my home, dogs, and boyfriend, a nice evening meal, and a relaxing night of reading and sex.  I have full benefits and weekends off, and truth be told I'm not always sure what to do with myself.  I have had passing thoughts of joining a bowling league or getting a second part-time job just to sort of occupy my time.

Sorry for a moderately serious post, but you have to admit, this sort of perspective is rare.  Last summer Dan and I went to the National Animal Rights Conference and the stigma associated with animal research is, at least in my opinion, completely undeserved; I think this is one of the most humane treatment of animals I've seen and I'm really glad to be a part of it.  This combines perfectly my love of taking care of animals while contributing to a scientific endeavour; on Wednesdays we go to lectures in the afternoon and listen to topics like "Swine in Trauma Research" and "Clinical Signs in Rats."  It's just what I imagined my adult life to be like: working with animals and diseases, working with my hands and hauling heavy stuff but also being in a very clinical setting, being active but also intellectual, and all the while knowing that I'm helping to minimise suffering in the world, not just for the animals whose bodies we're using, by also for the people who might one day benefit from that research and testing.

You know how good it's been?  I baked a cake.  Yeah.  Me.  A cake.  Devil's food with cream cheese frosting that I put on before it was cooled so that it melted into an ooey-gooey moist mess of incredible confectionary wonder.  If that doesn't spell out hopeful for you, I don't know what does.

Huzzah science.