By Sarah Thurston, B.S. CLAP | Refinement and Enrichment Advancements Laboratory Project Lead and Social Housing Coordinator at University of Michigan
The Refinement and Enrichment Advancements Laboratory (REAL) at the University of Michigan was started in 2014 by ULAM Faculty Veterinarians Jennifer Lofgren and Jean Nemzek to evaluate the intersection between animal welfare and scientific outcomes. I joined the team in 2016 as the only full-time research technician and in 2018 the lab came under the direction of Faculty Veterinarian Tara Martin.
We currently operate with only two full-time employees, myself, and Dr. Martin and each of us has additional roles as well. Dr. Martin is also a full-time clinical faculty veterinarian, and I am the Social Housing Coordinator for the department. Because of this, we are a very collaborative lab working with other faculty veterinarians, veterinary residents, veterinary technicians, the Enrichment Coordinator, husbandry technicians and research laboratories. It can be a challenge to run as many studies as we do with only two people so we try to limit the number of studies that we run hands-on. For many studies we will meet with the involved parties, help them organize and plan since many have never ran a behavior or enrichment-based study before, create tailored data sheets for them and teach them how to use all the specific behavior testing equipment or assessments. From that point on we act as consultants, assisting with instrument training (vonFrey, MouseTrapp, video recording software, etc.) and we aid in data interpretation and manuscript preparation. We have found that this method of avoiding hands-on data collection ourselves helps us to assist in many more studies and share our knowledge with many more people. It also facilitates more people to have confidence and knowledge about behavior and enrichment studies. If we can teach others how to do it properly, they will be able to replicate these measures in their future studies and have more robust welfare assessments.
Most of the challenges of implementing enrichment or behavior studies involve:
- Not having your own animals
Often when we want to implement a new enrichment or behavioral management procedure, we first try it out on a current population of animals within the facility. This requires finding the right lab in which the new method will not interfere with their research and getting permission from the lab to use their animals. Because we are using someone else’s animals, we are at their mercy. Animals that are on our study are often at study endpoint for the researcher, so we lose our data, or we are unable to reach a sufficient n to reach statistical significance because animals are being used for their intended research purpose. This can make our studies take much longer than they normally would and can be frustrating, but we must remember that in this type of work, we are often working with the circumstances that we are given. It would not be a responsible use of the 3Rs to order animals for our studies when we have a population of animals already that we can use. We work around this challenge by preparing for the possibility of studies taking longer than planned to complete.
- Not having a budget
As we are a small, mostly collaborative lab, we do not actively seek out large grant funding. We have received Cohen awards, GLAS grants and ACLAM grants for previous projects which facilitated those projects and allowed us to build an inventory of behavioral and enrichment equipment but if something breaks or is misplaced, we have to be creative with the budget. To work around this challenge, we are very careful with our inventory, we keep it in locked cabinets and have a strict sign-in/out system to ensure that things do not get lost. Our university also offers sources of small internal grant funding that we often apply to for internal pilot studies that are of benefit to our lab animal population.
- Not having enough people trained in Welfare/Behavior Procedures
Because we are a very small lab it can be difficult not having many people trained in some of the commonly used behavior procedures. We train people as often as we can but it still comes down to just us quite a bit. One way we are working to solve this challenge is by developing a Common Assays Manual that has step by step guides with pictures and references for our most commonly used procedures. Some common assays that are covered in the manual include, vonFrey, MouseTrapp, GloGerm Scoring, Nest Consolidation Scoring, Cage Side Nest Scoring, Ethograms for various species, Grimace Scales, and various Cage Parameter Tests, among others.
When we want to implement a new enrichment or behavior management practice into our facility it must first go through a pilot study. If it is a large idea that will require a full pilot, REAL oversees running the study. If it is something smaller like the implementation of a new enrichment toy, our related group, The Behavioral Welfare Group (BWG) and our Animal Enrichment Coordinator handles it with our assistance, if needed. Everything must be evaluated for safety, cost, and value to the animal before it is implemented into the population. Through our pilot studies we have been able to implement such practices into our facility as rabbit pair housing, refined rabbit nesting, refined mouse nesting, increased zebrafish enrichment, methods to minimize rabbit urine spraying and more.
I urge anyone interested in starting a similar program at their institution to do so. With trends in biomedical research moving more towards high quality welfare and behavior-based programs every day, more programs like REAL are needed. I feel that welfare, enrichment, and behavior-based programs are especially important in facilities that are not NHP focused (obviously necessary in NHP facilities too 😊). These things can tend to get minimized and forgotten in some of our smaller species, but they are just as vital to their well-being. My favorite quote is “The quality of our work is the quality of their lives” and I feel extremely lucky that when asked what I do, I get to tell people that my job is to improve the quality of research animals’ lives and that is because of REAL.
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