From lab to farm: An investigation into animal treatment at the university

RISHA INAGANTI
Co-Managing News Editor

TABITHA REEVES
Co-Managing News Editor

Ever since Tania Roth’s name was put on blast due to reports of animal cruelty, the university has been on close watch for the treatment of animals. 

From science labs on the university’s campuses to the farm which makes the well-loved UDairy possible, the university is home to many creatures – rodents, sea anemones, dairy cattle and more. Given the notoriety and number of university programs that use animals, we decided to take a deep dive into how some of these critters are cared for. We began our investigation with the hot topic: the abuse allegations towards Roth.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a lobbying and activism organization which opposes the use of animals in laboratories for any purpose, has filed complaints against Roth, a professor of psychological and brain sciences. The first published critique was in April 2018, with the most recent one in June 2021. 

The first PETA statement claimed that Roth’s experiments consisted of  “inducing pain and fear in pregnant and neonatal rats” by “force-feeding alcohol,” “repeatedly shocking” and “confining pregnant rats in tiny tubes and exposing them to strobe lights and white noise,” among other accusations.

“In my opinion, the stress was a very mild stress,” Gwen Talham, director of the university’s Animal Care Program, said. “And PETA filed a complaint to [the National Institute of Health] with a lot of allegations, and I looked into it, and they said that none of the allegations were true when they posted the case.”

Since then, a person in a rat costume has taken to attending the university’s Board of Trustees meetings in silent protest.

Retrieved from PETA

NIH has laid out animal research guidelines through their Office of Animal Care and Use, which investigates reports of poor animal well-being. 

Upon request for information on Roth’s case, the NIH Office of Extramural Research told us that they do not “discuss individual institutions and any reported cases of non-compliance” with the policy in question. When we reached out regarding the NIH reports Talham had referred to, neither Talham nor the university’s Office of Communication and Marketing (OCM) followed up with sending over additional information.

While Talham offered that Roth explain her research for herself, Roth did not respond to our emails requesting a sit-down and was denied contact with us through OCM when requested.

“Gwen is handling the interview for this story,” an OCM representative said in a one-sentence email after we asked him to put us in contact with Roth.

Roth’s website explains that her work primarily focuses on persons who have negative experiences early on in their lives and the impact those experiences might have, which is why some of her studies include simulating different environments for rats. She was also promoted to associate dean for the natural sciences in June of this year, raising questions about how much the university cares about animal safety.

Aside from commentary on Roth, Talham discussed her general experiences regarding live test subjects at the university, such as with the Animal Care and Use Committee. The entity is a federally mandated committee to ensure that the university is abiding by the Animal Welfare Act, according to Talham.

The committee allows individuals to anonymously submit reports of care concerns to the committee for further review. She described submissions of this nature as “very rare,” and, though she said records of reporting frequency are kept, neither she nor OCM provided specific numbers when asked during the interview and throughout the following week.

“I’ve been in the field 30 years,” Talham said. “It’s very rarely … that I would ever say that I thought anybody did anything intentionally. If I’ve seen problems, it’s usually because somebody just didn’t understand or didn’t quite have the training that they needed to have.”

She and her staff are present to supervise research in the Life Science Research Facility, where she said “pretty much all the work with animals in research is done.” But because the building is for both experienced researchers and learning students, “trying to keep people trained is always a challenge,” Talham explained.

“I am proud of what goes on in the facility,” Talham said. “It’s a sensitive area, and we always want to make sure that we have good security because there are groups out there that don’t believe in animal research for any reason at all, no matter what.”

We were not permitted to tour the Life Science Research Facility or other laboratories with animals due to “potential for vandalism,” according to Talham, although pre-veterinary freshmen are given tours. Amelia Boernert, a pre-veterinary medicine major who graduated in the spring, recalled her experience walking through one of the labs for the first time.

ETHAN GRANDIN/The Review

“If you don’t have any research experience and you’re a super big animal lover, you’re probably going to be really weirded out because the the animals in the labs, at least the rats and the mice that we worked with for that one lab, they live in boxes,” Boernert said.

What Boernert described as boxes, Talham continuously referred to as cages. Even so, Boernert noted that the rodents she saw were given chew toys and tubes for “enrichment.”

“Until you, I guess, get situated, it is very strange knowing that these animals live their whole life in the box,” Boernert said.

Boernert remembered one student asking what would happen if there was a fire in a laboratory, and a scientist responded that he would risk his life for the animals, paying little regard to the expensive equipment.

Apart from looking into the Newark campus labs, we took some time to head down to Webb Farm. Situated just past the Newark Train Station and before the Bob Carpenter Center are the fields, barns and coops which house the furry farm friends that make some of the university’s extensive animal-focused programs possible, as well as the ice cream that UDairy is known for.

Boernert worked on Webb Farm in fall 2021 as a volunteer. There, she gained hands-on knowledge about the university’s horses, sheep and beef cattle.

“It’s a well-oiled machine, a running farm,” Boernert said. “You know when you walk on a farm you’re like, ‘Huh, this is kind of sketchy?’ You never get that feeling on Webb. It’s nice.”

Boernert’s responsibilities consisted of ensuring fences were intact and gates were locked, cleaning water troughs and barns, trimming sheep hooves, grooming horses, relocating animals and “just making sure that everything was safe and orderly and that the animals were happy.”

“There was always an emphasis on animal safety first above everything,” Boernert said. “It’s a working farm, but it’s also a learning farm, too. So Larry was always explaining everything and always emphasizing on how to carefully walk around animals and treat them the best way.”

Though Boernert spoke frequently about having worked under Larry Armstrong, the manager of Webb Farm, we were denied the request to speak with Armstrong by OCM.

Aside from the farm and laboratories on the university’s Newark campus, there are also animal research facilities associated with the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment at the Hugh R. Sharp Campus in Lewes, Delaware.

AUDREY TONG/The Review

Elizabeth Roros, a junior marine science major, is working in Professor of Marine Science and Policy Mark Warner’s lab on the Lewes campus. As an independent researcher, she is studying the relationship between algae and sea anemones, which are invertebrate marine animals, as the Earth’s rising temperatures impact their habitats.

“There’s definitely a big emphasis on proper treatment,” Roros said, who spends a great deal of time feeding and cleaning the creatures. “There’s a lot of care that goes into it, especially to keep them alive and maintained.”

She explained that anemones can become easily stressed by slight changes in light and salt content, so the 12 bowls and four tanks of anemones in the lab are fed and cleaned once a week. Cleaning consists of a water change, which comprises hose water with a salinity formula added. She will also use Q-tips to brush built-up algae off the marine life.

In addition to growing her own anemone for her studies, many anemones remain from previous students’ projects, which she continues to care for.

“I have seen in the past a little bit of neglect, kind of, but it’s just because of going a little past a week,” Roros said. “That’s when they grow a lot of algae around the base, so they stick to the glass, and then it’s harder for them to grow. But they bounced back really quickly, and we’ve never left them for more than two weeks.”

The university has mechanisms, such as the Animal Care and Use Committee and the Animal Subjects in Research policy, in place to maximize animal welfare when conducting research that involves sentient life. Still, activist groups like PETA aspire for a future where no animal is critical to a scientific discovery.

The university appears to be expanding infrastructure used for animal testing through the recent and ongoing construction of buildings such as the Life Science Research Facility, which holds twice the amount of rodents as previous spaces.

When we asked Talham about the future of testing on animals at the university, she said that it may take a while to completely end such use.

“There’s no way to completely mimic all the interactions that go on inside a living being for a lot of types of research that they do,” Talham said. “I think it’s gonna be quite a few years away.”

Originally posted 2023-12-07 14:00:00.


Posted

in

by