March 4, 2004  
Volume 97, Issue 80  

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NEWS

Animal research
A tour of Western’s labs

By Maggie Wrobel
Gazette Staff

Up on the ninth floor of the Social Science Centre is a place you’ve probably never been to. Chances are, you didn’t even know it exists.

The sterile white hallways are hidden from view by a locked door that requires the swipe of an identification card before it springs open for a brief moment to allow a select few inside. What goes on in this secret locale? A lot of chirping and squeaking, for starters.

The ninth floor of the SSC is one of the places on campus home to an animal research facility. At this location, Western researchers such as psychology professor William Roberts use animals as test subjects for various scientific and educational endeavours.

Exploring
the “secret” compound

Roberts is our guide for the first half of the tour and he leads us through a maze of doors and hallways that smell of paint and unidentified chemicals. The walls are sparsely decorated with colourful mounted photographs of various animals, including white mice with piercing red eyes and bright parakeets. The doors are marked with plastic tags bearing the names of various researchers and professors.

As we walk, Roberts reveals that this animal research facility was renovated five years ago, according to standards set by the Canadian Council on Animal Care. He explains that there are three levels of guidelines each facility must adhere to in order to be deemed acceptable by the CCAC (see Animals for Research Act, P11).

The mysterious pigeon room
When we finally enter one of the mysterious rooms, a strong smell fills the air and a strange gurgling sound emerges instantly. One half of the room is full of individual cages, each one containing a grey pigeon. The second half of the room contains two big group cages, where several dozen pigeons are socializing.

Currently, these pigeons are being used so Roberts and his team can study their ability to discriminate numbers and learn pictorial concepts. They seem peaceful enough, with the exception of a few personality conflicts between a couple of angry males and a flamboyant courtship ritual we witness.

“The use of pigeons is traditional in learning and cognition research,” Roberts explains. “They are easy to train to peck on things for reward.”

It seems the birds have had to travel quite a while before arriving at their testing destination. “These animals come from a pigeon farm in South Carolina,” Roberts reveals. “They are bred in captivity and therefore never become tame or pet-like.” He explains that the United States is the best supplier of pigeons and the suppliers are required to meet the highest of health standards.

After whatever testing the birds face is completed, they are offered to a local farmer who takes them in so that they can live out the rest of their lives in freedom. However, Roberts admits that the birds are kept for testing as long as possible, and some are “sacrificed” so researchers can look into their brains. These unlucky subjects are put to sleep with an overdose of anesthetic.

Girls always hog the bed
After this bit of unsettling news, we continue to another room, this time led by biology and psychology professor David Sherry. In the next room, tiny black and brown birds flit around in a large cage with plants in it. “These are brown-headed cowbirds that were caught in the wild at Queens University,” Sherry explains.

He says the females are nest parasites, meaning they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and leave them there, sometimes not returning at all.

“The males always follow the females because the females are smarter,” Sherry confirms with a chuckle. “We have them here to analyze their capacity for spatial memory.”

He says the birds adapt well in captivity and their cages are set up to resemble the natural river habitat they grew up in. The cage does look fairly spacious, with grain on the ground and some greenery.

Sherry explains some of the activities the cowbirds are trained to perform in order to test their spatial memory, including learning to peck a video screen when it shows a particular image in order to receive a treat. These tests are similar to the ones the pigeons are trained to do.

Rats as big as ponies!
OK, maybe not...

I ask what kind of other animals are used for research in this facility and am led to a room from which a strange muffled sound is coming. The room is full of rats in wire cubicles and the instant we enter, the rats shoot forward in their cages and begin frantically sniffing the air.

The rats look huge, but both professors assure me they are “average size.” Roberts explains that rats act as excellent subjects for spatial memory tests because they generally have very good memory.

In order to explain the rat testing, Roberts leads us into another room whose focal point is a giant flower-shaped structure constructed from wood and nylon.

“This radio maze was first conceived in 1970 in order to test spatial memory,” Roberts says, adding that food is placed at the end of each “petal” in order to test if the rats will be able to find their way around the maze in a circle without repetition.

Reflecting on the value
of animal research

We’ve reached the end of the tour and exit out the same white security door through which we entered. Before we leave, Sherry says a few words about the value of animal research in today’s medical and educational landscape.

“The behavioural work done with animals looks at various parts of the brain and analyzes how memory and perception work,” he says. “This may help diagnostic techniques for instances such as brain damage and head injuries.”

“When I did my [undergraduate degree] in the 1950s, there were no reservations [about animal testing] and definitely not as much sensitivity [as] you encounter today about the issue,” Roberts adds.

“All universities that do animal research are subject to strict animal research regulations,” he insists. “Each project has to be approved by large committees that ensure the animals that are used will be properly cared for. In today’s society, everyone’s sensitivity is fundamental and necessary.”

 

 

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