A tour of Western’s labs
By Maggie Wrobel
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.”