A student involved in an upper-division biology lab sent an anonymous complaint of animal abuse last July to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who began a 2,000-e-mail complaint campaign to end the alleged animal mistreatment.
According to Dr. James Hicks, the chair of UC Irvine’s Institutional Animal Care & Use Committee (IACUC), the rats and frogs used in the lab were indeed the subject of anatomical dissection experiments. However, Hicks also noted that the dissections were completely legal under the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare guidelines.
The class in question, titled Biological Science 113L: Neurobiology and Behavior Laboratory, is required for neurobiology majors, of which there are only about 30 students per year. Although PETA correctly claimed that students involved in the lab insert a chemical into the dissection rat’s brain, the animal rights organization failed to mention the anesthesia applied to these animals prior to dissection, which prevents the animal from feeling pain in accordance with guidelines presented by the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
Professor of Biological Science Georg Streidter, who has taught at UCI since January 1995, identified both of the labs implied by the anonymous student. The first involved damaging the midbrain of a rat to affect its behavior in ways similar to the effects of Parkinson’s disease. Teams of four or five students, under the supervision of teaching assistants, performed the surgery on deeply anesthetized rats. Because of the lab’s design, only one student can feasibly perform the surgical dissection while the others observe.
“It is important to stress that, contrary to PETA’s news release, no students are forced to do this surgery,” Streidter stated. “In fact, only one person per team can physically do the surgery, and all students are instructed on page one of the manual/syllabus to contact the Teaching Assistant if they ‘are not comfortable working with animal subjects.”
According to Streidter the students are also instructed to at all times treat the animal with respect, monitor anesthesia levels and take careful notes.
Streidter stressed that students are informed in the manual – presented at the beginning of the class term – of the dissection duties expected of them. The words, “If you are not comfortable working with animal subjects, please see your TA immediately, at the beginning of the course,” are printed in bold in the manual.
A week after the surgery, students observe the behavior of the rats and record the animal’s reaction to being touched with a “von Frey hair” that is calibrated to exert 4 grams of force.
“Therefore, von Frey hairs are more like nylon fishing line than ‘blunt sticks,’ as PETA claims,” Streidter said.
The second lab implied by the student involved “pithing” a frog, which means that the brain is destroyed (in the anesthetized frog) but the spinal cord and major nerves are spared.
“In this lab the TA ‘piths’ a frog,” Streidter said. “The students do not need to do this pithing; in fact, they typically do not even see it being performed. They get frogs that are already pithed.”
The students’ job is to dissect and remove the sciatic nerve, which powers some leg muscles, and observe the nerve as they stimulate it.
“One of the things we do is to explore whether the animal will feel pain or distress,” Hicks said, describing IACUC, “but there won’t be an investigation if nothing that’s being done is wrong.”
U.S. federal law mandates that each educational institution using animals in experiments establish its own IACUC. Each IACUC is primarily constituted of at least one veterinarian, a member of the community (typically a non-scientist) and several scientists. Dr. Hicks, a professor in the School of Biological Science since 1992, became chair of UCI’s IACUC three years ago. Hicks is confident that the stringent self-regulation of UCI’s IACUC, which involves full checks of the lab facilities twice a year (taking two weeks to inspect the entire campus), is enough to defer any claims of mistreatment of animals. Further, the U.S. Department of Agriculture performs inspections of UCI’s lab facilities on a random basis. UCI also employs three veterinarians to make sure that the animals are in healthy condition.
On Oct. 16, 2007, PETA appointed Kathy Guillermo, an 18-year PETA veteran, to be its new director of research. Her first order of business in office was to establish a whistleblower hotline (757-962-8383), as well as an e-mail account, “to make reporting abuse easy.” She went further to offer a $5,000 reward “for information leading to the conviction of anyone violating laws that protect animals used in experiments.” PETA did not immediately return a phone call made to them by the New University.