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Home Back Issues No. 1: Managerial: Swatting an Animal

Mar 29

No. 1: Managerial: Swatting an Animal

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Swatting an Animal?

Reader Question: Recently one of my lab techs was bitten by a small animal, and in a burst of irritation the employee responded by swatting the animal a couple of times. I feel he overreacted and that his treatment of the animal was harsh and unfair. As the PI, how should I handle this situation?

Expert Comment:

It sounds like your technician needs to be educated in appropriate handling procedures and how to react to aggressive behavior in animals.

First, swatting or hitting laboratory animals is never appropriate. Most laboratory-animal aggression is a consequence of pain, fear, or both. While people often feel they should respond to aggression with aggression, thinking that hitting the animal will decrease the likelihood of future aggression, the opposite happens. Swatting the animal causes pain and fear. Through the process of Classical Conditioning, the animal then associates the person or some aspect of him/her (e.g., a white lab coat) with pain. As a consequence, in the future the animal is more likely to be afraid of the technician and thus more likely to bite. This response can generalize to multiple people, or to objects such as white laboratory coats. If stimulus generalization happens, the action of one person can cause the animal to respond with fear and aggression toward other people in the future.

You should review the events leading up to the bite in detail. Something about what was happening — perhaps the way the technician was handling the animal ‑ led to the bite. Discuss how to handle animals differently in the future to prevent a repetition.

Did the bite happen while the animal was experiencing a painful procedure (e.g., an injection)? If that is the case, protocols for animal handling during painful procedures need to be reviewed. Also, establish clear rules regarding inappropriate handling of animals. Do not simply assume that technicians know that swatting, hitting, kicking, holding animals excessively tightly, etc., are all unacceptable behaviors. List them and be explicitly clear that such actions, as well as being inhumane and in violation of animal welfare, compromise the quality of research.

Finally, you might consider initiating a proactive program to make the animals you are responsible for less fearful. Research has shown that animals, including laboratory animals, that experience regular, gentle, pleasant handling, are easier to handle and less likely to react to human handling with undesirable behaviors than animals that do not receive such handling. Such a program can also be a rewarding experience for technicians.

Comments by Sharon Crowell-Davis DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVB, a veterinary behaviorist on faculty at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine.

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Comments (17)
written by Pavlovist, March 31, 2010
Let me emphasize I am never in favor of cruelety to lab animals. But some theories are far fetched. I am puzzled that animal behaviorist experts point to "conditionng " when it suits their purposes, then ignore it when it is inconvenient to consider. In paragraph two, our expert says swatting the animal will condition it to be afraid, and thus more likely to bite next time. But isn't it just as logical to argue that a noxious stimulus, such as a "swat", immediately following biting, will condition the animal to be LESS likely to bite next time? Mind you, I am not recommending swatting, only trying to cut thru this psychological mumbo jumbo.
written by Vet, March 31, 2010
If your new techs are initially afraid of your animals, which fear can itself lead to poor handling and thus being bitten, I have found that letting the tech wear a tough leather glove at first protects their skin from bites while letting them get accustomed to the animals' reactions. Of course, this would be too clumsy for delicate surgery.
written by Marc, April 01, 2010
The technician should be removed from the animal facility immediately and re-trained. If this behavior happens again, the technician should be fired. The animal bit the technician because it was scared, stressed, experiencing pain. The animal did exactly what it was supposed to do based on its instincts.
written by Dr Jeff, April 01, 2010
You must be kidding. That individual needs to be immediately removed from animal care, as he needs serious psychological counseling and you cannot take the risk of having someone like this in your lab. You would not want a similar situation to the Yale murder.
written by ANDREAM, April 01, 2010
written by CTJIM, April 01, 2010
Pavlovist -- You are confusing operant and classical conditioning. Dr. Crowell-Davis was using a classical conditioning argument (popularized by Ivan Pavlov) to point out how a neutral stimulus (like a white lab coat) and come to produce a conditioned response like fear or biting. Your argument seems to be based on operant conditioning (popularized by B.F.Skinner) and holds that the results of a behavior will dictate the likelihood of its reoccurance (rewarded behaviors will be more likely, punished behaviors less likely). The question then becomes which will "carry the day," the classically conditioned fear response or the operantly conditioned "don't bite" response. Given that punishment is notoriously weak as a feedback strategy and that it is still very much an open issue whether operant conditioning is usable for non-voluntary responses (such as fear), I'd say we'd have to tilt the scales to the classical side of the argument and away from the operant side.
written by Anonymous, April 01, 2010
The individual found "swatting" an animal that was caged and being used for human enterprise should be at the very least reprimanded and more likely, dismissed.
written by MCMV, April 01, 2010
The animal should be sacrificed and studied internally.
written by Anonymous, April 01, 2010
This is because the technician isn't paid enough. The stress of being nearly broke is very difficult on these techs and thus they are always anxious and on the point of breaking. Two things must be done: the hypertrophied, greedy universities with their top heavy administrations must be restructured, and animal research must stop altogether. There is no justification for sacrificing lives of animals just to extend human lives.
written by CommonSense, April 01, 2010
""swatting or hitting laboratory animals is never appropriate"" Really? If an animal turns on you and starts chewing off your arm, you should not hit it and just let the animal calm down and have a meal. Pain and fear are apart of life any animal's life...they bite each other, they fear each other. Period. Time to get over this idea that animals should never have any pain for fear.
written by Researcher, April 01, 2010
Excellent advice! I believe that most instances in which research animals are stressed or hurt are due to inexperience or carelessness on the part of the staff or the researchers themselves. It is the responsibility of the lab head to see that all involved are properly trained.
written by biotech, April 01, 2010
After about the third time bitten by a rodent in one day that's not going well, its understandable that a handler might lose his or her cool. An animal with an induced illness or anesthetic hangover can be unpredictable and I have had rabbit teeth go through my fingernail to the bone. So let's keep things in perspective before we pillory an animal handler for a relatively mild natural reaction.
written by DrSamMDPhD, April 01, 2010
Your response is a bunch of horse-hocky. When bitten, the proper response it knock the offending animal off of you. It's human instinct. They wont bite you next time, just like your lab technician will be more careful next time in animal handling. Both species should learn from the encounter. However, get off the lab tech's back. I bet brain-damaged Roy (of Siegfried & Roy) wished he had knock the crap out of his precious little lion now. On second thought, why don’t you coddle all your biting lab animals and let them kill 2 or 3 people like the orca did in Orlando. Yes, this biting whale was treated “humanely” and coddled… so he could bite and kill not once, but twice again. He should have been shot the first time. Be humane to humans for once and treat a biting animal like a biting animal should be treated. Get ride of them! I hardly ever revert to name calling as it is usually unintellectual and counter productive, but in this case it is appropriate: You’re an idiot!!
written by Logic, April 02, 2010
All arguments regarding conditioning are somewhat irrelevant, as I think we all agree that intentionally "swatting" an animal is not acceptable laboratory practice. The distinction between "instinct" and "intent" would difficult to discern in your lab technician. We aren't really given enough detail to determine if the swatting was likely an uncontroled reaction (i.e. dislodge rabbit from hand), or a desire to extract revenge. Since we're all just guessing, I agree with "perspective", and to clarify I will paraphrase Sun Tzu, regarding the interactions between a general and his soldiers. If soldiers are given a new task or are ordered to respond to a new situation and fail, then the failure is on the part of the general. It is the duty of the general to ensure that all soldiers are well trained, and fully understand how they must act in order to accomplish their objective. The general must then re-explain and re-train his soliders. If the soldiers are given the identical task and fail again, then the failure is on the part of the soldiers, and they must be terminated. Sun Tzu meant literally, but obviously I mean figuratively. You must accept personal responsibility for the actions of all of your employees. You should re-train the tech according to your local IACUC or facility regulations, and allow him/her to continue (making sure that everything has been documented). If anything similar happens again, then by all means terminate- and make sure the grounds are documented as well.
written by bevacqua, April 03, 2010
As a RN, this makes me nauseous. The animal is being used for research. If I was this animal, I would hate my life too and act out. The Tech was completely out of line. I don't care what the circumstances were... the Tech responded inappropriately. He should be dismissed. I can't believe ""how to handle this situation"" is even a question! If animal rights activists heard this, they would go ballistic! And I think I'm with them on this one...
written by Apollo, April 07, 2010
We've heard of "horse whisperer" and "dog whisperer". But has any researcher seen or heard of a "lab animal whisperer", whose mere presence or soft voice calms most species of lab animals so they don't snap or bite?
written by neurogeek, April 08, 2010
Yes, my tech is known in the lab as the rat whisperer.

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