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Apr 19

No. 4: Public Relations: What to Show Student Visitors to Lab?

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What to Show Student Visitors to Lab?

First gauge their interest level; showing surgery not advisable

Reader Question: Our institute director informed me that a class of high school students will visit my lab next month as part of their curriculum. We do perform surgery on rats and mice. What do you think I should show the students? And what not? Could I let them see at least one rat and mouse to learn the species? Could they pet these animals while my tech controlled them? Should I also allow the class into our "animal house" to see the large number of animals in their cages?

Expert Comments:

Each research institution should be prepared for student visit requests by having policies and procedures in place that are consistent with the institution’s mission and programs. The chief veterinarian, head safety officer, and Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) are typically involved in shaping these policies and procedures.

Before agreeing to host student visits, it’s wise to know the type of students involved — their age, maturity level and their seriousness about science. Older students who are “pre-qualified” for scientific interest — those who are taking advanced placement courses, belong to science clubs, or intend to pursue careers in science or medicine, etc. — may be given more leeway than younger students with little or no specific interest, background, or career interest in science.

Before student visitors see anything, they should be given a preparatory talk about the use of animals in research. In particular, they should be told why and how animals are used, the benefits to human health of animal research, and the laws and regulations pertaining to animal research (including the IACUC’s role).

Unless there is some overriding reason to do so, showing actual surgeries is not recommended. Some students will be fascinated for all the right reasons, some will love the blood, some will be physically revolted by it, and some might be outraged by the very idea of experimental surgery. If there will be any talk of surgery, let alone exposure to surgery, the students should be assured of the careful steps that are taken to ensure the animals experience no pain.

It’s inadvisable for students to be allowed to pick up or hold animals. There is too much potential for harm to the animals and injury to the students, through bites or the triggering of allergies. The students may be allowed to pet the animals, but if they do, the animals must be carefully restrained.

There are additional justifications for deciding not to show the students any animals. If the animals are being kept at a very high health status, the students could expose them to pathogens. And if there are any animals that look abnormal — for example, those with severe phenotypes such as muscular dystrophy or ALS; those with headpieces or catheters that protrude; or those with obvious surgical wounds — some students may become upset.

If a decision is made to show them the animal room, make sure the room is clean and in good repair. Also, it’s wise to prepare the students for what they are going to see. This would include explaining why the animals look as they do, the societal benefits of studying such animals, and the efforts that are taken to ensure that the animals will not suffer pain or distress. The students should be forewarned that animals have their own unique odor that might be unpleasant. They should also be cautioned to show respect for the animals by not poking them or startling them with loud noises.

At the conclusion of the tour, it is desirable to collect the students for a wrap-up session, during which the primary take-home messages — the value of biomedical research to advancing human health and the efforts that are made to ensure the well-being of the animals — can be restated. This also provides an opportunity for the students to ask questions that came up during the tour. It might even be desirable to review some of the questions that were asked during the tour, to make sure that everyone hears the answers.

Before the students leave, it’s wise to provide contact information for the teacher. In many cases, teachers review the lab visit with their students when they get back to the classroom, and additional questions or comments are likely to arise. If the teacher has someone to contact regarding these questions/comments, it provides the institution another opportunity to convey its message.

Comments by Peggy Danneman, VMD, MS, Dipl. ACLAM, Senior Director, Laboratory Animal Health Services, The Jackson Laboratory, Bar Harbor, Maine.

Do you have a question or challenge that you would like an expert to comment? Submit your own reader question.

Comments (3)
written by Matt, April 22, 2010
It is disappointing to see advice that seems to discourage critical questions about the moral status of animal research. The idea that an authentic learning experience is compatible with "take home messages" that vastly oversimplify the moral complexity of animal suffering and death endemic to this enterprise should give the thinking person pause. To put it mildly, the claims that animal research "advances human health" and "respects animal well-being" are highly controversial, and have been contested--successfully, to the minds of many--by a wide variety of scientists and philosophers. Educators who are interested in providing their students with a more balanced learning experience may wish to consult Professor Nathan Nobis's "Rational Engagement, Emotional Response, and the Prospects for Progress in 'Animal Use' Debates".
written by Melinda, April 22, 2010
Kudos to your director and you for opening you lab to high school students. The visitors can see for themselves that these are neat premises (not dripping with gore or screaming animals--the way zealous opponents portray them), and that you are aware of, and concerned about, best practices and comporting with standards agreed to by experts.. Matt is way off base when he suggests high schoo kids have the academic wherewithal to engage in a Talmudic discussion of age-old questions: cost vs benefit, do higher species have certain privileges, is your lab worm but a reincarnated human, etc. Oh , a few extrovert kids among the class will give you a speil, but at this age they will only be parroting propaganda and dogma they have emotionally been brainwashed into by zealots whose mind is closed. These same kids usually refuse to eat meat, and won't wear leather shoes.Bottom lkine: Matt and his ilk don't want the kids to see your lab because they will then be apostles spreading the news of great research concurrent with lab animal welfare.
written by linda, April 28, 2010
Decisions about going into an animal facility should be made ONLY with the approval of the facility vet..many mouse and rat facilities bar entry to people who may have had contact with pet rodents to limit disease spread. While there can be benefits to not hiding the animals, this must be considered carefully so as not to harm other people's research. The idea of ""petting"" the animals is a bit odd--they are not pets and this assumes that having a bunch of high school students handle a rat or mouse will cause the animal no stress...Also, unless the animals are restrained, bites are a distinct possibility.

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