By Lee Anna Sherman
“Nothing is more important in an animal study than the animal itself,” says Steve Durkee. His tone is reminiscent of Moses handing down the stone tablets. Just like Moses, Durkee is not kidding around.
The righteous idealism that fed Durkee’s Greenpeace activism in his “younger, wilder days” still beats in his chest as administrator of OSU’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) — a group of researchers, veterinarians, ethicists and laypeople who meet monthly to review each and every proposal for an animal-using project before it can go forward. His job is to make sure no animal is used needlessly, no animal suffers undue pain, no animal dies in vain.
“It’s not a light topic,” he says, sitting in his office amidst copies of Lab Animal magazine and photos of Murphy, his Goldendoodle. “Day in and day out, it’s a whole lot of seriousness. To me, these animals are heroes. They’re giving their life for the greater good.”
Heroes, perhaps, but not volunteers. The rats nibbling on Brussels sprouts for a colon-cancer study in the Linus Pauling Science Center didn’t choose to participate. And that, precisely, is why they need a surrogate. Durkee speaks for them. He puts himself in their shoes — rather, their paws: How would it feel to be one of those rats in Cage 57? Would he be stressed-out? Lonely? Would he be bored? Would he be too hot or too cold? Would he feel pain or anxiety?
The answers to these kinds of questions determine whether a research or teaching project gets an OK from the IACUC, which Durkee advises on regulations and national standards. Every iota of proper care — from lighting and companionship to noise, vibration, enrichment and surgical procedures — is detailed in the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals published by the National Research Council of the National Academies. Moses had his stone tablets. Durkee has the eighth edition of the Guide.
“We have a really serious charge,” he says, “to evaluate whether the benefits from a project justify animal life or involvement.”
Care and Security
The benefits of animal research aren’t just theoretical for Durkee. When his mom was battling breast cancer, her treatments had been tested on animals. She didn’t survive the disease. But other women have beaten breast cancer thanks to the rats, mice and other creatures that participate in biomedical studies.
In return, Durkee says, humans have an obligation to feed, house and handle animals with the utmost care — even during dire emergencies. After a severe East Coast power outage cost nine rats’ lives at his previous workplace, the University of Michigan, he wrote a comprehensive disaster-planning outline for animal facilities to follow during hurricanes, blackouts and other disasters. Coincidentally, as he was making final edits, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. So he found a very receptive audience when he presented his outline at a national animal-care conference barely two months later.
Last winter, when floods washed out roads and power lines in Benton and Lincoln counties, plans derived from his outline kicked in to protect fish and other sea life at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, as well as animals on campus. Because even when researchers are riding out the storm at home and staff are trapped by fallen trees or collapsed bridges, captive animals need food and fresh water, heating and cooling, bedding and medicine.
“Using animals is a privilege, not a right,” Durkee insists. “We owe them gratitude and respect.”