Many misconceptions exist about exactly how animal research is conducted in laboratories. Some of the misconceptions come from a lack of awareness whereas others come in the form of intentional misinformation on the part of animal rights groups. Successful research relies on the dedication of many individuals with a variety of roles, from primary investigators doing the research to the veterinary staff providing medical care to the animals. One group that is often overlooked, but is vital to the success, is the animal care staff.
Most animal research facilities have a dedicated staff of people whose job is to provide daily care for the animals in their charge. The animals are dependent upon these individuals to provide food, water, clean living environments, and environmental enrichment. Research animals must be cared for 7 days a week, 365 days a year regardless of weather, holidays or personnel shortages. The job requires the caretakers to stand for long periods, move heavy bags of feed and manoeuvre caging and equipment around to be cleaned. The animal care staff also must be well versed in caring for many different species of animals. An animal facility can have many species such as rodents, rabbits, dogs and swine all located within the same facility. All require different types of care
Equally important to the task of keeping caging, equipment and facilities clean is the responsibility of the animal care staff to act as the first line of medical care for the animals. While different facilities have different ways of performing the task of medical care, the animal care staff is typically the first to notice problems with animal health due to their daily contact with the animals. By bringing problems to the attention of the veterinary staff, the animal care staff help ensure that the animals are provided with timely treatment. In order to reliably report an animal that is in distress the care staff must know what “normal” is. Therefore, most animal care programs include extensive training regimes designed not only to provide initial training, but also to provide refresher course that keep individuals up to date on new care standards. Many institutions also require the animal care staff to obtain certification from the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS) or its equivalent internationally.
The certification process shows a commitment by the research institutions to provide superior care and a commitment on the part of the individuals obtaining certification to performing their jobs to exacting standards. At the technician level there are three certification classifications; the Assistant Laboratory Animal Technician (ALAT), the Laboratory Animal Technician (LAT), and the Laboratory Animal Technologist (LATG). Each level focuses on a different set of skills. The ALAT focuses on animal husbandry and welfare along with facility operations. The LAT focuses more on procedural techniques, a more in depth look at animal husbandry and touches on animal facility management. An LAT candidate is also expected to be able to retain information learned at the ALAT level and questions on the test could come from either level. The third level is the LATG which splits its focus between higher level animal husbandry needs and facilities management. It’s not uncommon for research facilities to require at least the first level of certification while strongly encouraging the obtaining of the other two. For those individuals wishing to move into management positions a certification process is available as well.
Without animal care staff at various research institutes, the important research being conducted would be difficult to complete. Although this group is not often mentioned in final research papers, these individuals are critical to the success of any research project.