Research with animals

For many, working with animals sounds like a dream job, however, any pet lover will tell you that while animals are amazing companions, they can be a lot of work. This is no different when you keep animals for research.

There are many types of research that require animals, ranging from bio medicine to psychology. The aim of my work is to understand the natural visual behaviour of fish and I keep tropical fish in my laboratory. In order to study natural behaviour, I have to ensure that my fish are kept as healthy, and importantly, as happy as possible. It can be difficult to keep a fish used to living on a busy coral reef from getting bored in an aquarium but my experiments themselves actually provide entertainment for the fish. In my experiments, fish earn food rewards whenever they do something correct. For this to work, the fish have to be willing to participate.

Before I can start using any animals, the first thing I need to do is receive permission from an ethics board. How this is organized depends on the country where the research takes place, but it generally involves a panel of people who review your plan of how you intend to use the animals and how they will be cared for between experiments. One of the panel members is usually a veterinarian who understands what animals require to maintain their health. The panel can grant permission, reject your application, or ask for improvements to your plan.

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Although the water is clean, sometimes tanks can get a build up of algae on the glass and require a thorough cleaning (top left). While it can take up a lot of time, there is something really satisfying about a tidy tank. Regular animal care is a good opportunity to watch your animals and recognize how they behave when they are happy and healthy.

Once you have permission and have set up your laboratory, comes the important and ongoing task of keeping your animals happy and healthy. Animal care can take up a tremendous amount of time and is one of the biggest surprises for students new to working with animals. No matter what deadlines or personal events you have coming up, taking care of your animals is always your number one priority. This means that if a water pump breaks on a Friday evening, a pipe burst at 3AM or a fish needs feeding on Christmas day, you have to be there. Over the years I have missed or been very late to many personal events including a friends hens night that I had helped organize. Students who want to work with animals must be prepared for the realities of  animal care and must be flexible about working hours.

Some groups will be lucky enough to have a full time technician take care of their animals, but this really depends on funding, the size of your lab group or the type of animals you work with. While this can ease your workload, for scientists that study behaviour, there are benefits to performing the daily care of your animals. By spending so much time with them, you know when your animals are healthy and you get a good idea of what they look like when they are happy and relaxed. If you notice this behaviour changes at all during experiments then you know to rethink the task you are asking the animals to do. It is for this reason that I always try to get students to take charge of animal care and to spend as much time as possible with their research subjects.

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