When Bowdoin opened for the fall semester, members of the Class of 2019 weren’t the only new residents on campus. Kanbar Hall is now home to a number of rodents—specifically, laboratory mice used for Psychology 2752, Laboratory in Behavioral Neuroscience, a course taught by visiting professor Brian Piper.  

Although mice are new at Bowdoin this fall, several animal species have lived in laboratories at Bowdoin for years, including aquatic invertebrates like lobsters and crabs, various kinds of fish and a colony of crickets. The precise species vary from year to year and depend on the research interests of professors.

“As the researchers, the visiting professors, come and go, we tend to have something that will come for a year, or two, or three, and then go away,” said Bowdoin’s Animal Care Supervisor Marko Melendy.

Melendy, who has been at Bowdoin for seven years after working in animal care at the University of New England and the California Academy of Sciences, oversees a number of Bowdoin students who work to maintain the welfare of all species living in Bowdoin’s laboratories.

Besides being fed and taken care of, these animals are critical to research in the biology and psychology departments.

In the classroom, animal models are used to pilot new research because they give researchers the ability to track each animal’s genetic background and limit the effects of external variables such as diet, exercise and social environment.

Students enrolled in courses that conduct this research are made aware early on of how they will be using animal subjects. The experience of handling animals in the lab is new for many students; however, many become comfortable with the process after extensive training.

“We have all different levels of comfort,” said Nancy Curtis, who is the lab instructor for Psychology 2752. “Some people come in, and they’re all afraid of the animals. They don’t want to touch them, and by the end of the semester, they’re handling them very well.”

The subject of animal testing rarely comes without controversy. After the Orient reported in 2010 that use of lab rats at Bowdoin included numerous behavioral tests and brain surgery, there was backlash from the Humane Society of the United States, which called on Bowdoin to end animal testing, as well as outrage from some members of the Bowdoin student body.

Although Bowdoin laboratories met—and continue to meet—legal standards, many students argued that animal testing was at odds with Bowdoin’s commitment to the Common Good. In particular, these students believed that conducting tests on laboratory rats, which would never be conducted on humans, was ethically inconsistent.

Risk of opposition frequently makes researchers who conduct animal testing hesitant to talk about their work.

Bowdoin has not hosted vertebrate research for several years until the return of mice to campus this fall.

Any laboratory work that occurs in Bowdoin facilities and requires animal subjects is strictly monitored by a group known as the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), a federally mandated committee which ensures that animal research complies with legal standards.

The committee, which includes several faculty members, Melendy and two veterinarians, is chaired by Professor of Biology Damon Gannon.

“The composition of the committee is regulated [in terms of] the number of people, and the backgrounds of those people,” Gannon said.

The job of the committee is to evaluate any research proposal that involves laboratory animals to ensure that it complies with federally mandated IACUC standards. These standards include an Animal Research Policy, which is written at Bowdoin but must also be approved at the federal level.

“We have to follow the federal Animal Welfare Act and various other regulations set forth by the National Institutes of Health and the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare,” Gannon added.

However, the issue of ethics in animal research is hardly limited to a faculty committee. Students enrolled in classes that have an animal research component complete training not only on proper animal care and laboratory safety, but also on the ethical implications of their research.

“They also complete a two-hour lecture on the ethics of research of animals, and we go through the legal framework and the history of use of animals,” said Piper, whose class will be using the mice for research on anxiety medications later this semester. “We go through the history of uses, and in some cases misuse, of animals, and we recognize that use of animals in a laboratory environment is a privilege.”

Historically, animal testing has led to breakthroughs on vaccines and improved treatments for diseases such as HIV/AIDs and certain cancers. Curtis explained that mice allow researchers to control their experiment in a manner that’s simply impossible with people.

“If you buy some laboratory rats or some laboratory mice, when you get them, they come with a pedigree,” Curtis said. “You know that they’ve been well cared for.”

The instructors also believe that students, particularly those who seek to engage in laboratory work in the future, in the form of an internship, a private lab, or graduate school, benefit from working with animals in the laboratories here at Bowdoin.

“I think these are useful skills,” said Melendy.