Rodent Cage Upgrade: Should Lab Rats Get More Living Space?

The Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare wants to ensure a better life for lab animals. But will new laws make any difference?


Rodent Cage Upgrade: Should Lab Rats Get More Living Space?
Anyone who has ever had a rat for a pet, can attest to the its affection, keen intelligence and desire to please. (Photo: G. Robert Bishop / Getty)

For anyone who has ever seen a vivisection video, the images of “research” are not ones easily banished. It’s understandable that no one wants to see such pictures, but without them, there is a danger that very real horror remains an abstraction. We can simply forget the daily suffering that happens behind the closed doors of universities and labs across the country.

According to The Huffington Post, the U.S. is trying to make lives better for the animals sacrificed for humankind. The Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare is updating its “Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals” for the first time since 1996. These changes include new requirements for a variety of animals from chickens to chimps.

While animal advocates welcome the long overdue updates, many researchers are not happy. Bob Adams, the lead of Johns Hopkins’ main lab-rate complex, told NPR:

“The effect would be, we would have to buy more of this caging, and our estimate was somewhere around $300,000 worth of caging, at least. Bottom line is, there is more work, there is more cost for everybody, for our whole operation.”

Another researcher, Joseph Thulin from the Medical College of Wisconsin, said this:

“I would not want anyone to think that the research community doesn't want to implement new guidelines because they don't care about their animals. That is not the case at all. There's simply a shortage of research on rodent housing.” 

For Thulin, lack of research means he questions whether “expanding cage sizes will have any measurable positive impact on the animals.”

Any person with a lick of common sense has already wondered: What kind of research is necessary to determine if an animal in a small cage would prefer to have a larger one?

Rats, while not often garnering public sympathy, are intelligent (and thus probably easily bored) and ironically, as human researchers have recently proven, empathetic creatures.

While I am certainly not accusing every animal researcher of being a closet sadist who enjoys injecting, burning, poisoning and operating on animals without anesthesia, it’s safe to assume that the job requires a combination of: 1) Denial 2) Indifference 3) Some form of human detachment. And it no doubt inspires impatience and frustration (with animals who fight back, rebel, recoil and otherwise reject attempts to be used as research “subjects”).

Claiming that research is required to determine a basic need reveals not only stinginess, but an obvious refusal to consider the basic reality of rats’, or any other animals’ lives, in the lab.

A consultant who helped draft the rules called them merely “recommendations“ while the OLAW website warns that “blanket, program-wide departures from the guide for reasons of convenience, cost, or other non-animal welfare considerations are not acceptable.“

Of course the question remains: who will enforce these rules?

The Humane Society of the United States hopes that the National Institutes of Health “will strictly enforce their recommendations in the guide.” But the NIH is hardly an animal welfare champion.

The world of the laboratory, like the world of the factory farm, does its best to remain secret. It cannot help but foster excess abuses by the very nature of the work it does. But as with all injustice, people outside these entrenched systems have a voice for the creatures that are silenced.