Animal programs

BSB Vivarium dives into research with animal welfare in mind

The veterinarian ensures that the daily functions of the vivarium run smoothly. Kenneth Prabhakar | Photographer

By Sarah Wang | Personal editor

Hidden away as one of the restricted areas of the Baylor Sciences Building, the BSB Vivarium is where animals used for scientific research projects are cared for.

At a time when the ethics of animal rights are debated, the Vivarium strives to facilitate research while ensuring animal well-being.

The term vivarium refers to a biomedical facility that is carefully monitored by researchers to foster animals used in the process of scientific research. According to its website, the Vivarium provides breeding and care services for these animals – mainly rodents – and also serves as a source for all users of vertebrate animals for various research projects.

“I want to make sure that the animals we use in research are well cared for and that we consider their welfare,” said Dr. Ryan Stoffel, attending veterinarian and animal program director.

Natashia Howard, manager of the BSB director’s office, said she previously worked as a laboratory animal assistant in the Vivarium. She said it was often routine as she had to change cages and make sure each animal was fed and happy. However, she also said that it can sometimes be surprising.

“There’s something new every day,” Howard said. “Animals are living beings, whether they are research animals or pets, so they always have surprises for you.”

Stoffel said the Vivarium also provides training for investigators on how to handle animals and perform various research procedures on them.

“We just tried to make sure that we consider animal welfare and to make sure that we house the animals in a way that they are suitable for use in research projects,” Stoffel said.

Howard said having a veterinarian – who not only understands research, but is also trained and certified in animal care and medicine – as facility manager is how the BSB set out to facilitate research while ensuring animal welfare.

According to Howard, Stoffel leads all requirements and protocols for researchers, including education on strategies such as pain management, in case anything that might induce pain is done to the animals.

“[It is] what we would call endpoints,” Howard said. “If someone is causing diabetes, or even the growth of cancerous cells, at what point do we say we have to stop for the comfort and care of the animal? So these protocols and limits are put in place before that A researcher does not carry out any type of research within the BSB.

Stoffel said that as part of the Animal Care and Use Program, Baylor has the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which reviews investigator-approved protocols regarding their use of animals. He said this is how they know how animals are used and ensure they are used appropriately.

According to Stoffel, the Vivarium is involved in research projects from a number of departments, including the departments of biology, chemistry, biochemistry, psychology, neuroscience and environmental science.

“BSB Vivarium has top-notch facilities and the helpful staff are easy to communicate with,” said Dr. Lara Hwa, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience.

As an attending veterinarian, Stoffel said he envisions the facility continuing to grow by providing additional services to investigators.

“We are a service for the researcher,” Stoffel said. “Our primary focus is simply to ensure that the care and husbandry of the animals is taken care of, and then to ensure that the animals are appropriately housed for the various research studies.”

According to Howard, the fact that the Vivarium is located in a restricted area is what keeps most people from knowing about the facility.

“We’re kind of like being in the sky – which, to some extent, is a good thing as far as security and being in control of things is concerned,” Howard said.

Howard said people sometimes wonder if they’re doing something cruel to animals. However, she said it was not like research in the 1940s, before there were regulations.

“Baylor is definitely in compliance with all of those things,” Howard said. “We’re not doing anything weird up there.”

In fact, Howard said the research mice and rats were very well fed and “lived the stuffed life.”