University veterinarian discusses animal research at BYU

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BYU is home to reptiles, mice, rats, chickens, pigeons and lots of fish — and veterinarian Sandy Garrett is in charge of making sure they’re all taken care of.

Almost all of the animals at BYU are used for research, with the exception being the reptiles in the Monte L. Bean Museum’s Live Animal Show. Each animal is checked every day by a student researcher and animal care technician. If they notice any problems, they notify Garrett. 

A student technician looks into a microscope. Many BYU students assist with research on campus. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

Dr. Garrett was a private practicing veterinarian for 10 years before coming to BYU. As the University Attending Veterinarian, she is responsible for not only treating the animals on campus but also making sure they are handled and cared for properly according to the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.

All animal research conducted at BYU must be reviewed and approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). BYU psychology professor Harold Miller uses pigeons and rats in his research, so he is familiar with the process.

“There are stringent standards for the care of animal subjects to assure their good health and safety,” he said.

In fact, Garrett said that’s what she spends most of her time doing — reviewing research proposals to make sure that methods are compliant with the federal guidelines as outlined by the IACUC. “There’s something different every day. I get to see all the new research coming out that people are proposing,” she said.

IACUC policy includes checking each animal daily to ensure they have water, food, dry bedding and that they are in good health and free of any other problems like overcrowding, aggressive cagemates, or fingers or wings caught in cages.

A common gray pigeon. Pigeons are commonly used for animal research. (Pexels)

Miller uses pigeons and rats in his research and said there are several reasons why non-human subjects may be used in laboratory research.

“Often they are cited vis-a-vis comparable research with human participants,” he said. “Pigeons are a widely preferred research subject for several reasons, not least their visual system, ease of maintenance and relatively long lifespan.”

Some people think that animals used in research laboratories are being tested on, but that’s not true at BYU. “BYU research animals are used for teaching and research,” Garrett said. “Most animals have genes knocked in or knocked out. No animals are having products tested on them.”

Not all BYU research animals are genetically modified, which is true for the animals in Miller’s laboratory, where he studies behavior economy.

“Our current research with pigeons involves a procedure in which they peck one or the other of two small, lighted, plastic disks and occasionally receive brief access to grain,” he said. “This procedure is analogous to a computer game that our human participants play.”

Miller explained that like the pigeons’ peck to the disks, the human participants’ clicks of the mouse produce either a gain or a loss.

Miller uses the animals to study how gains and losses affect choice. He said that similarities in performance across species provide evidence of a shared way of thinking about behavior and environment.

Garrett takes her responsibility over the animals seriously and said it’s important for them to be comfortable, healthy and treated properly. For this reason, they cannot be housed alone, she said.

“If they have to be (alone), they need special arrangements,” she said. Pigeons are an example of an animal housed separately because they’ll fight if kept together, she said. “So we at least put them where they can see each other.”

The experience of each animal is something Garrett pays close attention to. Though the pigeons’ cage sizes met IACUC standards, she recently made them bigger in order to give the pigeons more space to move around. Garrett also gives the pigeons fake eggs to sit on, which she said they adore.

“We try to create environments where the animals can be active,” she said. “It’s not normal for an animal to have nothing to do.”

Most importantly, Garrett said she never wants the animals to be in pain and that animals are always given pain medication if undergoing a procedure that could be painful.

Sometimes Garrett fixes minor problems, such as overgrown teeth, but if the animal develops problems that can’t be fixed, she said the best solution is to euthanize the animal so it doesn’t have to suffer.

There are currently no BYU research projects that cause animals pain that can’t be relieved with medication. However, some research projects require surgical procedures, Garrett said. Animals are only allowed to have one major surgical procedure performed and are treated just as well as human patients.

Animals that are operated on receive preemptive pain medication 24 to 48 hours prior to surgery and each procedure must have an appropriate anesthesia protocol approved. The animal typically receives pain medication in the form of an injectable opioid at surgery and then again every 12 hours for up to five to seven days after the operation.

“Animals are pain scored and pain medication is tailored according to their needs on a daily basis,” Garrett said.

BYU animal research is not widely publicized because animal research labs across the country are the target of animal rights activist groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF).

The University of Utah was subject to an undercover investigation by PETA in 2009 which resulted in a lawsuit, according to The Daily Utah Chronicle, the university’s student-run newspaper. PETA’s investigation also got the attention of federal entities, resulting in a warning letter to the university from the United States Department of Agriculture stating that further violations could result in civil penalty or criminal prosecution, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

In 2004, BYU was vandalized, research animals were released, and a BYU facility was set on fire by individuals associated with ALF. In one incident, an 18-year old caused $30,000 in damages to BYU’s animal science facility according to the Deseret News. That was the third attack on the facility that year.

These incidents highlighted the need to not publicize animal research on campus, Garrett said. Following the incidents, animals were moved from barns to indoor vivariums.

BYU’s Associate University Veterinarian and biology professor Beverly Roeder declined a request for an interview, acknowledging that information about BYU’s animal research studies and the locations of its labs are seen as sensitive and controversial.

Utah Valley University has not had issues with animal rights activists according to Eric Domyan, the university’s IACUC chair.

UVU doesn’t do much animal research, but they do use zebrafish and domestic pigeons in research laboratories, Domyan said. They also use mice, rats and a variety of reptiles in the classroom to help students get firsthand experience about the diversity of animal life.

Studying animals is essential to develop the knowledge needed to protect human health, Domyan said. “If you think about the pandemic that we’re currently experiencing, a lot of the treatments and therapies that we’re working on developing for this are going to have to go through some sort of animal research experimentation first before we can try them out on humans.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has not negatively impacted the animals on BYU campus, Garrett said. Preparing to take care of research animals has been Garrett’s top priority even prior to classes being moved online as announced on March 12.

“I am happy to say we are prepared, and research shouldn’t be interrupted or impacted,” she said.

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