This guest post is published around the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science conference and in advance of the American Anthropological Association (November 14-18, San Jose, CA). 

By Lesley A. Sharp, author of Animal Ethos: The Morality of Human-Animal Encounters in Experimental Lab Science

A friend who works for a large genetics research firm in California informed me recently that her employer was among the last in the area to shift to the use of contract labor for lab animal care. The obvious, short-term effects of such a move are obvious: hundreds of employees, often with long-term experience in animal care, were laid off as a cost-cutting measure. As an anthropologist who has spent much time over several years observing and interviewing lab employees, I’ve learned that the relationships that develop between lab personnel and experimental animals are complex, intimate, and rewarding, and may have a profound effect on the well-being of human and animal alike. A well-worn aphorism states that “healthy animals generate robust data,” where animal health and enrichment are most often the responsibilities of animal care technicians (also known as animal caretakers or caregivers) with deep knowledge and sophisticated expertise, not only about specific species, but in the preferences, habits, and quirks of individual creatures. Thus, efforts to maintain “healthy” animals entails “robust” efforts at care, too, where, often, the best forms of care entail not only following daily, mandated protocols on how, say, to clean a cage, but by being innovative in one’s strategies to provide safe, comfortable, and cleverly enriched environments. In other words, the best caretakers are masters of thinking outside the box.

Contract labor undermines such possibilities in several ways. First, contract firms promise reliability and uniformity; indeed, strategies that might smack of serendipity are marks of an employee’s failure to adhere to protocols. Second, contract labor, as, ultimately, “just a job,” undermines and, even, discourages the development of intimate knowledge about species or individual creatures. Third, contract labor demeans the professional work that animal caretakers do, because it presumes that they lack specialized skills or knowledge, or that they are in any way an integral part of research. Instead, contract labor is based on the assumption that caretakers are define a category of easily replaceable personnel whose work is primarily custodial; that is, their work is something anyone, with a bit of training, can do.

To this end, a research firm’s decision to shift to contract labor—done in the name of economizing costs—risks undermining quality research, threatens the well being of lab animals, and denies, in profound ways, the specialized skills of the professional animal caretaker.