40 Years of Research Ethics: Environmental Enrichment

by Meryn Robinson, education and membership services, and Avery Avrakotos, education and policy manager

Since its founding in 1974, PRIM&R’s highest priority has been to provide those charged with ensuring research protections, as well as those involved in the design and implementation of research protocols, with the education, practical tools, and cutting-edge strategies needed for their work protecting subjects. As we celebrate our 40th anniversary, we are reflecting on those four decades of connecting and protecting by revisiting events that have shaped the field in our 40 Years of Research Ethics series.

Environmental enrichment, now a well-established concept within the world of animal research, has transformed from placing objects in otherwise empty zoo cages to a broad practice that encompasses “feelings based” approaches to support animals’ psychological well-being as well as functioning-based approaches to animal welfare. 

The regulatory mandate for environmental enrichment has a long
. In 1970, as a result of amendments to the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), enclosure standards for all warm-blooded animals were developed.  The need for additional regulations became apparent in 1981 when Alex Pacheco, an animal rights activist and cofounder of the then-newly formed organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, discovered and documented violations of the AWA as a volunteer at the Institute for Biological Research in Silver Spring, MD. Pacheco’s work drew public attention to the care of laboratory animals. 

In the years following the Silver Spring Monkey case, a number of bills advancing standards for the care of laboratory animals were introduced in the US House and Senate. In 1985, the Food Security Act amended the AWA to mandate exercise for dogs and a “physical environment adequate to promote the psychological well-being of primates.” While initially the research community responded to the mandate for environmental enrichment with hesitation, today such programs are considered fundamental to a comprehensive animal care and use program. In addition to the regulations codified in the AWA, institutions accredited by Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC), and/or receive Public Health Service funding are also responsible for adhering to the performance standards for environmental enrichment put forth in the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.  

Christina Winnicker, DVM, MPH, DACLAM and Jennifer Camacho, LVT, RLATG, explored IACUCs’ responsibilities regarding environmental enrichment programs and provided insight into how institutions can facilitate and monitor enrichment efforts in their 2012 PRIM&R webinar titled, The IACUC’s Role in Environmental Enrichment Programs.  

During the webinar, Winnicker explained that a well-designed environmental enrichment program should “give animals some degree of choice in, and control over, their environment to cope with environmental stressors” and “offer motor and sensory stimulation, complexity in their environments, and cognitive challenges appropriate to species-specific characteristics in order to facilitate the expression of species-typical behaviors and promote physical and psychological well-being.” 

PRIM&R members can view the webinar, read an overview, or download the handout.

Please note that after this post was published, PRIM&R received a letter from Allyson J. Bennett, PhD, chair of the Committee on Animal Research and Ethics at the American Psychological Association (APA), and Sangeeta Panicker, PhD, director of research ethics at the APA, in response. PRIM&R is committed to transparency and respectful dialogue and, to that end, we would like to share with you the letter from Drs. Bennett and Panicker