Call of the wild: Review of animal use protocol involving field studies

by Amanda Plante, PRIM&R Blog Squad member

PRIM&R is pleased to bring you live posts from the 2011 IACUC Conference and the PRIM&R Blog Squad. The Blog Squad is composed of members who are devoted to blogging prior to, live from and after the PRIM&R’s conferences. Read on to find out what’s happening on the ground in Chicago!

At my institution’s animal research ethics board (AREB) meeting just last week, we discussed a field study in the Canadian north involving the trapping of small mammals. Our clinical veterinarian suggested that due to the AREB’s concerns about trapping methods, the updated 2011 Guidelines of the American Society of Mammalogists for the Use of Wild Mammal in Research (Guidelines) should be provided to the principal and research team. In everyday IACUC review of field protocols, the Guidelines serve as useful resources for the IACUC, as well as the researchers themselves.

Having attended Wildlife Protocol Oversight, Including Special Challenges When Conducting Field Studies from the Hot Topics, Trends, and Special Issues Track yesterday, I found the content to be relevant to my recent experience.

At the session, we were provided with a hot-of-the-presses copy of the Guidelines, which were written by Robert Sikes, who also co-facilitated the session, William Gannon, and the animal care and use committee of the American Society of Mammalogists (ASM).

This workshop discussed the special circumstances IACUCs face when reviewing field studies. One commonly cited struggle is the need to categorize studies’ invasiveness levels for reporting to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

There also appears to be confusion regarding the USDA definition of field studies and how institutions interpret the USDA categories of pain and distress. Generally speaking, if a study involves a simple capture of free-ranging mammals, birds using live traps, or capture techniques covered by the ASM or Ornithological Council Guidelines, then the animal usage is consistent with the USDA category C.

While speaking with a USDA representative over lunch, I came to the understanding that events in which animals undergo surgery in the field, or are captured and housed, need to be reported to the USDA. Any non-invasive studies, including capturing to collect blood samples, do not need to be reported to the USDA. Of course, an IACUC would still need to review and approve the protocol.

During the session there was also discussion as to what category should be used for fish studies, especially in cases where feeder fish are used, since this involves a predator-prey relationship (which needs to be assessed at a higher level), or where electro-shocking is used to capture fish. Without clear-cut answers, it falls upon the IACUC to interpret the guidelines and use its best judgment to come up with a determination. This often requires reviewing literature, assessing the particular situation, consulting outside experts, and a willingness to change if new information is discovered.

Understanding how procedures are conducted and what training is provided to research team members is also important. The public should always have confidence in the decisions made be the IACUC. By ensuring that all research is justified, this assurance is maintained. Public perception is an important force to consider, especially in field studies where the general public may be in a position to see the research activities.

Post-approval monitoring (PAM) of field studies also presents challenges. While every member on the IACUC might like to travel to Peru to help monitor a study, it likely won’t be an option! Instead, researchers can submit videos of the procedures being performed, or photos and records that might document their actions.

Finally, wildlife studies introduce a whole host of other concerns relating to occupational health and safety. Do personnel have all their required vaccinations? Have they signed a waiver if they choose not be vaccinated? Considerations need to be given for the various zoonoses to which students and other research members will be exposed, and what protections might need to be in place in the event that an accident happens. Training requirements (boat, firearms, etc.) also need to be addressed. The IACUC should liaison very closely with other units to ensure that all concerns are addressed and all personnel on a protocol have completed any required training before a protocol is approved.

In order to continue learning, I recommend you consider attending an upcoming workshop on the Animal Welfare Act and compliance for studies of wildlife in the field in captivity. The session will be held in October in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

From the eyes of a tourist, last night I enjoyed a meal out with several other IACUC coordinators. We dined at Gino’s Pizzeria to indulge in Chicago’s infamous deep dish pizza-definitely recommended and worth the wait!