UZH and SAP project on rehoming of laboratory animals

Since 2018 the Office for Animal Welfare and 3Rs at UZH has been working closely with Swiss Animal Protection SAP on a project to rehome animals, which were involved in animal research. Every year, the university transfers around 200 rats and mice to SAP, and the animal protection group places the rodents with people who want to adopt laboratory animals. There is a lot of interest from the media and the public to find out about possibilities allowing laboratory animals to live a second  life as pets after their role in research – in particular following the recent popular initiative aiming to ban animal research and reports about surplus animals.

A long life for surplus animals
While larger companion animals such as cats and dogs already tend to be placed after taking part in experiments whenever possible, people are less familiar with the idea of rehoming smaller animals such as rodents, rabbits, or zebra finches. About two thirds of the animals placed are rats, usually Sprague Dawley, a breed of albino rats that widely used in medical research because they are calm and easy to handle. The other third are mice, mostly C57BL/6J, also called C57 or Black 6, an inbred strain of black mice, which is used in a range of research areas and to produce genetically modified mice. In Switzerland it is forbidden to set free genetically modified animals, so they cannot be rehomed routinely and only wildtype animals are rehomed at UZH

The animals, which will be placed, also should not have suffered any major constraint in a previous experiment.  Most of them, however, are surplus animals, which are left over when breeding animals or animals formerly used in training courses, Paulin explained. “These animals were not involved in burdening experiments and have the largest chance of having a long and healthy life. There is a lot of demand for the rats and mice, which is not surprising: they are very cute, curious, and generally behave very well.”

Changing mindsets
The terms and conditions for the adoption of laboratory animals are strict, and the project team had to overcome many obstacles. Challenges not only included regulations for research institutes and discussions with breeders but above all having to change the mindsets of experimenters who still often believe that rehoming for rodents is legally or practically not possible. Rehoming not only helps the animals that are able to live a full life, but researchers and care takers also find it reassuring to know that the lives of the animals do not end there. After the trail-blazing efforts in Zurich, similar projects are also initiated at other universities.

The project would not have been possible without funding, time, energy and support by 3R coordinator Paulin Jirkof at UZH, but above all a healthy portion of idealism and the firm commitments of Julika Fitzi from SAP. “Without Julika’s dedication and tenacity, and the trust between the two organisations the project would never have seen the light,” explained Paulin. “The project is the result of a regular open dialogue, which has been established over the years between the AWO, the animal facility and communications teams at UZH with SAP and Animalfree Research.”

SAP’s commitment
Rehoming does not come for free. The responsibility lies with the researchers, Paulin states. She encourages them to plan the rehoming and to include the costs when budgeting the project. One rat costs CHF 35 for UZH, an amount that is matched by SAP with another CHF 35 for their rehoming sections and their rehoming services. The animal protection group picks up the animals, houses them and makes sure they are fit for the adoption. Male animals must be castrated, and rodents must be kept in groups of at least two to three. But the animal welfare experts recommend larger groups of up to eight mice or four rats because both rodents are very social animals. SAP experts also coach the new animal owners and may make unannounced visits to check if everything is in order. And SAP guarantees to take the animals back if the new owners change their minds or because of other reasons.

UZH’s promotion of 3Rs
The Office for Animal Welfare and 3Rs, on the other hand, has the job to promote rehoming with talks, emails and posters so that scientists, animal caretakers and other specialists are aware of this option. The AWOs also point out this possibility when they receive applications from research groups using wildtype animals such as Black 6. Rehoming is one of several options. Researchers may also share animals with other groups, give them to be used in an education course or to zoos to feed big cats or snakes.

The rehoming project at UZH complements other efforts where the university is investing into programmes to replace, reduce or refine animal research. Such 3Rs projects include Animatch, a system helping to share organs and tissues between scientists, the development and use of animal-free educational tools such as a silicone tail you can fill with liquid to train substance administration or its iPSCore facility, which offers a platform and services for sophisticated cell cultures.

Setting an example for other universities
UZH was the first university to start a rehoming programme for laboratory animals in Switzerland, and for the moment it supplies animal shelters across the country, but other institutions are starting to follow suit. EPFL has just signed a cooperation contract with SAP and will start rehoming rats very soon, and UniBE is also exploring options to set up a rehoming programme. At a European level, a European Union directive pushes for rehoming, particularly for larger animals.

For Paulin all the efforts are well worth it. “We have received very positive feedback and we have shown that it’s possible. I firmly believe that animals have the right to have a better life and that researchers have an obligation to offer them this chance, if possible,” Paulin states. “If you look at the large numbers of animals used for research and breeding you could say that it’s just a drop in the ocean, but we feel that we can make a difference. And this is just the beginning.”

Picture credit: Judith Berngger, Club der Rattenfreunde.

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