Session Eight: Available Take-Home Resources
Moderator: Anne Maglia, University of Massachusetts Lowell
Anne Maglia from the University of Massachusetts Lowell moderated Session Eight and explained that the goal of the workshop was to discuss and understand broad challenges in research and education on wildlife, non-model animal species and biodiversity. This session outlined existing gaps in knowledge and structure, options for eliminating challenges within the existing structure, and potential strategies, synergies, and collaborations within and among the wildlife and biologically diverse animal research and biodiversity conservation communities. Maglia introduced the session panelists who were also members of the workshop planning committee: Michael Stoskopf, North Carolina State University; Robert S. Sikes, University of Arkansas at Little Rock; and William Greer, University of Michigan.
Maglia began with a discussion of how discrepancies in the use of terminology can lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications among researchers and oversight bodies. Sikes discussed the problematic term “field study.” According to Sikes, the term has common usage among field biologists to differentiate between studies that are conducted in a controlled laboratory environment versus those that are conducted in nature. Sikes stated that the term has a specific regulatory definition within the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulations, applying to a study that is conducted on animals in their natural environment, with the additional requirements that it not be invasive, cause harm, or materially alter the behavior of the animals under study. Sikes added that studies that do not meet these specific requirements, are regulated activities by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which imposes an additional set of requirements.
In some respects, the term “field study” is a non-issue, because most institutions conducting this type of wild animal research would require submission of sufficient information, if not a full animal use protocol (AUP) to the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) to make an informed decision, as to whether the study and the activities meet those restrictive terms, Sikes said. In fact, Sikes explained, this is an issue that the American Society of Mammalogists (ASM) emphasizes in its guidelines for the use of wild mammals in research: any activity involving the capture of wild mammals should be subject to IACUC review to determine whether the activity meets this regulatory definition of a field study; and if not found to be an exempted activity in the context of the AWA definition of a “field study,” then to provide appropriate IACUC oversight for the use of wild mammals in that type of research, he added. According to Sikes, the take-home message here is that it is the oversight body making the decision and not the investigator. There is this additional level of review, added Sikes.
The second term that causes confusion is “euthanasia,” which is even more problematic, Sikes said. First, because it is commonly used in ways that are not consistent with its use in the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals (AVMA Euthanasia Guidelines). Second, he added, much of the time the taking of animal lives in wildlife research would be more consistent with examples of lethal take or humane killing than they would be of euthanasia—that is not to say that these methods should not be used in as humane a manner as possible, they should, said Sikes. Sikes noted that because of the number of animals involved, the mechanisms of capture, or the conditions under which the animals are collected, there are circumstances that would not permit the investigator to use methods of death that would meet the conditions of euthanasia, as prescribed by the AVMA Euthanasia Guidelines. Sikes said that the challenge for field researchers is where the term “euthanasia” is routinely used in guidance documents, policies, and regulations that do not recognize these other terms, specifically—humane take and lethal killing. Sikes added that the result is that oversight bodies that are more familiar with captive environments where similar limitations do not exist
for domesticated animals feel that they lack the familiarity needed to approve other mechanisms of humane death. Sikes added that for the investigator in the field this may be the best alternative that they have available to them.
Greer added that there is the need to provide clarification at the institutions to the IACUCs and to work with field biologists to understand these terms because that is what will make it much easier for the IACUC to accept this terminology.
Stoskopf agreed and explained that that another confusing term is “harvest sampling,” where animals recently harvested for food by others may be sampled by investigators in the process; for example, investigators may be sampling on large vessels when fisheries are doing factory processing at sea where animals are rapidly frozen. In this case, Stoskopf said, perhaps the IACUC may not need to be involved because it is like harvesting tissues during a necropsy on already dead animals. Stoskopf noted another similar example is often during normal hunting harvests when animals are available for researchers to sample after they have been hunted.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR IACUCS
Another challenge faced by researchers and IACUCs, Maglia presented to the panelists, is the difficulty of finding resources and expertise to develop and evaluate wildlife research protocols. Stoskopf noted that IACUCs that are highly focused on biomedical research need wildlife consultants and suggested they identify someone from inside or outside their institution. In addition to consultations, inviting individuals with fish and wildlife experience to join IACUCs could facilitate a broader understanding of the key differences in processes and protocols involved in wildlife research, as compared with traditional biomedical laboratory AUP, Stoskopf suggested. He added that experts could serve as resources and can facilitate conversations between IACUCs and investigators to prevent misunderstandings that may impede wildlife animal care, research, permits, or funding. Sikes agreed, adding that field researchers or colleagues could join IACUCs to facilitate the understanding of wildlife protocols and pointed to the Animal Care and Use Committees (ACUCs) of taxon societies as resources and suggested contacting committee chairs for information. Greer agreed and pointed to the lack of visibility for the term “wildlife” within the existing guidelines, such as the Guide, the AVMA Euthanasia Guidelines, and the AWA. Greer said that a heavily biomedical institution will have an IACUC whose mindset is biomedical, and without guidance on a wildlife protocol, will approach it with a biomedical mindset and apply unsuitable laboratory conventions, such as euthanasia of mice by cervical dislocation, to wildlife situations.
To assist the IACUC evaluation of wildlife protocols, Greer suggested that investigators develop guidance documents and to remind them that they have institutional flexibility. Sikes agreed, adding that having a wildlife expert on an IACUC can remind people of the differences between euthanasia and lethal take or humane killing, which prompts IACUC members to think about the flexibility needed to match the species to the environment. Sikes described institutions developing their own wildlife protocol forms and drawing on various sources of data for IACUC review. Stoskopf added that it would be helpful for IACUCs and investigators to have an evolving understanding of wildlife, especially because so little is known about the world’s biodiversity. Stoskopf pointed to the three documents the AVMA (Guidelines for the Humane Slaughter of Animals: 2016 Edition1; Guidelines for the Depopulation of Animals: 2019 Edition2; Guidelines for Euthanasia: 2020 Edition3) puts forth that have periodic revisions to include new knowledge and added that it is important for IACUCs to understand that there can be more to learn. For example, the common anesthesia drugs for euthanasia purposes in fish are less humane than previously assumed; other recent research revealed that opossums require much larger than expected doses of pentobarbital to reliably cause death, Stoskopf added.
1 See https://www.avma.org/sites/default/files/resources/Humane-Slaughter-Guidelines.pdf.
2 See https://www.avma.org/sites/default/files/resources/AVMA-Guidelines-for-the-Depopulation-of-Animals.pdf.
3 See https://www.avma.org/sites/default/files/2020-02/Guidelines-on-Euthanasia-2020.pdf.
Maglia asked the panelists to discuss the challenges with wildlife animal welfare in relation to jurisdictional limits, which often results in differences, gaps, ambiguities, and even contradictions in regulations and guidance. Sikes said that government entities first created regulations on wildlife and the exploration of biodiversity through an economic lens. Sikes added that the current framework requires investigators to obtain permits and to comply with the applicable laws for the use of animals in whatever location, state, or country in which they happen to be working. Sikes said that the various governmental agencies’ and organizations’ focus on ethical and appropriate use of animals in research and education came about only after these other components were in place, and as problems were identified or particular interests or disciplines developed.
Sikes added that many of the necessary components are in place to create an integrated framework from these diverse parts and it is an opportunity for a leap forward to address the realities of wildlife research. He believes the taxon guidelines were developed to address many of the gaps that exist between the Guide and wildlife research. The taxon guidelines focus on aspects such as capture and handling, options for the most humane death practical under diverse situations and with diverse species, and many of the specifics that must be considered if animals are to be maintained in captivity. Sikes added that the taxon guidelines were never intended to provide information on how oversight committees should operate; instead, they were intended to refine (fine-tune) the procedures for wild vertebrates. He said that they could be recognized as filling a niche as appropriate references for investigators, for IACUCs, and for anyone needing specifics about how to fit wild animals into their overarching framework. Sikes stressed the importance of updating the taxon guidelines and being peer-reviewed, not just by taxon experts, but with input from other professions as they have relevant insights to offer. Sikes found that adding wildlife veterinarians to the ASM’s ACUC added valuable information that was lacking from previous versions, and he encouraged other taxon societies to consider similar additions to their committees. A collaborative approach across entities and units is the most cost-effective and direct method to modify the components already available, rather than starting over, according to Sikes. Greer added that people in the biomedical research world may not know where these “tools” are located.
Stoskopf agreed and said that in some cases, IACUCs try to be all things to all people and get involved with issues that are technically outside of their purview. IACUCs do not need to try to regulate endangered species, because agencies, permits, and societies’ permits already exist, Stoskopf said. Greer provided an example of an investigator conducting a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded fisheries survey observing different fish species in a river to highlight the complexities of regulations and said the NSF-funded project falls under the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare’s regulations where the protocol must meet the expectations of a biomedical research project. From an IACUC perspective, Greer said, the surveys do not require the need to euthanize fish, unless there are voucher specimens, but there are none in the following example. According to Greer, if the investigators are doing some electroshocking or netting in a location where they encounter snake heads, their IACUC protocol prohibits euthanasia while their permit says, “If you catch any snakeheads, you cannot return them to the waterways,” leaving the investigator in a no-win situation. Greer said that IACUCs could be flexible and revise the protocol to state, “We do not expect any euthanasia, unless under certain circumstances of a permit, a state regulation, or something like that requires it.” Greer added that IACUCs can ensure the welfare of animals while building in the flexibility that the principal investigators need to do their studies in the field. Greer builds on his example with the use of MS-222 (TMS, or tricaine methanesulfonate) as an anesthetic for zebrafish. If MS-222 is administered to a rainbow trout in the field, the fish cannot be released for 21 days (U.S. Food and Drug Administration required withdrawal time) back into a trout stream where it might be fished for human consumption, Greer stressed.
Stoskopf said that the issue of IACUC requirements for surgical training is straightforward, but an activity like trapping has complexities that are difficult for an IACUC to understand and assess. In his experience, Stoskopf has found IACUCs making unhelpful suggestions because of their lack of
foreknowledge on the skills surrounding trapping. Stoskopf recalled his experience working with an expert trapper in the field. The trapper, Stoskopf noted, demonstrated much care in properly sizing the trap and setting the lines appropriately, which rarely resulted in an animal being injured. Stoskopf summarized his point by saying that it is important for IACUCs to understand the need for wildlife skill sets for the people doing wildlife work and not necessarily assume that everybody has them and, at the same time, recognize that they are different. Greer agreed and advocated for educating field biologists and IACUCs on trapping and finished by saying that IACUCs could be encouraged to think about wildlife protocols in an insightful manner where they often have no analogue in biomedical research practices.
Sikes addressed another challenge where IACUCs, investigators, and oversight bodies need to realize that there is a gradation between laboratory animal studies and studies of totally free-ranging animals. Sikes pointed to the variety of large enclosures used for different species as an example and asked At what point does an animal in a large enclosure become a free-ranging animal as opposed to a captive animal? Sikes added that there are challenges interpreting many of these terms and subtleties.
Maglia asked the speakers to provide final comments on the opportunities and outcomes they would like to see as a result of this workshop. Greer said that it is important to recognize some of the differences between wildlife studies and other studies, including more IACUC education on wildlife terminology and collaboration among the community to identify the challenges that are directly related to wildlife studies. Stoskopf agreed that collaboration is advantageous and stressed the importance of flexibility, which is provided in most of the laws and guidelines, to facilitate productive relationships in the conduct and oversight of wildlife studies. Sikes went on to say that among all the diverse entities discussed over the course of the workshop, all share a common theme of promoting ethical and appropriate interactions with wild animals that are used in research and education.
Different perspectives, backgrounds, and biases are all important, according to Sikes, because these are animals that belong to the public, not to individuals or to individual institutions. Sikes explained that it may be best to move away from the “silo approach” to oversight and be more willing to see the challenges from different perspectives. Finally, Sikes added that given the threats facing wild populations globally from such factors as changing land use patterns, human encroachment, and environmental impacts, the time available for addressing these obstacles is running short and it is time for a collegial and interactive approach to wildlife.