Lab-rat colony dies in Harrison basement

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The stench of 16 dead rats greeted professor Kevin Moore when he checked on the lab animal facility in the basement of Harrison Hall March 27.

The rats’ four-day water supply had been checked the day before but was now gone. Moore read the room’s thermostat — which only goes to 85 degrees Fahrenheit — and estimated the temperature to be well above 100 F.

“All of the rats we had died in about as horrible a way as I can imagine,” Moore said. He had been using the rats in labs for his 300-level psychology class, “Learning and Comparative Cognition.”

Lab technician Amber Taylor ’03 had checked on the animals on the morning of March 26, making sure the rats had adequate food and water. Temperature readings were normal at that time, though Moore said there had been previous challenges with maintaining the climate in the room. 

Moore attempted to contact Taylor about the animals Sunday evening, March 27, but Taylor did not receive the message and walked into the lab Monday morning unaware of what happened. Physical Plant workers came later that day to dispose of the carcasses. 

“I was crying,” Taylor said. “And I don’t cry, so it was pretty traumatizing.” 

Though Moore isn’t sure what happened, he said Physical Plant told Taylor that a temperature sensor failed. 

“My best guess is that heating control for that part of the building was getting readings that told it that the room was too cold, and it kept pumping heat in,” Moore said. “As a result of that…I am not confident that the university can maintain a livable climate for any animals I would order to replace them.”

The room is the size of a small office with a wall of sinks and cabinets and two others lined with plastic-glass shelves which house animal cages. Though Moore’s class was the only one using the space, professors and students have also continually used the facility for independent research. Moore has to restructure the lab portion of his class, as the six weeks he was going to spend using the animals in lab exercises can no longer be completed.

“It was just really upsetting that we had such a cool lab and such a cool opportunity to work with animals as undergrads,” said junior psychology major Rachel German. “It was just disappointing and just really upsetting what happened to the rats themselves.” 

Moore said that if the problem hasn’t been corrected by next spring when he plans to offer the course again, he will hesitate to order more laboratory animals for the facility.

“We had also been using a simulation rat on our computer and that was cool but it wasn’t the same,” German said.

Lab rats typically live about two years and are introduced to a lab at about 60 to 90 days old. The rats in Harrison were about 120 days old when they died. The rats would have been disposed of at the conclusion of the semester through a government-approved method, as researchers tend to use young rats at the beginning of an exercise.

Moore said he has done about as much as he can with the computer simulation, and he’s still trying to figure out the exercises for the rest of the course.

“There’s nothing that can directly substitute for the experiences with animals,” he said.