This week’s article, Mice Run for Fun, Not Just Work, Research Shows was published in the New York Times on May 20, 2014.
I stumbled across this article on Twitter and was immediately intrigued because of a discussion that I had earlier in the week in the Ethics class I am taking about animal rights vs animal welfare. The main question behind this research was in fact proposed by animal welfare committees: “Would [mice] run on a wheel if they were free?” Many animal facilities currently stipulate the addition of at least one toy/stimulatory item in each cage of mice unless there is an experimentally approved reason not to, and this question had the potential to spin that criteria on its head.
Luckily for biomedical scientists using mice in their research, this new study showed that the mice in fact chose to run on a wheel even when they had ample other space to spend their time. “That, scientists said, means that wheel-running is not a neurotic behavior found only in caged mice.” In addition to studying mice in this experiment, the authors of the study also looked at rats, shrews, frogs, and slugs, though out of all the animals the mice spent the most time on the wheel (88% of the total running events).
However, the findings of this new study are still being debated. One researcher not involved with the study “thought the paper did show that wheel-running could be a ‘voluntary activity,’ but that mice in labs may be doing more of it because of the stress of confinement.” And one of the authors of the paper is quoted as saying “there is an intrinsic motivation for animals, or should I say organisms, to be active,” in response to a question asking why even the slugs showed movement on the wheel.
Overall, however, I think this study is beneficial to proponents of using animals in biomedical research, especially under the current regulations that are in place. It shows that the conditions available to the mice are not extremely different from things they apparently enjoy doing even when they have the choice not to. And while there will always be debates about the state of animal use in research, as someone doing it, I find it nice to see confirmation that some of what we are doing seems to be validated by the animals themselves.