On The Ethics of Animal Research

*note: I am not speaking in Standard Philosophical Definitions of ethics here. This is a pile of thoughts.

I’ve been attending a two day class on animal handling and ethics at the University of New South Wales this week.

A month ago I took a similar course offered by University of Sydney, and I’ve gotta say, the UNSW version is way better. And I’m saying that even though it took 2 days of my time vs one for the USyd course. The USyd course was composed of similar elements, but much less intensive, and not as well done.

It’s really, really interesting how much they talk about the ethics of animal research and the importance of an animal’s wellbeing here. Vs. in the US where what I remember most from the half day orientation I got was the instructor advising us not to pick heavy mice up by the tail because sometimes their skin can come off. Pretty much anything would be more informative than that class was, but the UNSW course has been spectacular.

The course has included about an hour’s information on our safety as animal handlers, about three hours on how to properly handle and do procedures on the animals (more training to occur at the specific animal facilities people will be involved with), and the rest of the time on various aspects of the ethics of animal experimentation, and our responsibilities as researchers.

There is a huge focus on reducing the impact of animal experiments on the animals, and that includes using non-animal methods for parts of the study where possible, paying attention to the animal’s anxiety and general wellbeing, and planning experiments efficiently to use fewer animals.  It seems to be standard here to provide rodents with some sort of house or shelter, and rats get wood to play with and chew on. I feel so much better working with animals when there’s at least a tiny semblance of environmental enrichment in their lives.

The animal’s state of mind is considered. Its importance is presented in two ways: the scientific practical consideration that anxiety and fear can significantly alter many results, in addition to the overlying Treat Animals With Respect standpoint.

Every procedure performed on an animal in Australia, every experiment planned, has to be approved by an Animal Ethics Committee. A similar system of approving protocols exists in the US. But there’s something really interesting going on here, specifically: every committee is composed of four members, a vet, a researcher, a layperson, and an animal welfare representative. They all have to agree that a given proposal is justified in its use of animals in that there are clear benefits to be gained, that there aren’t other alternatives to get similar data, and that there are adequate procedures in place to prevent animal pain and distress.

These committees oversee animals used for scientific research, teaching, agriculture field trials, wildlife studies…

My (albeit with limited experience in Australia) sense is that similar amounts and types of research go on here as in the states, but the way it’s thought about is what’s different.

The instructors of this course have been generally fantastic (it’s been fun to be in a classroom environment again, especially with good presenters), but the content is what has stood out. The focus of the course hasn’t been to drill facts or catchphrases into our heads. The focus has been to be thought provoking, to introduce perspectives and considerations that we may not have thought of. The aim seems to have been to make us into more thoughtful, deliberate, researchers, and that is awesome.


January 18, 3ish o’clock, at work.

Being a lab scientist has its benefits. We can swipe dry ice for bottle-explody experiments, usurp broken cell culture flasks to store bug carcasses, and we have infinite cardboard boxes at our disposal when it comes time to move. And when it’s a record-breaking day in Sydney, Australia, we have the sensitive digital thermometers to set out in the shade in the courtyard for evidence.

That’s one hundred and twelve degrees for you fahrenheit people. IN THE SHADE.

The most colorful 5K

A couple of weekends ago Ben and I ran a fantastic 5K.


There’s a tabloid-y newspaper that’s given out free at major train stations in Sydney called mX. In addition to sensational stories with punny titles, it contains some news of local events. Back when we first arrived in Australia and were riding on trains a lot, I happened to see an ad for a 5K. The color run!

Money was low and was going to stay low, but dude, color run. We signed up. Fast forward four months and we arrived at 830am (9am is a late starting time for most races, but I guess this isn’t a real race) at the old olympic park on our bikes.

This thing was massive. They had a loooong stretch of road cordoned off as the entry gate to the race. We were early and worked our way towards the front, but we were still only in the third wave allowed to set off.

During the long, long, hot, dripping wait to be released, we were able to observe the many people who had come dressed in fairy wings, tutus, togas, tiaras, rainbows, and boas while listening to the DJ announcer who was really really good at repeating himself and yet somehow not sounding like an idiot. Mostly. I suppose it’s an unavoidable consequence that comes along with the job, so all things considered he did a good job of saying generally the same thing for 45 minutes.


To start the race off, a motorized chariot carried the race mascot, a white plush unicorn with rainbow dreadlocks (I so pity the human stuck inside in that heat), to the front of the line.


And we were off!

Approximately every kilometer color zones were set up, large arches covered in balloons with appropriately themed music playing, and hordes of volunteers with access to barrels of chalky color and large squirt bottles to apply it to the runners. Everyone would dance by the volunteers, spin, and some people rolled on the ground in the quarter inch or so of color we were running through. First was blue (I’m blue da de da da), then pink (Pink, pink panther), then orange…

When we reached the end of the course, there were still hundreds of people waiting to be released from the gates. My god.

The park at the end of the run was turned into the venue for a dirty, sweaty, colorful concert. Each runner had a pack of color we’d carried through the race, and here we were welcome to throw our powder in the air, at each other, and beg to be colored by others.



It was fun. More fun, though, was riding home, gawked at by small children, dancing as I rode.

IMAG2851 IMAG2852 IMAG2853

And this, this was the aftermath.


Pompilidae Cryptocheilus bicolor

I was taking laundry down and heard a shout from Ben, on the patio. He’d dropped something on the ground by our door and a giant  wasp flew up, circling him. It flew away, but we found this:

Paralyzed Wolf Spider

Poor thing. This is a large female wolf spider, and it’s very much still alive, but paralyzed. It can very slightly move its legs, but that is all.

The wasp had stung it, and was probably in the process of dragging it to wherever the wasp’s burrow is, to seal inside as food for its larva.

I’m pretty bummed that we disturbed the spectacle and didn’t get to watch it to completion. Once stung, as far as I can find, the spider will never recover. Now two spiders will die to feed this one larva! Yes, I’m sad for a spider. But it also would have been really cool to watch.

In which there is value in unexpected moments (and lengthy side notes)

wolf spider finger

One of the nice things about unexpected situations is that they force you to stop and alter how you’re looking at things – life, the universe, everything, hunger, surroundings, people who drive utility vehicles around dark fields shooting at kangaroos…

Anyway. One of the things I discovered while camping… or should I say, confirmed while camping, is that no matter how delicious I thought I was to bugs in the US, I must be a rare treat indeed in Oz for I’ve managed to get bug bites while biking home from work, a feet which I did not think modern mosquitoes were capable of. While camping the story was no different, except that in addition to mosquitoes there were *flies*.

Now, we’ve been warned about the flies here. The folks we stayed with upon arriving in Sydney said the summer’s great but just you wait until the flies (dun dun dun). I have to say that in the suburbs of Sydney where we spend most of our time, the flies really aren’t an issue, so those warnings have been easily discounted. But in the bush? In the hot dry plains? Whoo. I’ve always looked at pictures from african countries designed to pull at your heartstrings, the ones with small children with swollen stomachs stand sadly, frequently with flies in the corners of their eyes, or on their lips, as something beyond reality. Not just because it’s hard to imagine, and IS heartbreaking, that there are plenty of people in this world who don’t get enough to eat, clean water, education, all of the above… but because how could flies possibly be so bad that you’d be complacent about six or seven of them sitting on your face at all times? Now I know. They’re relentless. They’re ever-present. They’re really freaking annoying.

And here I’m going to go into another segue: A Terry Pratchett book I read long ago before I ever dreamed I might live in Oz (and have read several times since) happens to be a spoof on Australia. It’s about a wizard who is unfortunately spat out of the dark dimensions back to reality only to end up in the Discworld’s equivalent of Oz. It’s called The Last Continent (living here makes the book even funnier). Anyway, one of the images from the book that has stuck with me the most is a modification this wizard made to his hat with lengths of string and bits of cork. He decorated the brim of his hat all around with corks suspended on strings, and the idea was to help keep the flies away a-la a constantly swinging horse-tail effect.

When warned about the flies here, I joked that I should get some corks and string them up around the brim of a hat for defense. I don’t think they knew what I was talking about, but they laughed anyway. However, one day when wandering around central Sydney with whip boy, I found THIS! AHA! They may be hats designed specifically for gullible tourists, but they do exist!!

Cork hats

Back to the main story. ANYWAY. While camping we each had sleeping containers, as well as a small tent that we set up most nights simply to hang out in, safe from the bitey things. The point of this is, that although we were awake and conscious for at least part of the night (most nights. There were exhausting exceptions), most of our time was spent behind some sort of screen, other than quick jaunts to the toilet. We were perfectly able to see the grazing kangaroos and sunsets and sunrises, but time in the open air at night was limited. (there was one exception to chase around a bunch of possums, but that was the exception)

Back when I first started this blog, my aunt asked for a picture of the southern cross. Sydney has far too much light pollution to get a picture of the stars, so I thought this camping trip would be my chance. Little did I know that the threat of massive itchiness would be more powerful than my desire to set up a good shot.

But when stuck on the side of a highway in the middle of nowhere with a steaming engine next to kangaroo-hunting nuts in trucks, it’s time to take another look at your surroundings.

As I described before there was time to explore the ground,

wolf spider in grass

peeking in holes

spidey in a hole

and playing with toads.

roadside toad

There was time to find strange mounds of tiny seeds (a truck that dumped its cargo? wha?),

ben with seed pile

dead bird carcasses and lots of trash, and there was also time to set up a shot of the sky, to capture the brightly shining stars.

Southern cross horizon

Here you go, Sally:

Southern cross

In which the new comments system is explained

Hey guys, short note here on comments.

I’ve switched commenting systems based on a friend’s strong recommendation (who also happens to work for the company, so maybe he’s biased…) and we’ll see how it goes.

You don’t have to register with anyone under the “connect with” option underneath the comment area. You can instead “pick a name” and avoid creating any sort of account. Everyone who has been approved here for comments in the past has been whitelisted by yours truly, so everything should be good.

I love hearing from you, so happy commenting!


In which I find something to say

Sometimes so much has happened since I last found time to write that writing about *anything* feels like a betrayal of all the other awesome things that have gone on. I think that’s where I am right now. I keep thinking I should start with the “most important” of the things, whatever that is. But that’s part of the problem – I have no idea what that is. So I’m just going to write about minutia as they occur to me.

You might have read on ben’s blog about bits of our camping trip with my old friend whip boy (I’ve finally gotten him to somewhat accept the nickname! hurrah!) along with some of its many ups and one rather significant down. Right before that big down (down, down, downdowndown) we stopped at a gas station near Yass, about three hours from Sydney, on our way back from camping for a week and a half through several national parks and a brief stay in Melbourne.

Screen Shot 2013-01-17 at 11.05.51 PM

Around ten o’clock at night we were switching drivers (Ben to Ben), we needed a gas refill, and Ben (whip boy) wanted coffee. As he wandered inside the truck stop to find some (a story in its own right, where the machine he tried to use spewed coffee and water all over the floor rather than into his cup) I stood outside watching thousands of beetles swooping under the giant canopy over the gas pumps, swarming around the lights. Ungainly, lovely, inch-long golden-brown shiny beetles. They were also attracted to the lights inside the truck stop and flew into the giant plate glass windows and through the open doors. They crawled along the sidewalk aimlessly, and on the floor inside the gas station. I kept trying to rescue them, bringing them back outside where they’d have a chance at mating, or moving them off of the side walk out of being-stepped-on range. But they kept flying back inside, crawling back into the sidewalk. I gave up and just watched.

Bugs are weird. As we walked out of there we thought of a legend that could be created, of the small town with the large truck stop, where once a year under the light of the full moon fairies were transformed into beetles and had twelve hours to collect glitter from the electric lights to power their fairy furnaces for the next year.  Or something like that, anyway.

Ten miles out the engine light blinked on and we got off at a truck pullout. The engine coolant was boiling, the water we replaced it with leaked out, and we didn’t know it then, but we were about to say goodbye to that borrowed car for at least three weeks as some mechanics in Yass removed the engine and replaced it with a new/old one.

As we waited for a tow truck I walked along a nearby fence line in the dark peering with my headlamp down every odd little hole to see what I could find. A small mammal peered back out of one, before disappearing at the tremor of whip boy’s footsteps, and large wolf spiders lurked in others.

A pickup truck with spotlights attached pulled into the field on the other side of the fence and Ben (wb) heard shots. Probably hunting roos grazing at night. The Bens strongly urged me to continue peering in the brush on the far side of the car, away from the truck and guns, nearer the highway.

We were eventually towed to Yass where the driver dropped us in the parking lot of a mechanic across the street from “the only motel in town with a 24-hour check-in.” After checking at the motels 24-hour check-in and discovering there was no room for us, we dragged ourselves and our luggage back across the road to make nests in what room was available in the car, awaiting the opening of the shop in 8 hours.

We made tea on the camp stove in the parking lot, found breakfast, checked the car in with the mechanics, grabbed what stuff from the car that we could carry, and dragged several kilometers up and down hills in powerful heat to the bus stop where in five hours a bus that warned us it might need to stop along the way because it had been overheating in this weather would take us to Canberra where we would catch another bus to Central Station, Sydney, and a train to Strathfield, where we would finally walk the twenty minutes home, drop our things, shower, and sleep off our exhaustion.

It sounds tiring, and it was, but it was also an adventure and certainly a new experience. While in Yass we were forced to stop and look around. When we told our landlord we had stopped in Yass he said, “Yass? Nobody stops in Yass. Why would you stop in Yass?” and I can’t really disagree, there isn’t much there. But we did find a small cafe in a small shopping center run by a friendly old couple who drew a cocoa smiley face in the foam of my mocha and really, that summed up the experience. Seeing the bright side of a small disaster in the new experiences we were having, and laughing as we contemplated how this trip went from oh-so-cheap to oh…well… at least we didn’t break down on one of the twisty dirt mountain roads we had been traveling on in a lonely part of a national park.

At that hot bus stop in Yass where I dumped water on my head every hour to cool myself through evaporation I found the most beautiful beetle, sadly dead, on the ground. I’m glad we stopped there.

Fiddler beetle edit

Eupoecila australasiae

In which rituals are made

It’s 7am on Boxing Day in Sydney, Australia. I’m sitting on the floor in the bathroom with my laptop, painting my toenails, because everyone else is still asleep.

If you have to spend Christmas half a planet away from family, I recommend inviting a close friend to visit, and spending the day popping in and out of the kitchen in pursuit of delicious foods, listening to a thunderstorm, and cutting up old cereal boxes and newspapers to construct cardboard costumes. What started out as an effort to create some sort of traditional decoration (crowns) turned into a full-on all-day effort to make our own interpretation of legends’ three kings.

Some of us were more kingly than others.


Japan-Ben (whip boy) brought appropriately japan-presents, in the sense that they are bizarre and, of course, awesome. It turns out The Gift of the year in Japan is a set of electronic kitty ears which plant electrodes on your ear and forehead to “sense your brainwaves” and express whether you are concentrating, relaxed, or In The Zone. We’re not sure how highly correlated any particular brain state is with the motions of the ears, but it turns out that their somewhat erratic punctuation can be appropriate for just about any conversation. Whether the ears happen to snap alert when thunder rolls, or wiggle adorably when one is making a very serious comment, or turn down just in time for a glare inspired by unfair teasing, the results are inevitably hilarious.

We traded the ears all day, but eventually I claimed them and incorporated them into my costume-crown. Ben was the Warrior of Heart and Goodness, and Ben was I’m not sure but he had a lot of bits on, a cardboard cape, and a formidable scepter.

We went on a grand journey to find the one convenience store open on christmas day to procure unfamiliar bubbly beverages, with kitty ears (pre-costumes), which the cashier greatly appreciated.  Whip boy tried his best at mixology, but perhaps he needs a better-situated bar. We made a spectacular mess in the living room (paper bits, tape, glitter), made a spectacular mess in the kitchen (absolutely everything) in the process of creating and consuming delicious soup, steak, and potatoes, and ice cream cake, and toasted sporadically to everything and everyone.  We played board games and conversed, all with pandora trying its best to stream christmas music all day long, intermittently interrupted by lightening, thunder, and whooping cheers in response from the three of us.


We created our own christmas rituals on the warm side of the globe, and I call them a smashing success.


In which I DO NOT almost die! So there!

Ok, so, I told Colin and Alexis and Ben they weren’t allowed to write about this because ohmygosh I WANTED TO (really, I asked, honestly!) and it’s been three weeks and I haven’t yet, so here goes.

One day when Colin and Alexis were visiting we got up early, packed lunches, and took the train to the Blue Mountains. Colin talked about it here. It was great fun to watch the two of them experience the Charles Darwin Walk and then the gorge for themselves for the first time. We went to some of the spots Ben and I had already hiked, and then took a new track down to not-quite-the-base of Wentworth Falls, and had a grand old time, really. There were skinks and spiders and rock formations and biomes and ants and weird angry caterpillars that seeped yellow stuff from their heads, and Alexis particularly enjoyed watching the Sulfur Crested Cockatoos cruising above the tree tops, far below.

It was, altogether, quite a nice day. And then we got to the end of our hike, refilled our Camelbaks,  and decided to take the shortcut back to the train station along some country roads.

We looked at flowers and interesting mosaic bus stops, we admired the fuzzy new leaf growth on the trees and the smell of the earth. And then as we were passing by a clearing adjacent to some woods, we saw some magpies!

Now, magpies are wonderful birds, are brimming with smarts and personality and are very common around Sydney. But they are not native to Michigan or Minnesota, so we had all been quite taken with them over the course of the trip, making up our own rules for  different numbers of magpies. The old rhymes are too boring so we liked to make up our own meanings. Colin started counting, “two magpies, TWO! Two is for laughter… wait, three! Three magpies for trapezoids… FOUR! Four magpies for… ” I interjected, “Five! Five magpies! But one looks like a fledgling, so maybe four and a half?”

And then they started shrieking, and all but one flew off. That one only flew a small distance, a bit deeper into the clearing, and began to dance, calling all the while.

Magpies are new to me, to us, so we were fascinated! I was, at least, and I think the others were at least passingly interested, but I wasn’t watching them to find out.

I walked toward the magpie, slowly, to see what it would do. Was it a mating display? Were there other magpies around? Was it a territorial dispute? As I got closer, it flew up into a nearby tree and continued to call. I stopped and watched it for some time, looking around, and couldn’t figure out what the fuss was about.

Then I looked down, and forward.

“Snake! It’s a snake! The magpie was dancing to warn about a snake! Oh man how cool is this come see the snake!” There should be more exclamation points here.

Alexis ventured slightly closer, but Colin and Ben decided to stay a little further back. Their loss! EDIT: By the time I deigned to notice the location of my friends in my haze of SNAKE!! they were further back, but in reality they had been closer. ah, perception.

I didn’t have my good camera, only my phone, but I managed to get a couple of shots.  Alexis took a few from further away. It was dead-still, unmoving.

(Don’t worry, I stayed outside of its striking range, in my opinion. My friends didn’t quite agree, but honestly, most snakes aren’t aggressive, can’t jump, and can only strike as long as their body length while maintaining and anchor on the ground or a tree, sheesh.)

I watched it for a good long while, and when I acknowledge that it probably was time to go… do I really have to?… I wanted to see it move. So I tossed a stick near it. The others did not approve. But I got to see it slither away towards the woods, and walked giddily back to the road to continue our trek.

We had a little discussion about how far away was far enough away to be safe as we continued our walk back. I had to interject periodically with, “we saw a SNAKE!”

On the train, we compared Alexis’ and my pictures and tried to identify the snake on our future devices.  We concluded that it was probably an Eastern or Lowland Copperhead.


The next day we went to the Australian Museum and as I was browsing the Surviving Australia section, Alexis was in Search and Discover researching our snake with a staff member. They agreed, Copperhead, here’s some printed information on behavior, habitat, and dangers of.

Thanks, Australian Museum!

Thanks, magpie! Now we know, five is for SNAKE!