How one animal technician led culture change in the LMB animal facility – perseverance and communication are key
In early 2018, there was one mouse room in the LMB animal facility that was particularly calm. And it wasn’t because the mice were quiet but because one technician, Rachel Blackburn-Stout, had changed the way mice are handled to the benefit of both.
Rachel, who has been at the LMB since March 2008, was keen to champion non-aversive handling methods at the LMB. With support from her managers she implemented a small change to mouse handling habits, which ended up bringing in a highly beneficial cultural change. Today, the method has been adopted across the LMB.
Mice are handled regularly for scientific procedures in biological research institutes such as the LMB. For years, the accepted way to pick up mice was by their tails. However, research has shown that this method can cause mice to experience high anxiety levels. A newer technique known as non-aversive mouse handling, which includes cupping (using a cupped hand to pick them) or tunnel handling (using a tunnel), is now recommended by the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs). Rachel adopted both of these methods.
Using a cupped hand or a tunnel to pick up a mouse has been shown to have beneficial effects, from reduced aggression and anxiety to reduced risk of biting the handler. Mice that were habituated to non-aversive handling were also less anxious immediately after a minor procedure, such as subcutaneous injection, and did not attempt to avoid handling post-procedure, even when repeated. By contrast, picking up mice by the tail appears to induce background anxiety in animals that then exacerbates the stress of being restrained for scientific procedures.
Lesley Drynan, Head of the LMB Biological Services Group, said: “We were looking for someone to champion non-tail handling in the unit, to help overcome any perceived issues with making a change to the way we traditionally handled our mice. Rachel was our champion and willingly took on this challenge”.
Breaking a habit
Rachel introduced the new handling methods in the room she worked in to begin with. Like most habit changes, changing how she handled mice was initially hard for Rachel. “It is quite a reflexive action and it is very hard on the first day – you automatically want to slide back to old methods,” she says. Perseverance was key and after six months it was clear that animals handled via cupping or tunnelling were indeed much calmer.
The next challenge was to encourage the rest of the facility to adopt the new way of working. Again, changing routine or habits proved the hardest job: “It is about getting people into a new mindset,” says Rachel.
Rachel spent time giving demonstrations, preparing videos and sharing the positive benefits of adopting cupping and tunnel handling. “I would say that watching videos of others doing it is really helpful, as is showing them how easy it is. Technicians who have been doing this for a long time understandably are more hesitant because they have done it several times every single day,” says Rachel.
But Rachel’s persistence paid off: after beginning trials in a single room in early 2018, non-aversive mouse handling is now standard practice across the whole LMB animal facility.
Communicating widely to spread culture change
Rachel has not limited her culture change efforts to the LMB – in 2019 she shared her personal experience and top-tips for introducing non-aversive mouse handling to audiences including the Institute of Animal Technology (IAT) Congress in North West England, Steve Moore Memorial poster competition event held in Manchester and her poster was displayed at the NC3Rs/IAT Animal Technician Symposium in London.
And she now features in an NC3Rs ‘Non-aversive mouse handling in practice’ video, recently published on the NC3Rs website along with interviews with five further champions who have also succeeded in switching to non-aversive mouse handling methods.
Rachel’s experience in ushering in cultural change shows that it is critical to communicate results to colleagues, explore all new options, demonstrate good practice and be persistent. All of this can build to big change through small steps.
“Once you have the momentum, new people start slowly filtering in – eventually people won’t even remember that picking up mice by their tails was the culture once,” says James Cruickshank, Operations Manager at the LMB animal facility.
NC3Rs: Non-aversive handling in practice
Taming anxiety in laboratory mice. Hurst, J.L. and West, R.S. Nature Methods, 2010
Recommended techniques for handling lab mice to reduce anxiety – National Centre for the Replacement Refinement & Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs)
LMB Animal Research