A Beatles CD was playing as we walked into the cat colony of WSU researchers Boon Chew and Jean Soon Park. Instantly, a myriad of colorful cats jumped up to greet us — bright eyed, sleek … and to be honest, all a little on the chubby side.
The cats are housed four or five together in large, open cages full of perches and toys. Heather Wardell, research technician and obedience instructor at FSHN, opened the door to one kennel and sat down inside to demonstrate a bit of the Socialization Enrichment Program.
Armed with “cat dancers,” laser pointers for the cats to chase, wind-up mice and every other conceivable pet or human toy, Wardell and other employees spend at least 30 minutes, seven days a week, petting and playing with the cats. During that time, workers also groom the animals with sisal grooming mitts as the cats sit on their laps.
“We always felt it was the right thing to do — to provide the best possible environment for our animals,” said Chew. “Not only is it the best thing for the animal’s welfare, but also from a research standpoint.
“If you have a bunch of animals that are responding very differently behaviorally — say a very timid animal versus one that is more approachable — there will be variations in their stress levels (cortisol levels) which affect the immune system and subsequent research results.”
Besides running a healthy, happy and well-behaved colony of research animals, Chew and Park are also committed to finding homes for every single beagle and cat when its research tenure has been fulfilled.
“Our goal is to provide a good environment for them while they are here, which also helps makes the transition process to adoption as smooth as possible,” said Chew.
In addition, before being adopted, all the animals are given complete health exams and vaccinations, and are spayed or neutered. Wardell also administers preliminary temperament tests, to best match each pet to an appropriate home environment.
You might say the beagles are in a special boarding school. Like the cats, each dog receives a minimum of 30 minutes per day of personal attention, which includes play groups, agility and obedience training, acclimatization to stairs, turf grass, sand boxes, teeter totters, scent discrimination training, etc.
WSU students are often hired to help with the program and receive valuable experience leading to future internships and employment.
“We try to prepare the dogs for any possible situation they may encounter once adopted,” said Wardell. “Many of the dogs are perfect candidates to become drug sniffing dogs for the USDA or airports. They also are in demand as therapy dogs.”
Recently, the Iams Company, which closely monitors all of its sponsored research facilities, formalized its agreement with WSU and increased funding and other valuable support. Iams considers Chew and Park’s research colony a model national facility, and the company has put in place official policy requiring social enrichment programs at all of the research units it funds.
As stated on its website, http://www.iamsco.com, Iams stresses, “We only conduct research with dogs and cats that is equivalent to nutritional or medical studies acceptable on people. We are deeply committed to dog and cat well being, and our research policy reflects that commitment.”
“Iams representatives have told us several times,” said Chew, “that we are the only people they know … who are truly able to balance the research and care of our lab animals.”
The Ketchum family of Pullman, which adopted a beagle, would agree. In a letter to Chew, they wrote: “Thank you so much for treating your research animals kindly and preparing them for life with a family after their service to science. Sparky shows no signs of anxiety or neglect — my 4-year-old son loves her dearly. She is a wonderfully sweet dog.”