The arrest opened a window into a peculiar work environment, populated by thousands of animals, driven researchers and the technicians who perform the lab’s menial but essential work.
Those technicians are given a special order: to serve as advocates for the animals and guardians of regulation about how they should be treated.
“There is a certain stress that builds with the job,” said David Russell, who worked as an animal technician at Yale from 1997 to 2008. “If there’s something wrong, you are the one who is on the hook.”
They come from a variety of backgrounds: former veterinary technicians; laid-off workers from pharmaceutical companies; men and women fresh out of high school and college and looking for a decent-paying job.
The jobs are competitive, and many get through the door with the help of a friend or relative. Mr. Clark’s brother-in-law and sister also work as animal technicians, and she recommended Mr. Clark for a position in the washing center in 2004, the year he graduated from high school in nearby Branford.
The university asks that technicians have familiarity with animals. Mr. Clark confided in one co-worker that he had listed on his résumé that he had worked on a farm, even though he had not, the co-worker said. The co-worker spoke on the condition of anonymity because Yale officials had instructed employees not to speak with the news media.
Yale’s Web site says it conducts criminal background checks of its employees, and since 2007, it has required all educational and employment credentials be verified.
With its cutting-edge facilities, the Amistad building, which opened in 2007, is a place technicians dream of working. It is home to about 4,000 mice alone, Mr. Russell said, on a campus that also keeps hamsters, gerbils, cats, dogs, pigs, sheep, fish and monkeys.
The washroom job is considered one of the toughest. It involves scraping dirty cages and loading them onto a conveyor-belt washer, and lifting 40-pound bags of food and bedding.
On a daily basis, technicians must also make the rounds looking for green neon tags — the mark signifying that an animal needs to be euthanized. They take the animals to the basement, lock them in a cage, and turn on the carbon dioxide machine.
“It is very easy to get attached to the animals,” Mr. Russell said. “It wears on you.”
Mr. Clark’s co-worker said the technicians “definitely do get a little desensitized.”
“But I don’t know anyone who is bothered and upset on a daily basis,” the co-worker said. The university provides counseling to help employees cope with having to kill animals on a regular basis.
Animal technicians must also be watchdogs, making sure that in the bureaucratic world of animal research, all documents have been filed and all ethical standards obeyed. They might remind a student to put on a gown before entering a room, or chide a researcher for failing to separate a litter of mice or clipping a mouse tail for a DNA sample, a practice the university forbids.
They live in fear of being held responsible for somebody else’s sloppiness; a single lapse like a dehydrated animal or unsanitary work space could mean weeks of disciplinary hearings.
Friday, September 18, 2009
Inside Animal Labs
It's hard to get inside animal labs to see what's going on (I've tried), so this glimpse in today's New York Times is intriguing. Just to be clear, obviously the tragedy here is about the murder of Annie Le. But the glimpse, being rare, is interesting. The reporter must think there may be some connection between the killing and the suspected killer's position as an animal tech. I'll just quote, without comment.