What is that smell, students ask. Here is the answer.
By Harper Hubbeling
You can smell them from the stairwell.
Students unconsciously wrinkle their noses as they haul heavy backpacks up the three flights to their Tuesday morning Intro Psychology lecture in the Koshland Integrated Natural Science Center at Haverford College.
Most don’t know where – or what – the stench comes from.
“Smells like sewer rat,” one boy grumbles.
Close. The smell is mice: 1,000 of them.
Two flights above the psychology classrooms, on the deserted fifth floor of the biology wing, behind two heavy steel doors with restricted key card access, is room S501. The mouse room.
“The mouse suite is pretty bare,” said Eliza Reiss, a senior biology major and the student manager who is in charge of maintaining the rodents residing in room S501.
Inside, overhead fluorescent lights flood concrete floors. Floor-to-ceiling metal shelves line the walls. The shelves hold 200 cages. Each cage holds two to six lab mice. Bend over and you can see them through the sides of their Plexiglas cages: squirming, tunneling, and compulsively scratching their flimsy ears.
While most Haverford students don’t even know this room exists, a select few know it well.
Working in S501
Reiss spends three hours a week in S501. She feeds, waters, and cleans cages for the biology department mice and oversees the other student workers. She enjoys the job. She says she, “likes spending time with the mice,” especially when other aspects of her life at Haverford get busy and hectic.
“I do talk to them sometimes when I’m there alone,” Reiss admits.
Brian Suh, a junior biology major, is another student who frequents S501. He cares for the psychology department’s mice.
“It’s not very complex work,” said Suh, “so I can just chill and listen to music.”
While Suh admits that the, “repetition sometimes gets to (him),” he also says he enjoys the job.
“I get to do my own thing,” he says.
Both Suh and Reiss agree on their least favorite part of the job.
“The smell! I hate the smell!” says Reiss.
“If I go in my clothes will smell really bad,” said Suh. Suh and Reiss plan their hours based on shower schedules –working late at night or right before athletic practice.
But while the mice in S501 may reek like any other rodent, they are not your average field mouse. Most of these mice have been inbred for twenty generations.
Twenty generations of inbreeding makes for very polite, docile, but not exceptionally bright mice.
“They are slow,” said Reiss.
These mice don’t bite. And they have almost no sense of self-preservation.
“When they escape they just sit on top of their cages,” said Nicole Cunningham, a biology research assistant at Haverford, recently given the title of “colony manager.”
Shipped from Maine
The mice get dropped off on the landing dock behind the science center in special breathable transport boxes, after a long ride in the back of an eighteen-wheeler all the way from the Jackson Laboratories headquarters in Bar Harbor, Maine. They are expensive critters: $12 a mouse, and almost $400 per box.
These vulnerable little inbred pups find a safe and apparently comfortable home in S501.
“We do a good job,” Reiss said, “these mice are well cared for and there are a lot of people making sure their treatment is humane.”
Unfortunately the mice don’t get to stay in S501 for long. They are usually snatched up by the psychology and biology labs before they turn three months old.
“I know vaguely what the labs use the mice for, but I don’t inquire too deeply,” said Reiss.
“I’ve heard some of the things Professor Sternberg does to them with her students,” said Suh, “It’s kind of gruesome.”
Suh is referring to psychology professor Wendy Sternberg’s infamous “pain lab” – a course where Sternberg and her students inflict pain on mice, by injecting their stomachs with toxic chemicals like formaldehyde, or by irritating their sensitive paws, and then monitor their reactions.
The biology department mice are lucky: they die quickly, suffocated by CO2 gas.
Monday morning, senior biology major Jackie Freund holds her key card up to the steel door of S501. Beep, a green light flashes. Access permitted. And with a click the door opens. Freund quickly selects three mice. She picks them up by their tails, and carries them in a transport case to a side room in the mouse suite.
The room is almost empty. No shelves or cages here – just a sterile steel table with a small plastic aquarium at one end. In the corner is a large gas tank. A sheet taped to the far wall reads, “Instructions for Sacrifice.”
“They usually just fall asleep,” says Freund.
She gently lowers the mice into the aquarium, then positions a heavy lid to seal the top.
Two steps to the tank in the corner. Three twists of a small black knob. One slow twist of the large silver dial.
The hiss of gas
You can hear a soft hissing as the needle on the pressure gauge rises. The gas seeps into the aquarium.
“I do not watch while they die,” says Freund. “I don’t like seeing them twitch when they start losing their motor skills. I usually leave the CO2 on a little longer than probably the biology department wants me to but I’d rather have it on and make sure they aren’t moving before I look at them again.”
Five minutes later, Freund shuts the valve. The mice are still. They look asleep, but their tiny eyes are wide open. Freund gently touches her gloved finger to an exposed eyeball. No blinking, no shudder – the CO2 worked.
Now for dissection. Freund takes the mice downstairs to extract their lymph nodes.
“You have to pin the mouse down so it sort of looks like Jesus on the cross,” Freund explains, “and sometimes when you open the chest cavity, one of the valves of the heart is still beating.”
After its valuable parts are extracted, the remaining carcass is taped up in a paper towel and added to the pile of wrapped remains in the corner of the freezer.
“Eventually the college incinerates the carcasses,” said Freund.
“It doesn’t really bother me any more.” Freund says. But she clearly isn’t entirely unaffected.
“I sort of sweat a little when I kill the mice for some reason,” she says, “I’m not sure if it is the upstairs temperature, but I stop sweating after I finish dissection.”
Suh and Reiss were offered the opportunity to learn the sacrifice procedure. Both declined.
“I wasn’t interested in learning,” said Suh.
“I don’t believe in animal testing,” said Reiss, “I don’t believe that the life of a human is more valuable than the life of a mouse. I don’t think any animal should have to live in a cage and die in a plastic chamber.”
Reiss thinks the mice know that life in S501 is not what they were born for.
“I think the mice know that they are trapped in an unnatural way, and that this is not how life is supposed to be. I think on some level they’re smarter than I am.”
Here Suh disagrees.
“It’s just a fact of life that we are smarter and higher up on the food chain than mice,” he said.
But Suh still struggles to justify it all.
“It’s just students learning things,” he said.
Freund shares his concern.
“Our research is important, but we make a lot of mistakes. And a lot of times you can go an entire year and nothing you do is super important, so I almost feel like we are wasting mice on play-time research,” said Freund.
But Freund and Suh don’t see anything changing.
“You do it and you get used to it,” Freund explained about the sacrifice.
“I think it is just part of how it is,” said Suh, shrugging, “it’s just how it is.”