Storm Surge Killed Thousands of Lab Animals. It Didn’t Have To Happen.

The state of the universe.
Nov. 1 2012 2:51 PM

Sandy’s Toll on Medical Research

Where’s the worst place for an animal lab? In the basement.

Thousands of lab mice were killed when the Hurricane Sandy storm surge flooded lower Manhattan, setting back medical research for years to come
Thousands of lab mice were killed when the Hurricane Sandy storm surge flooded lower Manhattan, setting back medical research for years to come

iStockphoto.

Thousands of lab mice drowned on Monday night as the Sandy storm surge flooded into New York University's Smilow Research Building at the eastern edge of Manhattan. It will take several years—and many generations of careful inbreeding—to rebuild the colony, which included animals that had been genetically engineered for the study of melanoma and many other forms of disease. "We are deeply saddened by the loss of these animals' lives and the impact this has on the many years of important work conducted by our researchers," the university announced on Wednesday.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

What makes this story even sadder is the thought of how it might have been prevented. When it comes to saving animals from storms—and saving expensive lab equipment, too—the nation's leading research institutions have a shaky record of achievement. In 2001, a tropical storm called Allison flooded Houston with several feet of rain and pushed 10 million gallons of water into the medical-school basements at the University of Texas. The disaster drowned at least 4,000 rats and mice, along with 78 monkeys, 35 dogs, and 300 rabbits. (More than half the animals on campus had been living underground.) Nearby, at the Baylor College of Medicine, basement flooding killed 30,000 mice.* "We will never place animals or critical equipment in the basement again," said the president at U.T.

After Allison, administrators set up a new and better plan for evacuating animals. First, they made a list of how to prioritize the species: Primates would be rescued first—monkeys after humans, of course—and then the dogs, the pigs, the mice and rats, the rabbits, and finally the fish. The facilities would have a "ride-out team" assigned to cart the animals to rooms on higher floors and keep them living long enough on backup food and bedding to be sent off somewhere else. When Hurricane Ike hit Galveston, Texas, in 2008, with a 17-foot storm surge that killed more than 20 people and damaged nearly every building at the local U.T. medical branch, the ride-out team found a way to rescue all the animals on campus—including 4,200 rodent boxes and 50 sheep.

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But according to Bradford S. Goodwin Jr., the director of animal research facilities at the U.T. Health Science Center in Houston for the past 23 years, the most important lesson from 2001 was to keep the mice and monkeys out of the basement in the first place. "I talk about disasters all over the world," he says. "I just came back from the Asian conference in Bangkok talking about this, and I just tell 'em, 'Get your animals out of your basement!' " Since Allison, his campus has rebuilt its vivaria on the fifth and sixth floors.

This insight did nothing to forestall the latest crisis, though, nor the one that came in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina's rising floods killed 8,000 animals at Louisiana State University and thousands more at Tulane University, many once again in basement cages. Construction of the Smilow Building at NYU began in 2002—one year after Allison—with an excavation of the basement for the 10,000-square-foot animal facility that has now become a sea of floating carcasses. (The center opened with a two-day celebration in 2006, not long after the animal deaths in New Orleans.)

We don't yet know if the losses at NYU could have been prevented. The basement setting was just one obstacle. According to one report, scientists who tried to save their lab materials on Tuesday were kept from entering the building by electronic locks that weren't working. (The U.T. campus in Houston had the same problem in 2001, but there was a mechanical override system in place.) But even if the researchers had gotten in, they almost certainly would have been too late. The university has said that animal-care workers were on-site throughout the storm, but the surge came on too quickly for them to make a difference.

Why didn't NYU's ride-out team evacuate the animals sooner? The extent of the storm surge was historic and unexpected, and many staffers were busy helping ensure the safety of the human patients. Even so, it's worth asking why the animals were living in the basement in the first place. Research centers often stash their animal labs underground. That makes it easier to store heavy animal equipment like cage washers, autoclaves, and giant tanks of fish, and the lack of windows helps technicians control the light-dark cycle. Labs in California use basement cages to keep them safe from earthquakes, and other building managers like to have the excrement and waste sequestered down below. "Where do people normally put animals?" Goodwin asks. "In the basement, because they're stinky, blah blah blah."

But there's another motivation here: Institutions like to keep their animals from public view. After all, even with the basements dry, these research centers are the site of massive rodent slaughter: The several thousand mice that drowned in Monday's flood represent just a tiny fraction—0.002 percent, perhaps—of all the mice and rats that die for research every year. It's ugly work, even when it's useful and important. Ken Kornberg, an architect who's worked on more than 400 biomedical research projects, points out that basements are more secure from activists and protesters. "That is another reason," Goodwin agrees. "Out of sight, out of mind."

It reminds me of the time I spent doing experiments on monkeys. We moved them around in metal carts and draped the carts with blankets. That way no one in the halls would have to think about the animals inside. I remember feeling awkward when the cage would rattle in the elevator, and the other passengers would stand there shifting on their feet and pretending not to hear.

That may sound like cruel indifference, but it's more a product of the uneasy deal that's been struck between science and the public. Two-thirds of Americans endorse the use of rodents for biomedical research, and almost half agree it's OK to study dogs and chimpanzees. But the work itself is covered with a sheet of willful ignorance: So long as we get our medicine, don't tell us any details of the killing.

When disaster strikes, those truths emerge from the rubble, if only for a moment. Last week at least a million mice were killed around the world, as research ran its normal course. But the few that drowned on Monday didn't die the way the others do, in experiments and testing. The mice at NYU were sacrificed not for health or human curiosity, but for convenience, secrecy, and shame

Now the scientists will mourn their missing data, and all the years of grant money that will not be fully recompensed. But they will also miss their animals, in ways that may outstrip the necessities of science. "We got very attached to these animals, because we work every single day with them," said one neurobiologist in Houston back in 2001. "They've become our pets … they react to their names. It's very painful." Hundreds of U.T. staff members attended a memorial service for the animals that drowned; some availed themselves of grief counseling in the months that followed. But however fierce are their regrets, the facts remain the same: Animal research is underground, and it shouldn't be.

*Correction, Nov. 1, 2012: The article originally stated that the flooding occurred at Baylor University. (Return.)

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