How we are working towards a culture of care

9 months ago

Anyone doing experiments with animals is required by law not only to apply for a license, but also to work towards a work culture that takes the people and animals involved into more consideration. Internationally this is known as a ‘Culture of Care’. Quality assurance officer Pascalle van Loo of Utrecht University and UMC Utrecht’s Animal Welfare Body is responsible for promoting this culture.

What does a culture of care mean for you?

It’s a culture that’s very open, so that anyone can speak to any colleague, and good ideas are given a good place, and ultimately both the staff and the animals experience its positive effects.

Recently someone asked if it was OK to feed the rats sunflower seeds from the pet shop. Now if you did, you could be modifying their diet improperly, or bringing infections into the lab, so you can’t just do that. It’s important to deal with these questions in the right way. I can simply say no, but that’s not nice for the researcher and in this case the rats might miss out on a perfectly good snack. I’d rather answer ‘what a great idea, let’s look at what we can do’. So now we’re going to buy special sterile sunflower seeds that are suitable for these rats. We’ve been able to use this researcher’s good idea to improve the animals’ quality of life.

How can you promote this kind of culture?

It’s essential that management is open to it, and that they have guidelines for doing it. One of those guidelines is to be a good example. We’re trying to do that as the Animal Welfare Body (hereafter AWB, ed.), and we hope that the animal caretakers, animal technicians, and researchers will follow our lead. We can also share the good examples that our colleagues provide. This way you can be continually and gently nudging a culture in the right direction. Because you don’t just change a culture overnight. You’re never done.

What I feel is very important is that everyone is involved. Being a good example as management or the AWB is fine, but it can’t just come from this side. However, we see that the staff are very open to it, since it also helps them enjoy their work more.

For example, not everybody is happy at first if we start to talk about additional cage enrichment for the animals, or improving their welfare by training them, because they think it will take too much of their time. So we look for solutions together. There’s been research done on the question of what animal technicians would think about spending more time caring for the animals, and it turns out that it gives them much more job satisfaction: it doesn’t matter that it takes more time. It’s more important to them to be treating the animals better. But then it’s important that the management gives them the time and space for it.

Has a lot in the culture changed in the last 10 years?

In the past, animal technicians were trained at the post-secondary level as ‘scientist’s assistants’. That’s not entirely correct, because the role they play is essential. The scientist sets the course, but the animal technician is the one with the practical experience and expertise to make an experiment go successfully.

In my previous job, a researcher once called me asking if I could come and look at the animals, because it seemed like something wasn’t going right. I asked the caregiver: what do you think? The answer was: what do I know? I thought that was really strange, because who else is better able to see the difference in them from day to day? I was shocked that this person so easily disqualified their own observations. Animal caregivers and technicians are our eyes and ears on the work floor. Without them, we can’t do our job as the AWB. If we all put our expertise to use, we’ll get the best research and optimal welfare. I’d like to make everyone aware of that, including the researchers.

How can you change this aspect of the culture?

In the United States, they hold an annual Animal Technician Week, celebrating and highlighting the part animal technicians play. I think this is a really nice example of a fun, casual way to point out the importance of animal technicians’ and caretakers’ expertise. We’ve pointed this out to the DALAS (Dutch Association for Laboratory Animal Science, ed.), and they’ve picked up the idea and are now organising something for that week on a yearly basis as well.

What’s your hope for the future?

One of my wishes is to involve animal caretakers and technicians in some of the audits. Our shared expertise can add value in sharing best practices and identifying blind spots. And also, everyone can have a look at what their neighbours are doing and take away good ideas back with them.

We’re also thinking of holding informal lunch meetings where staff members in various capacities can meet, and where someone can give a presentation to share what they know.

And what I’d really like to do is to organise short sabbaticals at a research institute that in my opinion has a strong culture of care, so that animal caretakers and technicians can immerse themselves in it for a while. I was working on this when the corona crisis broke out, but I want to start it up again. Sitting still is not an option in any case. It can always be better, for people and for the animals.

Click here to download a poster on Culture of Care.

Click here to download a leaflet on Culture of Care.