By: Gord Brown

How animal testing at U of T has evolvedby Gord Brown

It might upset PETA, but many real scientific breakthroughs at U of T are the result of the use of animal subjects. The history of U of T lab critters is surprisingly diverse.

U of T’s laboratories at all three campuses are the permanent home of any number of animals. The university’s animal care group works around the clock 365 days a year. While over the course of the university’s history a large variety of species has lived either on campus or nearby, most of the animals over the years have been rats and mice – and not, as you might expect, guinea pigs (although U of T has had its share of those as well).

In addition to rodents, U of T has a relatively large collection of lower vertebrates – fish, amphibians and reptiles – together accounting for 21 per cent of U of T’s animal population. A smaller portion consists of primates and barnyard animals (eight per cent), rabbits (one per cent), and cats and dogs (just .2 per cent). The largest number of animals are kept by health sciences. Here especially the use of rats and mice is prevalent, as new drug studies must be performed on animals before they can be administered to humans.

Doctors Banting and Best studied dogs in their research in the development of insulin treatment for juvenile diabetes. Animal testing was also important in the development of the use of heparin (a natural anti-coagulant), cardiac pacemakers, and procedures to correct congenital hip dislocation.In the early days of vaccines, barnyard animals were used as live cultures to create vaccines. These were mainly horses that were stabled near the St. George Campus at the former Ontario Veterinary College on Temperance Street.

The Department of Cellular Systems and its predecessors are another place where menageries of animals live. From the 1920s until the opening of Ramsey Wright in 1965, the Zoology Department at U of T housed monkeys, numerous insect species, and aquariums. The main species was reptiles including, at one time, an adult python. Ramsay Wright was designed to include three large basement rooms for freshwater aquatic animals – one for marine animals and two cold rooms for mammals – and 10 smaller rooms for a variety of terrestrial species.

To study genetics and hibernation, a lemur colony was kept in rooms with strict temperature and lighting as experimental controls over several generations, although those animals are now long gone.

Under the hot summer sun in the quadrangle of the old Biology Building, which faced onto Queen’s Park north of the current MedSci, one faculty member dissected a circus elephant that had died while performing in Toronto.

Some animal lovers might experience ethical heebie geebies around the issue of lab animals on campus. Others might feel that animal based studies are a necessary evil. One thing is certain though – there are animals on campus, and not just the party variety.

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