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Heart and Soul of the Research Team

Animal Services' Brian Altadonna has been preparing for an inspection that will determine if Hopkins retains a valued accreditation.
When Brian Altadonna joined Johns Hopkins more than a year ago, he figured his job as supervisor in Animal Services would be much like the work he'd done previously in zoos. He'd have to make sure animals were clean and healthy, fed and watered. But as Altadonna quickly discovered, there was a bit more to it than that. His work is subject to myriad, stringent federal, state, local and University regulations; his responsibilities, exacting. "We're under research," he explains, "so everything must always be up to code."

This month, the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International will pay a call on Hopkins. AAALAC (pronounced A-Lak) is a private organization that promotes humane treatment of animals in science through an accreditation program. It's a sort of JCAHO of the animal world: Every three years, it conducts an inspection. This one, which is set for March 10-13, could determine whether or not Hopkins retains its AAALAC accreditation, a stamp of approval that represents the highest quality of animal care.

Preparing for the inspection are all those who work with experimental animals, from the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which oversees the University-wide animal use program, to all staff in labs that use experimental animals, to those, like Altadonna, who provide day-to-day animal care.

The caretakers, as well as the animal research technicians in the labs, are the heart and soul of lab animal medicine. They're the ones who keep the animals healthy, well-fed and comfortable. Often, they're the first eyes of the day to detect subtle changes in an animal which could affect research outcomes. "Without them, we couldn't survive," says Mohamed Lehar, a researcher in the Department of Otolaryngology. "They understand the nuances of an animal's behavior. They're the unsung heroes on the research team."

Altadonna oversees hundreds of animals (the vast majority of which are rodents), making sure that cages, water bottles and feeders are sanitized, air flow and room temperatures precisely calibrated, records meticulously kept. Each cage card, for example, must contain precise, identifying information, such as species, sex, age, strain, source and protocol number. He also inspects orders as they arrive. A researcher has ordered, say, rats with 2-day-old pups. If the pups are four days old, back they go.

In the Division of Cardiology, Melissa Haggerty-Jones coordinates a lab in which large-animal survival surgery is elucidating the effects of heart attack and stroke. As an experienced large-animal tech, Haggerty-Jones provides guidance on care and treatment of animals to the researchers as they write the protocols. She and two other techs obtain the animals, prepare them for surgery, assist in surgery, provide all postoperative care, and make sure the animals receive the appropriate pain medicine. Like many in Animal Services, these techs are first and foremost animal lovers. "We take care of the animals here better than many people take care of their own pets," says Haggerty-Jones.

To help techs and caretakers keep up to speed with ever-changing rules and regulations governing the use of experimental animals, the Animal Care and Use Committee runs a number of educational programs, such as a monthly seminar series given by compliance administrator James Owiny. It offers twice-monthly prep classes for caretakers, who at Hopkins will have to be certified as "assistant lab animal technicians" by July.

With the upcoming site visit, intense preparation has been under way for months. But people like Haggerty-Jones and Altadonna aren't worried. "From the University's standpoint," says Altadonna, "AAALAC is a big deal. But everyday, we as supervisors and caretakers try to maintain standards above what's legally required."

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