The rats get chew toys, the Siberian hamsters play with egg cartons, and the degus, a rodent from Chile, bathe in volcanic ash, specially ordered for their coats.
The University of Montana has 24 active animal research projects, and researchers will euthanize most of the animals for science, said Kathryn Mariucci, head of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and UM biosafety officer, on a tour last week with animal facility manager Kelly Carrick.
A proposal that UM open an off-campus pig research facility has had critics calling on faculty to turn to alternative experimentation methods. Faculty researchers note they are, in fact, using more and more computer modeling and cell cultures as technology advances, but some scientific questions can only be answered with live animals.
The animals housed on campus are under the purview of UM's Laboratory Animal Resources unit, with three labs totaling an estimated $94,000 annual budget. The largest lab is 8,400 square feet in the basement of the Health Sciences Building, a section that looks dated with its pale green wall tiles in the hall but is as spic-and-span as the others.
The labs are filled with shiny racks of animal cages, "dirty rooms" that themselves look clean, autoclaves that sterilize equipment, temperature controls that link to caretakers' smartphones, and staff who work on rotation every day of the year.
The facility includes surgical suites, quarantine spaces, wash rooms, and rooms where the animals live. Along with food and bedding, the animal cages contain toys, and other UM staff regularly leave toilet paper rolls that lab technicians sterilize and give to the animals for "enrichment."
The staff who care for animals also train students in proper animal handling, Carrick said. UM breeds its own rats and mice, and some researchers need specific strains.
According to UM, staff have earned team and individual awards in animal treatment. Carrick, for instance, is one of three staff members named "Technician of the Year, Northern Rocky Mountain Branch," by the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science.
Animal research is a topic of debate, but it's also highly regulated. For example, UM has surgical equipment certified on an annual basis, and the labs have planned surprise inspections, said Mariucci and Carrick.
Since at least 2005 when Mariucci came on board, UM has not had a violation, she said.
Although most of the animals will be euthanized, at least some of the people who care for them are animal lovers.
Carrick has a farm of her own, and she wakes up at 3:30 a.m. to care for her sheep and cows. At UM, she once adopted a rabbit after a researcher no longer needed it.
"We're very proud of our animals," Carrick said.
She's also proud to work with UM scientists such as Thomas Rau, whose research includes traumatic brain injury, and others who are working to make life better for people who have Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other diseases wanting cures.
"These are things you wish for your loved ones," Carrick said.