Research Animals: Buh-caaaaack–Thunk!

I heard odd stories about the use of animals in research at the University of Dayton when I was a biology undergrad. My wife got her Ph.D. in plant physiology there, and she told me a few more tales.

U.D. is a Catholic school run by Marianist priests and brothers. They taught standards of morality in religion classes as expected, but the clerics’ influence extended to animal physiology labs as well. One doctoral candidate dosed lab rats with hormones. He needed to collect their sperm to analyze the results. He consulted with the university board that dictated rules for animal research, and they told him that the rats, whether they professed allegiance to the pope or worshipped gods of their own, could not be “milked” for their semen. Rodent sexual gratification was not permitted. The only church approved method of extraction was the following: behead the rats with mini-guillotines, dissect their testes, suck out the vital fluids with syringes. Dozens of rats died to further scientific research, but the school stayed true to its interpretation of Catholic doctrine: win-win.

One poor slob continued the research after the doctoral candidate graduated. One evening he came to my wife’s lab upset because he’d lost a decapitated rat before he could extract its semen. Someone had tidied up during one of his breaks, and he came back to discover an empty dissection tray. Judy and Ted, a fellow researcher, told him that his missing carcass had probably been thrown into a dumpster outside the back of the building. Ted and Judy watched from a window and saw the man’s progress, his hesitation to open the dumpster, his desperate scrabbling search through the refuse. Judy asked Ted, “Should we go help him?” The man was Ted’s roommate, but Ted  said, “Nah.”  Some folks chose to work with critters instead of plants, and they got what they deserved.

A biology professor once confessed (probably in a moment of drunken candor) that he drove through the middle of town one day with the arm of a dead simian dangling out the back of his car trunk. The deceased baboon was too large to fit comfortably inside, so the prof had to fold the body and strap the hood down. The arm refused to stay put. The drunken professor marveled that no one even honked a horn as a hairy hand bobbed up and down beckoning to motorists following behind.

He had picked up the dead baboon from Wright Patterson Air Force Base and planned to collect its bones. It had been strapped, while still alive, into a prototype ejection seat designed for fighter jets. Its sudden death came by an abrupt, crunching drop.  The broken body provided data to Air Force engineers about worst case scenarios for pilots making quick exits from their aircraft.

The alcoholic prof had another incident involving a dead baboon. He collected another carcass and dumped it into a vat filled with acid, and put the vat on a burner set low. The plan was to stew the baboon overnight to eat flesh away from bone. The vat boiled over in the wee morning hours while the professor slept blissfully unaware, and a noxious sludge drained through the lab floor, seeped into the ceiling tiles of the room below, ate through them and dripped down. The department secretary came in the next morning and found the department files and her desk coated with toxic, liquefied remains.

The engineering school’s Research Institute received funds from the Pentagon to test aircraft windshields. The military had lost planes and pilots in airborne collisions with large birds. I heard from undergrad engineering students that the experiments involved firing chickens from a cannon at windshields mounted against a wall in the basement of the Institute. I later found out that the chickens were frozen birds bought at a local Krogers, but at the time I assumed that they were alive. When a buddy and I walked by the building we sometimes heard a strange rumbling sound. We imagined hens and roosters rocketing to their dooms.  Ed and I memorialized their final moments by intoning, “Buh-caaaaaaaack—Thunk!”

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