A Researcher’s Guide to Ethical Animal Studies Written by Hannah Halusker • Lead photo by Travis Fisher

Photos by Gregory Territo, unless otherwise credited.

Jason Strickland, a postdoctoral researcher in professor Christopher Parkinson’s research group at Clemson University, studies systematics, phylogeography and trait evolution of reptiles, focusing mostly on snakes. Through his research, Strickland is attempting to understand how traits evolve over time by getting at the molecular complexities of snake venom in species such as the Mojave Rattlesnake, Mexican Black-Tailed Rattlesnake, and Sidewinder Rattlesnake. His work—like that of many herpetologists—takes him to remote field sites in the United States and Latin America. He hunts for rattlesnakes in all the small places that they like to reside—under rocks, in holes, and across drylands—to carry out research that is equal parts adventurous and perilous. What follows are Strickland’s guidelines for preparing and conducting ethical animal research in isolated locations, centered on his rattlesnake studies.

Prior to the Trip

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: The team sets up camp in the desert of Arizona. Strickland captures a rattlesnake with tongs. A vial of snake venom is collected.

For research within the United States, be sure to apply for the proper permits and licenses—many months in advance—through the Department of Natural Resources or Fish and Game in the area where you plan to conduct research. If the animal you are seeking to study is endangered, federal regulations require special permits through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If conducting academic research, check with your institution’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) to ensure your proposal is in compliance with federal, state and local animal welfare regulations, as well as institutional policy. International travel will likely have similar permit requirements in the country you will be working in, as well as potential permits in the U.S., depending on the species. Additionally, if housing venomous snakes, many states, counties, and cities have specific laws and ordinances that you must follow.

Plan your travel options carefully. Map out your travel schedule and transportation from site to site in advance, and know the locations of the nearest hospitals or other medical treatment centers in case of emergency. Carry a satellite phone when in remote locations and always have a plan for when something goes wrong, even if it is a simple mishap, such as a flat tire.

Working with Venomous Snakes

When handling venomous snakes, it’s important to never touch a snake before restraining it in some way. Snake hooks or tongs should be used to gently catch the snake, and tubes should be used to restrain the snake while you collect samples.

To collect venom from the snake and minimize the chance of snakebite, first restrain the snake in a snake tube until only its head is exposed. Then, place a cup covered with parafilm in front of its mouth. The snake will instinctively bite the parafilm and inject its venom into the cup. If the snake has recently bitten prey, it might not have any venom to inject, and you should care for snake for three weeks while the snake’s venom regenerates, then try the milking procedure again.

Further guidelines for collecting specimens from the snake, such as skin or scale biopsies, are outlined in the best practices for field and laboratory work by the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists. Many professional societies that oversee animal research have similar documentation for other research goals.

CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Rhett Rautsaw, Jason Strickland, Hollis Dahn and Gregory Territo work on collecting specimens from rattlesnakes in Arizona.

Both import and export permits are required to bring collected samples back into the United States after gathering them. Additional permits are required if the animal is endangered through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Whether in the U.S. or abroad, snakes collected for research must be donated to a museum or teaching collection after being processed to ensure the specimen is available as a resource for other researchers and the region of origin.

Photo (above) by Travis Fisher.


Gregory Territo, Travis Fisher

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