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Vol. LIX, No. 4
February 23, 2007
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Up on the Farm
Exploring the NIH Animal Center, Our Second Campus

On the front page...

You’ve been to Executive Plaza. You know about NIEHS in North Carolina, about NIH buildings in Baltimore and Frederick, even some structures within the broad category of “Washington Metropolitan Area Leased Facilities.” What you may not know is that about 30 miles northwest of the main campus, on a 509-acre stretch of rolling farmland, lies the NIH Animal Center at Poolesville.

It’s one of NIH’s “best-kept secrets,” says Dr. Douglas Powell, chief of the Poolesville veterinary medicine section. One can see why the NIHAC, known as “the farm,” is not so well-known. On a mid-winter morning, it’s a long drive on winding, frosty country roads to reach the center at a distant edge of Montgomery County. And though it’s just a few miles from the Potomac River and not even far, Powell says, from Dulles International Airport, it’s a quiet location.

Continued...


  Contractor Blair Casey feeds a pig on the farm.  
  Contractor Blair Casey feeds a pig on the farm.  
Still, the facility—opened in 1965 and divided into a “north” section used by the Division of Veterinary Resources (DVR), Office of Research Services, and a “south” section, overseen by NICHD’s Research Animal Management Branch—has dozens of contractors, researchers and employees, three of whom live on site.

The primary function of Powell’s section is holding and quarantine, he explains, though there are some active protocols done there, including a long-term calorie-restriction study. The area he oversees houses several different species of monkeys, including rhesus macaques, pig-tailed and long-tailed macaques, African greens and squirrel monkeys. The north side also has a farm, with, among other animals, sheep, pigs, two Holstein steers and a “guard” llama, who some on the farm have dubbed “Monty.” (Llamas, it turns out, can be very good at protecting livestock from wild dogs and other animals). There are 40 workers on this side—10 government employees and the rest contractors. There is also a power plant with 17 staff members.

The monkeys in Powell’s section come from all over the world, he says. When they arrive, they are assigned an investigator, quarantined and then held or sent to another NIH facility, including buildings “downtown,” which is the way everyone at the center seems to refer to the Bethesda campus.

Lines for new and renewal ID badges in Bldg. 31 can reach 90 people deep and take 2 hours to clear, but the process should become smoother soon.
The “farm” section of the Animal Center

The monkeys on Powell’s side stay in a large facility, well-equipped for quarantining and holding processes such as medical treatment (the animals’ health is checked twice daily) and cage cleaning. The animals also have 18 indoor/outdoor runs—large areas where they can move about—and a new habitat for monkeys opened in June 2005. All workers must wear protective gear near the monkeys and all of the area cleaning processes are complex and both time- and labor-intensive. It’s all necessary because of how important it is that the animals receive proper care, Powell says. He explains that staff members are on hand 7 days a week; workers will sleep on cots if bad weather could hamper their getting to work.

Dr. Douglas Powell, chief of the Poolesville veterinary medicine section
Dr. Julie Mattison, NIA staff scientist, discusses the calorie-restriction study.

Top:
Dr. Douglas Powell, chief of the Poolesville veterinary medicine section
Bottom:
Dr. Julie Mattison, NIA staff scientist, discusses the calorie-restriction study.

Dr. Julie Mattison, NIA staff scientist, oversees the calorie-restriction study under way at the Animal Center since 1987. The study follows a group of monkeys whose diet is restricted by 30 percent fewer calories than a control group and compares the effects of diet on aging. A calorie-restricted diet has been shown to extend life-span and reduce the incidence and age of onset of age-related diseases in several animal models. Mattison’s research has shown that calorie restriction, among other things, can decrease body weight and fat mass, improve glucoregulatory function and decrease blood pressure. The study has several collaborators, including NIH-funded projects in Oregon, Kentucky and Texas.

Working on the DVR side of the center are Joe Travis (l), contract supervisor, and Jeff Oden, assistant contract supervisor.

Working on the DVR side of the center are Joe Travis (l), contract supervisor, and Jeff Oden, assistant contract supervisor.

This section also includes the actual farm of the “farm,” with buildings and areas designated for sheep that can move back and forth to pasture at will, as well as several pigs. In a separate area overseen by facility manager Kristine Eckard, some cats and dogs are currently being held. The animals have a great deal of human interaction (Eckard herself appears fond of all the animals, but seemed to dote especially on Bob, a large hound mix).

While the north side of the center focuses on holding and quarantine, the south side has many studies, including research undertaken by NICHD, NIAAA and NIMH. The Shared Facility has approximately 500 primates of different species (rhesus, cebus, marmosets and squirrel monkeys) utilized by the three institutes. Debra Lust, animal facilities manager for this area, is responsible for making sure the animals are secure and fed, that they have proper bedding and that all the building systems work. “I maintain the budget, I make sure all animal care is under control,” she says. There are 13 contract animal care staff, three government employees (“a behaviorist, a veterinarian
Facility manager Kristine Eckard dotes on Bob, a large hound mix.

Facility manager Kristine Eckard dotes on Bob, a large hound mix.

NICHD has two main rhesus breeding groups in this section. The first colony has infants that are raised either by their mothers or in the nursery and are used in research that evaluates the impact of genetics and environment on behavior. The infants live with their mothers or in the nursery until they are 6 months old, at which time they are weaned and placed into a large juvenile group. At age 3 they are separated into same-sex groups and enrolled in various studies by NICHD, NIAAA and NIMH researchers. Once they reach maturity, some of the animals are placed into breeding groups to provide the next generation of research animals for the use of the three institutes.
Numerous sheep live at the center. Facility veterinarian
Left: Numerous sheep live at the center. Right: Facility veterinarian
Dr. Lyn Colenda explains her work.

The other, larger group of rhesus monkeys lives in a protected and secure 5-acre outdoor enclosure where they can roam free, climb trees and go indoors if they wish. Most of the time, Lust says, they love to be outside. “They have indoor-outdoor access, but they really spend a lot of their time outside, even in the cold weather,” she notes. “They’ve been known to sit as high as they possibly can and catch snowflakes with their mouths.” Dr. Stephen Suomi, head of NICHD’s Laboratory of Comparative Ethology, and his group study these animals, following their behavioral, cognitive and physiological development. “[The monkeys] do really well in that environment,” Lust explains.
A sign welcomes visitors to the NIH Animal Center in Poolesville. A sign welcomes visitors to the NIH Animal Center in Poolesville
Left: A center worker cleans the new monkey habitat. Right: A sign welcomes visitors to the NIH Animal Center in Poolesville.

Visitors to the center are relatively rare, and those who do make the trip and want to see the animals close up are required to have a recent tuberculosis skin test and measles titer to ensure they don’t bring either of those diseases to the animals, whose health and safety are top priorities.

But even if you’re never able to visit the farm, know that you have coworkers not far away who are just as dedicated to their demanding and rewarding work as those of us “downtown,” and who don’t necessarily miss the faster pace of Bethesda. “I prefer it,” says Lust of working on this large stretch of land, removed from the NIH hub. “I was a farm girl, so this is just fine with me.” NIH Record Icon

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