Family-Owned Firm Sells a Million Rodents a Year
HUDSON, N.Y. (AP) _ The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is one of Samuel P. Phelan’s best known customers, but he doesn’t like to play up that association in selling the rats his family raises for science experiments.
Notoriety makes him wince, Phelan says, although that is not always avoidable.
Phelan just wanted the 24 rats supplied by his family’s Taconic Farms for the April 29 space shuttle mission to prove useful in planned experiments on weightlessness, not have them steal the spotlight from the astronauts aboard.
But the rats, included on the Challenger mission with two monkeys and seven humans, became the center of attention when their food and feces floated around the shuttle’s billion dollar Spacelab 3.
Taconic Farms has no plans to advertise that NASA chose the company to supply rats that would experience weightlessness and then be sacrificed so 25 researchers could examine their tissues.
But, Phelan acknowledged, ″our major customers know that we were the ones that supplied the animals.″
Dr. Christopher Schatte of NASA’s Ames Research Center said the main factor in choosing the rats was that they had to be germ free, especially of several organisms that could cause problems for humans in space.
″Taconic Farms were consistently one of the vendors who supplied us with animals who did not have the pathogens we had on our list,″ Schatte said.
In the experimental animal business, Charles River Laboratories, a division of Bausch & Lomb Inc. in Wilmington, Mass., controls more than half the $100 million market, Phelan said.
Taconic Farms is among a handful of companies that split the remainder, he said, although he declined to provide more details about the private company’s revenues.
But Taconic is an industry force, selling more than 1 million specially bred mice and rats each year to such customers as NASA, the National Institutes of Health, the National Cancer Institute, and a host of university, pharmaceutical company, hospital and chemical company research programs.
″The industry tends to be dominated by family-originated businesses,″ said Phelan, 37. ″It’s also a very small industry, so you tend to know people. So even if you’re competing with these various businesses, there’s no reason to get overly competitive.″
Taconic’s sells 15 varieties of rats and mice or their body parts at more than 225 prices ranging from 40 cents for rodent reproductive organs to $69.55 for a spontaneously hypertensive timed pregnant rat. Sold in groups of from 50 to 400, a no-frills rat fetches about $4.50.
Taconic Farms has been a family operation since Robert K. Phelan bought an existing rodent breeding operation in 1952. His wife, Sally S. Engelkirk, took it over when he died in 1955. Today she is board chairman and three Phelan brothers share marketing, production and administration.
With 70 mostly part-time employees, the company seems an uncomplicated operation on the surface.
No rats or mice scurry behind wood piles to be lured out by a worker dangling cheese and promising space flight. Taconic’s rodents are as far removed from a barnyard mouse as the race horse Secretariat is from a mule.
Taconic has about $3 million worth of equipment spread among 15 buildings to ensure that every animal activity from breeding to watering is rigidly controlled. This customizes the animals to meet unique research needs. Stringent care also is taken to protect rodent colonies from disease.
All food, litter and water entering the colonies is sterlized in a vacuum at between 230 and 250 degrees. Air is carefully filtered so it is cleaner than a hospital operating room and its temperature is controlled. People working with the animals must shower and put on special clothes before entering the animals’ environment.
Taconic raises two main groups of rodents, outbred and inbred. The majority are outbred, mated at random to most approximate the general human population. Inbred rats are brothers and sisters mated so a specific trait is maintained or excluded.
Eleven weeks pass from mating to sale, Phelan said, so at any one time there are tens of thousands of animals on the farm.
Taconic isolates its animals in eight, $150,000 buildings with two caretakers to monitor each.
The practice has reaped the company its claim to fame.
After 18 months of testing, three companies supplied rats for the April shuttle flight, but at launch time Taconic’s were the only ones in which NASA found none of the banned organisms. Schatte said that from preliminary research to shuttle landing NASA spent $30,000 per rat for the April mission
The company has enjoyed nearly three years of virus-free operation, but still maintains a ″fail-safe″ sampling of all stock in a separate facility.
″We operate and we set up our facility with the philosophy that eventually something will go wrong, pathologically, but when it goes wrong you can halt it as quickly as possible, isolate it as soon as possible and clean it out,″ said Phelan.
When Challenger returned from its 2.9 million-mile journey it was greeted by animal rights protesters, but Phelan argues that research on rodents has saved human lives and enabled scientists to pinpoint disease characteristics they never could just studying humans.
Phelan, who admitted he had trouble explaining to his 7-year-old daughter why NASA had to kill the shuttle rats, said Taconic treats the animals as humanely as possible. He also said that producing a specialized animal helps ensure research is as successful as possible. This, at least theoretically, decreases the total number of animals used for research, he said.
″The overall reason for raising these animals is to benefit human beings, so we can help people, so we can be healthier,″ he said. ″There is an overwhelming argument for the use of animals in research. This isn’t to say there haven’t been abuses.″