A Veterinarian who Found his Niche in Medical Research
After 30 Years of Caring for Animals Used in Medical Research
at the University, Dan Ringler Retires from Laboratory Animal
by Jeffrey Mortimer
Ringler grew up on a dairy farm in New London, Ohio, the sort
of operation where people were unsentimental about their animals,
especially the non-working kind.
So when he entered the veterinary medicine program at Ohio
State in 1961, "I really wasnt prepared to see the
depth of feeling that urban people had for their pets, treating
them just like members of the family," says Ringler, who
retired last May after 30 years on the laboratory animal medicine
faculty, the last 15 of them as the director of the Unit for
Laboratory Animal Medicine (ULAM).
By then, he had a pet of his own a dog that his sixth-grade
girlfriend, now wife, was forced to give away by her parents
and the first animal ever allowed into his own parents
home and later had many more. "Weve had a
whole menagerie over the years," he says, "dogs and
cats and hamsters and guinea pigs and birds."
Since one of ULAMs principal functions is to house and
care for the thousands of animals used in medical research at
the University, as well as by the Units own faculty and
postdoctoral fellows, this might come as a surprise to animal
rights activists who take issue with the very enterprise that
Ringler has run. It also leads to some gallows humor.
"Ive had a lot of pets offered to me over the years,"
he chuckles, "usually at social events after Bowser has
had a particularly bad day."
But he doesnt just like animals; he esteems them. "I
think humanity owes a lot to laboratory animals," he says.
And he believes their use in research eventually benefits their
own kind as well as humankind. "I say were in the
business of reducing pain and suffering on the planet, and that
medical research and laboratory animal medicine go hand in hand
in doing that," Ringler says. "Millions and millions
of animals have been spared diseases and disability because
of progress in human medicine, which eventually works its way
into veterinary medicine."
It was, in fact, the chance to contribute to advances in human
medical knowledge that first drew him to the field of laboratory
animal medicine. He graduated from Ohio State at the peak of
the Vietnam War, still intending eventually to practice large-animal
veterinary medicine, joined the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps rather
than be drafted, and was sent for training at Walter Reed Army
Institute of Research in Washington.
His job would be to direct a laboratory analyzing food being
sent to the troops overseas "The food inspection
corps in the Army was mainly veterinarians, because of what
we knew about public health and sanitation from our veterinary
training" but "part of our training was related
to laboratory animals, because veterinarians are also responsible
for all the laboratory animals, and doing that training piqued
my interest in laboratory animal medicine, which was a new specialty
of veterinary medicine at the time.
"I thought the field would assist in medical cures. That
was the attraction, that taking care of the laboratory animals
and ensuring that they were healthy and well would help medical
researchers find cures for human diseases and diseases of other
animals. It was a niche that a veterinarian could fill in the
larger medical research enterprise that would be satisfying.
I found that to be true over these last 30 years."
After his Army stint ended in 1967, Ringler came to ULAM as
a postdoctoral fellow, earning a masters in pathology
from the Medical School as part of his program. He joined the
faculty as soon as he completed his training. The specialty
was still in its infancy when Ringler came to Ann Arbor, having
originated in the 1950s in the Chicago area. ULAM itself wasnt
established until 1962, when its founding director, the late
Bennett Cohen, brought a National Institutes of Health training
grant here with him from UCLA. Ringler, who succeeded Cohen
as director in 1985, believes its the longest-running
NIH training grant at U-M.
Cohen was one of the so-called "Chicago Five" who
founded both the specialty and the American Association for
Laboratory Animal Science, which now has about 7,000 members.
"The veterinarians at that time were being hired by medical
schools to improve the quality of care of laboratory animals
and to deal with the animal activists who were picketing in
Chicago in the 1950s," says Ringler. "The training
programs basically brought in graduate veterinarians who understood
cows and horses and dogs and cats but had had very little training
in diseases of the laboratory animals: rats and mice, guinea
pigs, monkeys and rabbits."
And dogs, lots of dogs. "When I came here, we were using
about 6,000 dogs a year in medical research, probably the most
numerous animal in use at that time," says Ringler. "Thats
because surgery was the principal medical research specialty,
and surgeons used dogs, because of their size, to perfect all
the techniques of surgery that we take for granted now."
These days, however, the mouse has become "the designer
animal for biomedical research," he says. "The genetics
of the mouse are known, the genome is almost sequenced, and
almost any disease can be induced in mice, any genetic disease
certainly, and studied as a substitute for humans that have
the same genetic defect."
The average daily census of mice has quintupled during Ringlers
tenure, from 12,000 to 60,000, or about 90% of the animals housed
at ULAM. At the same time, the number of dogs used every year
has plummeted to 500.
Maybe thats why the activists have been so quiet lately.
"Dogs, cats and monkeys are the emotional species in this
country," Ringler says. "Other cultures have different
animals that they treasure more or elevate to higher status
for either religious or cultural reasons. There have been almost
no demonstrations in Ann Arbor regarding the use of animals
in research, but there have been a few minor demonstrations
elsewhere in the last few years about the use of monkeys, in
He is very clear about his views on this subject, and he has
very clearly had to explain them more than once or twice. "I
feel that the animals are treated very well, better than most
pet animals," he says. "They seem healthy and happy
in their existence here, and they are doing a great service
for humans and other animals. The whole industry of laboratory
animal care has grown up in this country since the 1950s to
ensure that the animals are healthy and well treated and that
the research is worthwhile. And I assure the activists of all
of this. We give tours of the animal facilities to any responsible
person or group. Were proud of what we have and pleased
to show other people, and Im convinced that the citizens
of Michigan would be proud of what we have also."
And he gives the activists their due. After all, they helped
spur the creation of his specialty. "The animal activists
all through the years have pushed medical administrators and
national groups to improve the lives of the laboratory animals
and the controls on, and scrutiny of, the research," he
U-M established its University Committee on Use and Care of
Animals in 1965. In 1986, a new federal law required that committee
to approve all use of vertebrate animals on campus. "The
regulations require that the committee also include a member
of the public who is not affiliated in any way with the institution,
and that that person be allowed to review the projects and file
minority reports if theres disagreement about whether
the project should go forward," Ringler says. "Weve
always had two outside members [out of 16], and weve never
carried out a project where the outside members disapproved."
He also points out what might, at the very least, be considered
an irony. "Animals have access to veterinary medical care
24 hours a day, every day," he says. "The federal
animal welfare act requires that every animal be observed every
day for distress or illness or injury, and that veterinary medical
attention be available that day. Theres no such law pertaining
to children that requires that standard of medical care."