The whiskered fighters were coached, videotaped and scored on how often they attacked weaker challengers. Only the undefeated among them advanced to the final round.
But this was no Mixed Martial Arts match. Rather, it was one example in a body of animal experimentation at Boston’s Northeastern University, which is turning lab hamsters into “trained fighter” rodents and facing blowback from animal lovers nationwide.
For 14 days, the adorable adversaries were forced to face off as observers jotted down their attacks, bites and retreats. “Only winning hamsters were allowed to proceed ... producing an animal group with only experienced winners ... that had never lost a fight,” researchers said in a 2013 paper in the journal Aggressive Behavior.
The study intended to explore the “winner effect,” or how winning an aggressive encounter increases the likelihood of securing future bouts.
In other studies, the hamsters were jacked up with a steroid cocktail for 30 days and incited to battle their brethren so researchers could study “roid rage.” Each videotaped fight lasted 10 minutes in an attempt to mimic moderate steroid use in humans. A score was recorded after a hamster lunged at, confined or bit into a fellow rodent.
The hamster Fight Club falls under the purview of Northeastern’s psychology department. At the helm is professor Richard Melloni Jr., who since 1996 has received $3.4 million in federal funds for his steroid-fueled contests, records show.
For decades, Melloni’s work has employed steroids and even cocaine to transform the household pets into fighting machines so he can research the long-term effects of drugs on adolescent brains.
“If you isolate a hamster, it will not become violent. Like human beings, it has to learn how to fight," Melloni said in 2003. “With anabolic steroids, you can create aggressive behavior. Your brain is sort of like a computer circuit board. The circuits control certain functions, and very clearly, exposure to anabolic steroids activates those circuits responsible for inducing aggression.”
A Northeastern University spokesman told The Daily Beast the school uses animals “when the study has promise to improve human or animal health.” But animal welfare groups say the experiments likely violate animal fighting and cruelty statutes, and a petition against the experiments has more than 73,000 signatures.
In a letter to Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals calls for the state to investigate and file charges against Melloni. The group compares the terminology used in his research bouts to the jargon used by dog fighters.
“Melloni keeps and, by his own language, trains territorial animals with the intention of fighting them,” Elisabeth Custalow, counsel to the PETA Foundation, wrote on April 7.
“He repeatedly establishes fighting events, which are scored and videotaped; and he contributes to the fighting with injections of steroids and ‘training sessions.’ He also uses a live animal as a lure or bait in a contest and in training for the same.”
A spokeswoman for the attorney general said the office is reviewing PETA’s complaint, which claims state cruelty statutes have no exemption for scientific experimentation.
“People are unhappy their taxpayer dollars are unwittingly funding this type of abuse,” Justin Goodman, director of PETA’s laboratory investigations department, told The Daily Beast.
“If you know anything about hamsters, they’re very solitary animals and become aggressive and territorial when other hamsters or even human beings enter their space,” Goodman added. “It’s quite fiendish that they’d [researchers] choose hamsters for this experiment knowing they are prone to this type of aggression.”
In one of Melloni’s 2014 experiments, 105 hamsters were anesthetized so scientists could drill holes into their skulls to make way for a tube where steroids would be injected, according to the journal Behavioural Pharmacology.
The rodents were separated into groups of “residents” and “intruders.” After researchers returned the doped-up animals to their cages, they introduced the intruders. Again, hamsters were scored on “general measures of offensive aggression” in 10-minute videotaped encounters that included attacks and bites.
Melloni didn’t respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.
In 2002, he told Northeastern’s student paper that hamsters are perfect research subjects because they’re territorial. Back then, he claimed no animal-rights activists had complained.
“Our hamsters live charmed lives,” Melloni told the paper. “They have food and water, they’re warm, they have no predators. [The only catch is that], every once in a while, we ask them to do what they’d do anyway—defend their territory.”
In a statement, Northeastern University said every animal testing project is vetted by government agencies and must pass inspections.
Jared Schwartzer, who along with Melloni was a lead on the 2013 “winner effect” study, said he respects PETA’s argument and that “the debate is important on both sides.”
A day after the recorded clashes in his experiment, the rodents were put to sleep and their brains removed and dissected.
The researchers said their findings support the notion that the winner effect is present in hamsters and affected neuro-chemistry, according to Aggressive Behavior.
But they conceded the study had limitations. They couldn't say whether the hamsters' brain changes were “pre‐existing, leading to their successes, or if these changes are a direct result of the experimental manipulations” since the brains weren't analyzed prior to training.
The researchers said the “trained fighter” model could serve future studies on aggression.
“The challenge is saying no to any particular type of research,” Schwartzer, a professor at Mount Holyoke College, told The Daily Beast. “It’s not always clear when doing the experiment … what the benefits are going to be and what the new discoveries are going to lead to.”