Tracey Sutcliffe

It’s often said that you’re either a dog lover or a cat lover. You can’t be both, unless you are PEA member Tracey Sutcliffe, a self-described animal lover who shares her home and looks after a cat, a barn cat (note the distinction), a dog, three horses, and five chickens and a rooster. She is also an animal health technician who supervises the animal husbandry team at the University of Victoria (UVic). Her team cares for all of the species used for research and teaching by feeding them, cleaning their enclosures, and ensuring every creature under their care is comfortable and well-cared-for. It’s a job that suits Tracey perfectly.

“I was one of those incredibly lucky people who always knew what I wanted to do with my life,” she says with a smile. “I was born to care for animals. To me, a rat or a mouse is just as cute and cuddly as a dog.”

Animal Care Services (ACS) is the team that helps UVic researchers onsite in their biology, physics, immunology, biochemistry, and neuroscience labs by facilitating everything they need related to animal care. In addition to housing and caring for the animals, they also provide veterinary and diagnostic services. The facilities they oversee are under strict guidelines from the Canadian Council on Animal Care, and Tracey’s team holds up these guidelines through the highest ethical and humane standards.

Their work plays an important role in supporting the diverse range of research at UVic, which is one of the reasons Tracey moved to research from veterinary care. With over 28 years of experience in the industry, she has spent more than half of her career in animal research and the last seven years as part of the ACS team at UVic.

Tracey describes one of the most memorable studies over the past few years involving a male plainfin midshipman fish (also known as a singing toadfish), who swims to the tideline on the shore, builds a nest, and then sings to attract his mate. The singing, which can last hours, sounds like a continuous drumming hum that can be quite loud, especially when multiple male fish are competing with each other. Once a female has been attracted, she lays her eggs in the nest the male fish has created and then immediately leaves.

But the story doesn’t end there. Researchers have also studied the behavior of a smaller type of male toadfish, known as the sneaker fish, who can’t be bothered to dig a nest, sing for a mate or look after his offspring. Instead, the sneaker fish enters the nest that the bigger toadfish has created for the female to lay her eggs in and fertilizes them himself. Then he sneaks away, leaving the unsuspecting bigger male to tend to eggs that are not his own.

“This fish is one of the few species where the male does all of the work,” Tracey laughs. “Not only does he build the nest but he cares for the eggs and guards them until they are big enough to survive on their own.”

“Toadfish are amazing creatures that can breathe through their skin when they are exposed to air during low tide. It was so interesting to learn all about their unique behaviors and care for them while they were at UVic.”

Working in animal care is not a job that is frequently talked about, mainly because animal care facilities and the studies that take place using animals are often polarizing topics. But Tracey wishes that could change.

“There are definitely misconceptions about the work that happens in the animal care industry,” Tracey says. “I wish that more people knew about the importance of the type of research we are supporting by caring for these animals, but I also wish they knew about the people who are caring for the animals.”

“Anyone who does this job does it because of their pure love of animals. We know they are part of something bigger and without them, life-changing research couldn’t move forward. This is why we handle and care for each animal with the utmost care and respect.”

Being in such constant contact with the animals under her care does come with emotional moments and Tracey says that compassion fatigue is a huge issue across the industry. Anyone who works in the animal and veterinary industry and is in contact with animals will experience burnout at some point. She describes working in a veterinary clinic when she first graduated as an animal health technician, and the acute burden of working in such a stressful environment. It’s an issue that has taken a while to come to the forefront and is finally being recognized, thanks to mental health in the workplace becoming more of a priority.

“WorkSafeBC now recognizes the trauma that can sometimes come from psychologically heavy jobs,” says Sam Montgomery, the PEA labour relations officer for UVic. “It’s a bigger workplace conversation that I’m glad is happening with employers.”

Tracey says support groups and compassion from her peers at UVic have really helped her to develop coping mechanisms for when she is feeling the impact of compassion fatigue. She shares that this part of her work is also often misunderstood. However, for her team, the level of care and compassion they give to each creature is the same, no matter the size, no matter the species. It’s why they are all so good at the work they do.

While touring the UVic aquatic facilities, it’s clear that Tracey really was meant for this career. She is incredibly knowledgeable and describes the residents of each tank she looks after while sharing stories and the history of the creatures in her care. Although some of them become permanent residents on campus, many will find new homes through UVic’s adoption program. As a passionate animal advocate, these are outcomes of animal research Tracey wishes more people knew about.

The Animal Care Services team is making a difference to research at UVic and Tracey says it’s the main reason she loves her work and plans to stay for as long as possible. She’s always been in it for the animals.