June 18, 2010

The Time I Lost a Rat

Animals are weird. They are living, breathing things with ambiguous cognitive abilities. They can think, but one can never be sure to what extent. Once I was changing and my mom's cat looked at me. At first I thought nothing of it. It's a cat. But then we made eye contact and I realized I was naked in front of something that could form memories and may even be able to communicate with other cats.

All this to say that I don't dislike animals, but they kind of unnerve me.

In college I made the mistake of working in a neuroscience rat lab as part of a psychology course. I'm not too bothered by animals that are typically considered creepy (snakes, spiders, rats, bats, rabies-ananconda-banshees, etc.) when they are in controlled scientific environments. If I see them in the natural world I recognize that they are unpredictable and could unwantedly brush up against you.

On the first day, when we received our rats, our professor gave us a VERY stern lecture about how rats are living creatures and we should treat them humanely and blah blah blah. I was distracted by watching the white furry lumps with their red eyes crawl all over each other in their cages. I snapped to attention when I heard our professor say something about grades. "If you kill or lose either of your rats, you fail the class." I quickly thought up about 300 possible excuses for a dead rat - It bit me and then choked on my blood so it's not my fault; It was suffering so I completed a mercy kill; You can't prove this wasn't a suicide - things along those lines. I didn't want a creature to die, but I REALLY didn't want to fail a class.

Well our first task was to starve the suckers. The hungrier they were, the more motivated they would be by food to press buttons and levers. We had to weigh the rats, subtract a percentage of body weight in grams, and then adjust their food to get them good and hungry. The key element here was that you couldn't get your two rats mixed up because you could inadvertantly WAY over-starve one rat and under-starve the other. The solution was, no lie, to write their names on their tails in permanent marker. This presented a unique dilemma for me. I wanted to pick good names that would fit on their tails. Naturally, I began envisioning my rodents as rat-hotel tycoons, and appropriately named them Rat-ison Suites and Rats Carlton.

After writing their names on their squirmy tails, I began to withhold their food. Imagine my concern later in the semester when I noticed that the ink had rubbed off and I had no idea who should be starved to what extent. I kept this little secret to myself.

The other thing we had to do right away was acclimate the rats to human contact, a process called "Gentling," so that our presence would not be a factor in their performance in the lab. This name, "gentling," slayed me. It sounded downright perverse. The professor would remind us, "Class, you need to be gentling your rats twice a day. Gentle them in the morning and in the afrernoon. And remember to gentle them on the weekends as well." It was too much. I joked with my lab partner that if she ever started a successful band, her first breakout single as a solo artist should be titled "Ooh Ooh Baby, You Gentled Me."

Later in the semester, all seemed to be going well, aside from the little rat mix-up, and my hotel-tycoon-rats were learning and performing their tasks just fine. One day, I went to get Rats Carlton out of the experiment chamber. To my horror, the glass box was empty. I immediately began to panic about failing the class. I had been so busy coming up with excuses about a dead rodent that I had neglected to come up with ideas for what to say about a runaway rat.

Soon I had the whole lab class scouring the buildling looking for this missing rat. We crawled under tables and chairs, through electrical wires, behind computers and down hallways. "Try not to look suspicious." I cautioned. "We don't want the professor getting the right idea." After nearly an hour of searching, an F was looming lover my transcript. I assumed all hope was lost. Finally, one of my classmates said, "Hey, there's a rat in this other chamber. Did you put yours in the wrong one?" I looked at the Skinner box. "Oh, yeah," I said, "That's him."

My rats eventually graduated and went on to participate in experiments in the Advanced Neuroscience class. At some point during the next semester, I made the mistake of checking on their progress with a neuro student. "Oh, you mean Rats Carleton?," she said. "Well, he didn't do so well. We put him to sleep for his brain surgery, but in the middle, he woke up. We had to stop the surgery and staple his head back together. Finally, when he was strong enough to have the second surgery, it happened again. I think he's dead."

Sometimes, he haunts my dreams.

And that pretty much sums up my lab rat experience.

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