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From Rat King to Lab Rat, and everything in between

Whenever I think of rats, I can’t  help by picture the evil rat threatening the baby on Lady and the Tramp, or even the Rat King in The Nutcracker, but very seldom do I spend time pondering over the lab rat, or even the tiny mice used in experiments.

The reading by Burt explores the various reasons why people view rats as dirty and a menace, as well as refutes some of the false assumptions associated with these useful little vermin. One of the main reasons people began to view rats as disgusting, beyond the typical notion that they carry disease, is that they represent “unbounded sexual reproduction.” However, many animals not typically viewed as disgusting or evil fall under this same category. Some animals, for example ducks, whose males often violently rape the females, could even be viewed as sexually immoral, when the duck is a symbol of spring and even represented in Easter, not evil and filth. Furthermore, adorably bunnies, also associated with spring and Easter, are known to reproduce at an extremely rapid rate, yet many would not be too disappointed to happen upon a bunny.

Furthermore, Burt goes on to point out that rats can in fact be viewed as a “parallel” to humans and actually are pretty clean and intelligent. He notes that rats can represent both human achievement and destructiveness; they are extremely useful in science, for example testing efficiency with the maze experiments, yet they can also bring forth disease, much like humans. He quotes Donaldson, who even suggests that the rat may be the “sped of version of humans.”

In Rader’s excerpt, he focuses more on the use of inbred mice for cancer research as opposed to the history of rats described in Burt’s article. Though his writings spent too much time focusing on the ups and downs of Little’s professional career for my taste, I really enjoyed the section titled Institutionalizing the Organism. As a business major, I am always wondering what the economic impacts of a particular industry are, and I loved how Rader linked Little’s rollercoaster career to various financial problems they faced. The message from this article that resonated most with me was the fact that Little met the most success when he focused his lab more on making profits off selling the mice to other researchers instead of putting all his resources into his own research at the time. Why did he do this? He began to lack arguably the most important resource; money. This represents a common issue one faces when he tries to achieve his dreams, whether it be curing cancer or climbing Mt. Everest. Without sufficient funding, one may find himself as a “sell out,” temporarily abandoning his dreams to simply sustain his income. Luckily, Little was eventually able to gain enough support for his research.

Lastly, I want to point out Shapiro’s comments on the decline of individualism with lab animals. He points out that these experimental pets are not seen as individuals because there are tons of each species used for the experiments, the animal is replaceable, they are seen as organisms sometimes instead of animals, and they are caged up and become very habitual. However, he also points out that they actually do have some extremely complex behavioral patterns (why else would one use them for psychological studies?), the animal rights movement have changed the mentality towards the “replaceable organisms,” and lastly he notes an “inevitable bond” between the researcher and the lab animal.

6 comments to From Rat King to Lab Rat, and everything in between

  • Kara Van Scoyoc

    I like the comparison of achievement and destructiveness because it makes me wonder whether given time the rats can evolve the negative destructive characteristics out of their natural habits?

    • meganimals17

      It seems like they basically artificially selected the rats best suited for research in the first place. They started out with the Norwegian rat, and ended up with an albino rat specifically bred for its tameness.

  • corim14

    I think that the “inevitable bond” between a researcher and lab animal doesn’t have as much to do with the individuality of the animal and humanity of the researcher, but more the attachment of the researcher to his research. Most researchers actively try to avoid a bond with their lab animals because it can affect their judgement and skew the results of the research. I’m all for animal rights, but in most cases in research, the health and happiness needs of the animal are only met so that the data collected can be effective and reliable– no matter how complex the animal may be. Of course, there are a few exceptions, such as case studies of bonobos or gorillas.

    • meganimals17

      Maybe that is the type of bond Shapiro was referring to; one that serves only to protect the animal for the human’s best interest instead of a loving attachment to the animal alone. However, he talks about the “perfect” rat he owned that died, and he seems to feel a remorse over this loss. He personally may really enjoy the company of the rats and view them as pets because he respects their contributions to science, but I agree that he is probably the exception.

  • loomispw

    I think one of the reasons we dislike rats is because of how much they resemble us. They fall into a type of uncanny valley. One of the interesting parallels is that as rats are forced to live in closer quarters their behavior changes, resulting in greater deviancies from the norm. These deviancies included greater aggression and greater social withdrawal. This could be seen as similar to how higher density populations exhibit a higher rate of psychological distress.

  • kcdrews

    This isn’t really contributing much to the discussion but reading your opening lines I immediately flashed back to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Kid Catcher. I always thought he looked like a Rat/Mouse. Gave me nightmares for months…

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