Rats and Mice: Scientific Heroes

After reading the Burt’s piece I can’t help but feel bad for rats. By doing what it is that they need to do to survive and reproduce, they have given themselves a reputation as evil, disgusting creatures. Many other species of animals have habits similar to or far worse than rats, but as the rats live in such close proximity to humans, they are the ones that we seek to destroy at all costs. They are almost like our roommates. It doesn’t matter who your roommate is, it is simply the fact that they are always around that makes them so bad. Many of the early reasons for hating the rat such as the filth and excessive reproduction were wrong or greatly exaggerated which sounds like the exact story you hear from someone who is angry at their roommate. Deep down they are just annoyed and tired of being around the person but in order to justify their anger to others they seek out things to explain why this person is so bad, whether it be made up or exaggerations of little things that occurred. The rat has just evolved to thrive around human habitation and as a result it is one of the most universally hated creatures today.

Although I do sympathize with rats and mice, it is hard to deny that they do pose problems to humans. They are known to carry diseases and disrupt food supplies among other things which are valid reasons to set up methods to remove them from close proximity to humans and to control their numbers. I think that our hatred of rats is a bit excessive and irrational in modern times as many of the diseases they can spread are curable, and better construction methods developed in recent history can do a decent job at keeping them out of our foodstuffs, but many people still see them as insatiable pests that must be destroyed. It seems to me that at some point we just have to live with the fact that rats and mice aren’t going anywhere and we might as well do our best to try to get along with our perpetual roommates.

The first stepping stone to getting along with our little mammalian enemies is likely their use in scientific research. As a biochemistry major many of the experiments that come up in my studies involve the use of mice and rats. Without these experiments, the creation of drugs and treatments to cure the most threatening diseases for humans in the past and today would be far fewer. Their similarities to humans in structure and genetic makeup along with their small size and quick reproduction make them prime candidates for testing different methods of curing and/or preventing diseases in humans. It is by no means a perfect system as in many cases the effects in mice and rats are different than in humans but it is better than no testing at all. In the Shapiro reading, there was a lot of discussion about the use of laboratory animals that highlighted the negative aspects of experimenting with animals. I was not particularly fond of a lot of the arguments presented in this piece. I love animals, always have, and whether it is my dog or a mouse that we find cleaning the garage or a tiger at the zoo, I hate seeing animals hurt in any way from physical damage or separation from their families or torment by some curious toddler.  However, I have come to realize that in some cases, in order to benefit our own human species, some animals, often mice and rats, have to take the bullet. As much as I don’t want to see a mouse injected with a deadly virus or cancer, if that mouse helps to find the cure for someone’s ailing relative, I think it is usually worth it despite being very unfair. Shapiro seems to be saying that what we are doing with animals is largely without any real benefit scientifically, at least in the cases he discusses, and argues that laboratory animals are treated like machines, using the terms deindividualated, despecified, and deanimalized. I think that the cases he uses to argue his points are poor representations of animal research as a whole, and I feel that he is swaying data to prove points that don’t have a lot of validation. I understand that animals cooped up in cages by themselves are not in the best conditions, but they are not treated like machines. There are people who care for and feed the mice on a daily basis who genuinely care for the animals in most cases. Even knowing that the end result for many of them is likely death, they still want them to live comfortably for as long as possible. I have talked to many people who have worked with mice in their research and they all do their best to keep the animals as happy and comfortable as is possible in their experimental circumstances. I know they are arguably not as happy as their wild counterparts, but that is a small price to pay to save human lives. I am all for any new methods that will improve the conditions for lab animals, but I think that their importance to scientific research justifies their use.

Especially in the case of rats and mice, I find it hard to comprehend how people can despise a creature like a rat and go to great lengths to kill them whether it is with traps or poisons, but then as soon as they hear that a lab rat is being kept in a cage and injected with a virus to test out a new treatment it is inhumane. Humans have spent their history trying to destroy the rat because it was foul and useless to us but now that they can be helpful before they are killed, it is somehow crueler than murdering them by the thousands in the wild. All in all, I do feel for the animals that give their lives to science, but contradictory to Shapiro’s arguments, I think they are dying for a noble cause and greatly advancing modern science. They are saving more and more lives every day and should be considered heroes for giving their lives to do so. Anyway that was a bit of a rant that is heavily influenced by my scientific background and hopefully I didn’t set anyone off haha. And just to cover my tail I would like the record to show that I LOVE MICE AND RATS! And all animals for that matter…except for spiders maybe.


I look forward to reading all of your blogs and discussing these readings on Tuesday. See you all then!

5 thoughts on “Rats and Mice: Scientific Heroes

  1. There are so many good ideas here, Connor! The use of animals in scientific research is indeed a complex issue that evokes strong feelings from many sides. I think it’s important to keep in mind that thinking carefully about what Shapiro calls the “social construction” of animal models doesn’t require agreeing with his conclusions. It should help us make sense of why this issue is so charged.

  2. Ah, you bring up many interesting ideas about using animals in research. Shapiro’s main argument against use of animals in research was related to use of animals in psychological research (I think. That was how I read it, anyway). I agree with him on that–we are not rats and our brains function in a fairly different way than theirs do. His example from the bulimia study was especially compelling–how can you study bulimia without studying the complex social and cultural causes of bulimia?

    However, in general, I agree with you. Most of us are alive thanks to modern medicine (I know I am!) and modern medicine is thanks to animal research. I particularly like your comment about how we exterminate rats from our homes and then condemn animal research. There are so many contradictions in how we treat animals: we object to animal shelters that kill unwanted animals while we eat meat (which is dead animals). We treat some horses better than most humans are treated while other are sent to slaughter in other countries. I’m not condemning any practice, I just think the contradictions are interesting.

  3. I agree that much of the resentment towards rats simply come from our close proximity to them and the fact that this not true for most other animals. I compared the presence of rats to an annoying little brother, much like your comparison with a roommate. I share some sympathy towards rats as well but I was glad to read that due to their contributions in the lab they can even be thought of as heroes. Obviously lab mice are only a small part of the rat and mice population and I doubt that any good feelings will make the leap from domesticate to wild. I also agree with you stance on the necessity of lab animals towards the benefit of the human species.
    I have always wondered if animals in cages or zoos are truly less happy than their wild counterpart. Experimenters do not try to provide mice their natural habitats but they do not have to feel the stress involved in scavenging for food or living in constant fear.

  4. Rats have definitely contributed more than their fair share to scientific progress, but it’s a price that I think most of us will agree has yielded good results. But is it moral? Then again that’s why it’s a controversy, right? If one side was simply wrong it wouldn’t be a very good discussion topic.

    Our world is full of exchanges, some fair and some not so fair, but it’s exchanges like animal testing that advance our understanding of the world and those are the critical ones I’d like to preserve. What would a world without animal testing look like? I think that’s the central question that people still making their minds up on this issue should ask. I simply don’t see a better alternative that still preserves our advancement, this is something that I see us always needing but hope will require less loss of life in the future.

  5. This is such a rich thread! I wonder if there isn’t a way to think about how the future might be different from the past? While many (most?) people agree about how much animal-testing has benefited humans, my hope is that, going forward, animal testing will become increasingly rare and eventually (sooner rather than later) be considered as archaic as we consider blood-letting and leaching today. Changing the world and making it a better place for me means figuring out more ethically appropriate and sustainable ways of interacting with the creatures who share our destinies. I’m not sure what these new modalities might look like (although I have some inklings), but my hope is that they will be less costly in all kinds of ways.

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