Of Mice and Men (not Steinback)

After so much reading on the subjects of rats and rats in the lab I now understand how little I knew about this species.  Right off the bat I was surprised that laboratory rats were called heroes and how often rats and humans were compared.  I was also surprised at extreme emotional spectrum that rats elicit, namely because I have never given them much thought.  In one instance the word rat itself apparently produces an almost disgusted response in humans and in the next we revere their contributions to medical research in the lab.  At first I was not convinced of the similarities between humans and rats especially in Rader readings regarding Mickey Mouse and the supposed intentions of Disneyland.  As I read and learned of how effectively and efficiently rats evolve I began to understand this connection.  It seems to me and based on these readings that rats have suffered the least from human expansion.  Not only are they evident in almost every man made structure, they actually thrive from it.  When one compares the presence of rats in human life with other animals, besides those that we intentionally make a part of our environment, they are in a class of their own.  In fact a rat in a city may be one of the only wild animals you can see apart from birds and other rodents.  Perhaps this is why pigeons are referred to as rat with wings.  Not only are they present in large numbers as well as rats but they are part of the small group of wild animals able to survive in man-made environments.  The adaptive ability of the rat cannot be repudiated but I find it doubtful that they will ‘inherit the world’ someday.  The other similarity between rat and human that I would have never made is the selfishness of these two species in regard to other animals.  Just as we exploit animals for our benefit with little to no benefit to them, depending on your standing on such issues, rats exploit us with little to no benefit on our part.   I found this fact really interesting because I can think of no other animal that has been able to ‘pull one over’ on humans like this.  I believe that this is a main contributor to our dislike of the rats in addition to many others.

                To dislike the rat because it exploits us would certainly illustrate the hypocritical nature of human beings but I can’t help but feel some used.  In earlier times I could easily see the frustration our ancestors had towards the ever present rat.  The presence of the rat is magnified because no other species is so unintentionally integrated into human life.  I almost see it as an annoying little brother following an older brother around, reaping from his successes.  It could almost devalue such progress if it becomes apparent that even a small rodent could match the same feet.  What I mean is imagine humans overcoming a pretty significant barrier such as water due to our innovation of a boat.  Now imagine conquering something that could not have been accomplished before and then realizing that freeloading rat can also cross an entire ocean simply because they hoped aboard.  I would definitely lose some pride if I stepped foot on an unmanned island and turned around to see rats marching the beach as well.  I know this is a selfish view but I feel like it is human nature and understandable if not acceptable.  Another reason for human distain towards rats given in the reading is their reversion to cannibalism if resources are low.  I wish this was highlighted more in the reading simply because in all the similarities between humans and rats, this is one stark contrast.  I feel like the contrast is so great that rat cannibalism should be credited as the main source of our distaste for rats.  Of course there are exceptions but cannibalism is and has been such a taboo in our species.  It is not such a stretch of the imagination then to picture an ancestor of ours coming across a group of rats eating a fellow rat and being disgusted by the sight.  This brings me to the next major point of why we dislike rats, the way in which they eat their food.  In naming them the Latin root comes from the word gnaw.  Being named after the way in which they eat clearly marks our intrigue in this part of their lives.  Again I can picture an ancestor of ours being disgusted by the way in which a rat ate simply because it is so different from the way in which we eat.

                One point that Bart made in which I did not agree was in regards to his explanation of the view of rats changing from thief to dirty.  He claims that as we put filth away from sight and rats then moved into this filth, that they are still clean themselves and so this is not a substantial theory in the transition of public opinion.  I feel like Bart needs to give this stance more support even though rats themselves are still clean.  Think of the toilet, it is one of the cleanliest parts of the house yet it is not regarded as such and shares a negative public human opinion with the rat.  Perhaps an ancient reason for the negative view of rats is their resemblance to locust.  As I read Burt’s passage regarding their sheer number and willingness to eat anything and everything in their path I could not help but compare them to locus.  And as so much of this class and our history as shown, if something can be drawn back to religion it can be given a lot of validation as a reason or cause. 

                In the Rader reading I was very surprised at the resistance Little met in trying to connect the field of medicine and genetics.  Today these are so incorporated that it is hard to imagine them ever being distinguished from one another.  In the Shapiro reading I mostly understood the reasoning behind the treatment and attitude towards lab animals.  It is necessary to forget the individuality among a species used to better the human race.  In regards to behavior and psychological testing, however, I feel that much more emphasis must be placed on the individual because these are much more variable.  Just as with humans, I believe that animals are more than just the sum of their individual biological processes.  Giving an animal a name and a personality could help keep this in mind while conducting experiments.

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!