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!

Saving the best for last

Man. These readings were great. I have enjoyed everything about this class, but these readings (and hopefully, this week’s discussions) are particularly excellent.

Algernon, the rats of NIMH, and other rodents as humans

Rats are like humans, says Burt (from this week’s readings).

When I was a young teenager, I was fascinated with books about the humanity and intelligence of rodents. You will have to forgive me while I write meanderingly about some of these books. Three books that made particularly big impressions on me were Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Flowers for Algernon, and The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. A main theme in all of these books is the similarity of rodents to humans.

Mrs. Frisby and The Amazing Maurice are similar in that they describe human-like populations of sentient rodents. Both are YA fiction and both make make rats and mice seem very human. Interestingly, it seems that is really much easier to write compelling about human-like rodent civilizations than it is to write about human like civilizations of other species, like horses, dogs, or cats. Rats exist in a different realm than we do, but a parallel realm. We don’t really know what rodents do in the sewers or the walls, we just know that they do something. They are there, they survive, they reproduce. We have this sense that they could have human-like civilizations down there.

There is this sense, at the end of both novels, that these rodent populations are struggling against some formidable evil and that they will eventually, inevitably fall. And then, so will we.

Flowers for Algernon is different than Mrs Frisby and The Amazing Maurice in that it doesn’t describe a population of human-like rodents. In Flowers for Algernon, Charlie Gordon realizes what his fate will be when he sees the fate of the mouse (Algernon) which underwent the medical procedure that he underwent. Again, rodents are us, and we are them, but this time much more obviously. Charlie’s fate is Algernon’s fate.

Rodents survive anywhere we survive. We cannot rid ourselves of them. If rodents were wiped out, so would we be wiped out. Like us, rodents are omnivores and are opportunists.

“The rat is a clean animal living in the middle of filth, a cunning and intelligent creature of no discernible use, a parasite rather than a producer,” writes Burt. Is that not as true of humans as it is true of rats? Culvier, who classified the animal kingdom in 1817 said that rats have an “extraordinary capacity for destruction disproportionate to their size” (Burt). Is this not also true of humans?

The mouse as a lab animal

Wow. Before DNA had been identified as the genetic material, people were already doing complex studies to determine whether cancer had a genetic component. To do this, they were using the mouse as a human model. Again, mice as humans. If this medication will cure mouse cancer, we say, it should cure human cancer.

Our distaste for mice and rats has made it very easy to make them subject of our (perhaps cruel) scientific experiments.Don’t get me wrong. I support animal research more than your average American. I’m going to do research on animal when I grow up. Also, most of us are alive due to animal research. But, we must admit that it is sometime cruel. Intrntionally breeding mice that will inevitably die of cancer is cruel. Necessary? yes. Highly useful? yes. But also cruel. I’m not here to discuss the ethics of animal research, however.

Mice came to be a staple model animal because of one researcher, Little, who bred a strain of inbred “oncomice” and because of the American anti-cancer movement. Without Little, what would research look like? How different would it be?

Names: animal as individuals and as objects

Names impart human characteristics. Apparently, there is some evidence that dolphins call each other by name, but (as far as I know) few (if any) other species do. By giving something a name, we are giving it a small piece of our own humanity. We are saying “you are one of us.” Of course laboratory animals are not named, just as meat animals are not named. Once we have named an animal, we have in a way, “humanized” it, and then we couldn’t use it as if it were an object, rather than a living thing.

When we consider laboratory animals, just as with meat animals, we don’t want to consider the idea that animals we use could be anything like us.

Is this wrong? I don’t really know, honestly. If we first say that the use (as food or as a model) of the animal is necessary and further we say that people must be involved in the maintenance of the animal, then these people must somehow get around the fact that the animals for which they care every day will eventually die. This is very possible. We become affectionate selectively in our lives with good reason. If I cared for every person I met as much as I care for my brother, I would not be able to function. Similarly, if I cared for every animal as much as I care for my pony, I would always be filled with despair.

Finally, I’m going to go ahead and say that I’m with Shapiro on the lack of necessity of laboratory animals in psychology. Why are we modeling psychological conditions in something as different than a human as a rat? Medical conditions, yes. I get that. Our physiological systems aren’t tremendously different that those of a rat. Our mental systems, however, are very different and the use of a rat model seems generally irresponsible (not in every case, obviously. But in many, if not most cases).