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A Lesson in Animal Rights

Ratsky is the name I gave a small white rat I took home from the college psychology lab. My first lesson in animal rights was taught by this little animal.

The introductory course in psychology at my college used rats that were deprived of water for three days an then put in a "Skinner box" (a cage developed by B.F. Skinner that delivers a few drops of water when a bar is pressed by the thirsty animal inside). The point of the lab was to show how learning occurs. For example, if an animal is rewarded (reinforced) for an action such as pressing a bar, the animal will probably repeat the action. At the end of the course, the rats are put together in a trash can, chloroform is poured over them, and the lid is closed.

Students could sign up to implant electrodes into the rat's skull to show that electrical stimulation of the brain can affect behavior. During the implantation procedure, a stereotaxic device holds the rat's head still, it's metal bars thrust into both ear canals breaking the eardrums. My professor's response to my concern about the effects of this procedure on the rats was a joke: "Well, I guess he won't be able to listen to his stereo in the morning." But while I was struck by the callousness of his remark, I was sufficiently desensitized myself that I proceed without batting an eyelash.

One day, I took a rat home from the lab. "Ratsky," as she came to be known, lived for some months in a cage in my bedroom. And in her cage, she behaved the way I assumed rats behave. But when I started leaving the cage door open so she could walk around, I began to see things I hadn't anticipated. After several days of cautious sniffing about the cage door, she began to investigate the world outside. As she explored my apartment (under my watchful eye), she took an interest in my friends and me.

She gradually became more and more friendly. If I was lying on my back reading, she would come and stand on my chest. She would wait to be petted. If I didn't pay enough attention, she would lightly nip my nose and run away. I knew that her sharp teeth could have gone right through my skin, but she was always playfully careful.

I realized that street rats are to rats as street people are to people. Given food, water and warmth, most rats are friendly, fun and meticulously clean. If they are not forced to live in an unclean cage, their skin has a distinct perfume-like scent. If I left a glass of ice water on the floor for her, she would painstakingly take out each ice cube and carry it inch by inch in her teeth away from the glass until all the ice had been cleaned out. One day she labored for hours to pull all my dirty clothes out of a laundry bag. Like a cat, she spent hours carefully grooming herself. One day, I noticed a lump in her skin. With time, it grew, and it was all but impossible to find a veterinarian who would treat her since she was not a dog, cat or farm animal. One told me that Ratsky was a male and the lump was "his" scrotum. Others called it a fat pad. Finally, I convinced a vet who specialized in laboratory animals to take the lump out, whatever it was. It was a tumor. The vet put Ratsky in a heavy cast and said that the operation was successful.

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