Respect and the rat room

When my rodent-fearing sister-in-law asked me if I would remove a mouse she had caught in a trap early that morning, I told her I would come over in the evening. I arrived and was informed that the mouse was still alive. Remembering how mice were sometimes “humanely” killed in laboratories, I held the tail and quickly struck the head against the edge of a brick, seemingly causing instant death. It then struck me that the mouse, pinned down by the neck, had been conscious and struggling all day. I further reflected that I had not given a moment’s thought to this possibility, even though I knew from recent experience that mice were often not killed outright in traps. Also, it seemed easy to forget that so tiny a creature could suffer.

Our varying and variable relations to very little creatures is explored by author, essayist, and trained pharmacist Gail Bell. Published last year in The Monthly magazine, “In the Rat Room” is Bell’s essay about her experiences as a 19-year-old laboratory assistant in 1969-1971. The piece reached a wider audience after it was selected for The Best Australian Essays 2011, alongside contributions by writers like Clive James and David Malouf.

The young woman enters the animal breeding centre as a preliminary to pursuing what she hopes is an exciting scientific career. Here the work is dirty and routine but, for the animal house workers, it is unlike science in being “real work”. Part of Bell’s aim in her recollections is to give us a sense of what it was like to become a member of this strange and isolated occupation. She writes that with “ruthlessly eugenic” intent, while simultaneously attempting to avoid frank cruelty,

“I killed the weak and the lame, the underweight, the crooked of tail, the surplus to needs and the odd aggressive biter. Maureen taught me the ‘lift and snap’ technique for rat killing, a brutal but effective use of superior human body mass. We cracked their necks as matter-of-factly as breaking eggs during the business of filling an order for 20 Spragues of a certain exact weight…Occasionally we had to exterminate a whole bay of rats because of disease or injury or the whim of a superior, and these creatures were thrown into a bin outside the door”.

Bell is not today flatly against the use of animals in science. Furthermore, it is important to note that she did not carry out her tasks so matter-of-factly because she was then incapable of human feeling towards animals. So, for example, she is appalled when she leaves the cocoon of the rat room and discovers “a chamber of horrors: dogs brought back from university dental and surgical departments, sad creatures, sadder than pound dogs, with strange additions to their natural morphology”, including skin grafts “shaped like handles sewn to the torso between their hips”. (That picture, incidentally, might put vets in mind of the old days when dogs were allowed to recover from surgical pracs.)

What comes out in the essay is that the young Bell’s attitude and behaviour toward animals was highly labile. Thus she recalls that in the lonely breeding house she

“played a small portable transistor radio tuned to a top-ten-hits station. It never occurred to me that rats might like classical music, just as it never occurred to me that they might appreciate having their lives enriched by toys or games. These guys were headed for the scalpel if they were lucky, and the torture chamber of drugs and electrodes if they weren’t”.

It was easy to ignore or forget, as perhaps I did with the trapped mouse, that these tiny creatures were capable of enjoyment and pain. As she says, the “mouse imperfectly caught in the trap squeals” and writhes. That is true, and can be remembered, even if we agree with Bell that there is no unfairness involved when we wage war with the rodents who, she thinks, are in a sense thieving from us, knowing all the while how to play the game. Still, in the rat room, immersed in her work and really enjoying it, Bell’s point is that she gave no thought at all to the part she was playing in the “sacrifice” of animals in the engine rooms of science.

Our feelings and thoughts in respect of animals can vary in a different way, by being subject to change of a greater magnitude. Bell reports that researchers have recently claimed that “emotional intelligence” peaks in our sixties. Supposedly, at this later stage of life evolution has allowed for an overcoming of the “detached appraisal” we earlier employed, in favour of a more sensitive appreciation of the pathos of sad situations. What is required for acceptance of this account, of course, is an understanding of the strength of the science behind it.

Nonetheless, Bell provides a personal example of the fact that people can lose a certain hardness to animals and at the same time gain a “childishly tender nature”, as Montaigne approvingly calls it. For her elderly father, once a man who would rather (and did) knock off the family dog than call a vet (vets, says Bell, were “banished” from the household), has become the sort of reformed animal owner, familiar to us all, who racks up large veterinary bills and shrouds the dog in a coat on cloudy days.

More profound changes in views and feelings, as Bell recognises, have arisen from the animal movement, which was substantially triggered by the arguments and books of philosopher Peter Singer. But Bell also seems to be saying that our distress in the face of suffering, as labile and variable as this may be, can alert us to and bear on the “sore point at the heart of animal experimentation” – and, one would think, on many of our dealings with animals. She finishes by supporting medical research while pleading for a better science which focusses on alternatives to animals, and which can begin the process of exiting the rat room.

SIMON COGHLAN

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