July 2011


In the rat room

By Gail Bell
Caged rats awaiting their fate. © Francesca Yorke/Getty Images
Caged rats awaiting their fate. © Francesca Yorke/Getty Images
Reflections on the breeding house

For two-and-a-half years, between 1969 and 1971, I spent eight hours per day – minus weekends and holidays – in voluntary confinement with hundreds of caged albino rats. I knew nothing useful about rats before taking the job, very little about vivisection and had not yet begun my student life at the University of Sydney, which owned and operated the animal breeding station. It wasn’t until I was older and slightly more switched on that I asked myself the difficult questions that hasten a confrontation with the ethics of playing God.

In many ways it was the perfect job for a young recovering panic merchant. Geographical isolation, hours alone with non-speaking mammals, a heavy door between me and the other primates, and a routine to learn and master at my own speed. Nominally, I was a laboratory assistant in a facility that had no lab. The training on offer was of the passed-down from wiser heads variety and I could hope for no piece of paper at the completion of the probation period. Not that I was staking a future in rat wrangling; everyone has to start somewhere and I had my eye on the distant gleam of scientific discoveries. My first sight of the facility and the overwrought fantasies it evoked in my 19-year-old self was incentive enough. Like the princess who loves the ugly toad for reasons known only to the wised-up reader, I gazed down on the dark building at the end of a pretty country road and thought: Yes, I can do that.

The animal house lay at the base of a rolling down, a corruption of conjoined ox-blood brick buildings as dark as a pre-revolution factory and crowned at the furthest reach by two chimneystacks. Not even the ripening wheat in the adjacent field could offset its graveside gloom.

Feeling stupid in my best frock and shoes and mouth-breathing against the smell, I followed the director along a pathway to the business end of the operation. At the sound of our feet, guinea pigs fled to the safety of bunched-up straw. Closed doors and electrical humming gave a sense of people hiding nearby, of breathing synchronised to footfalls. When the director spoke aloud he was answered by a sudden chorus of noise, the place waking up to his alarm clock presence and all that a visit from the man in charge implied. A door swung open anticipating the knock and there was Old Jack ready and beaming. The director handed me over and that was that. I was in.

Jack ran the mouse rooms and knew all the tricks.

“Rodents is rodents,” he said. “Think of it this way, a rat is just a big mouse.”

Once the director disappeared to the cool privacy of his office, Jack rapidly lost interest in me. After a quick tour of the mouse kingdom he passed me over to Maureen, who was in charge of rats and needed an offsider.

“Better get yourself a pair of skates,” she said, looking down at my shoes, “no end of orders coming in.” Rats were the big-ticket item that year. I would have my own rat room, my own colonies and my own quotas. Even if the science of animal husbandry flowed like a silent river beneath the work in front of me, I was now a member of the animal house fraternity and, on the inside, science was a dirty word. Science was what the dills at the university practised. Science was a head-trip. Out here real people did real work.

The other staff were mostly dour men in their twilight years, loners who chose to work in a place where you could keep yourself to yourself and not be bothered by outsiders – a situation favoured by the layout of the enclosures, the locked rooms, the silent corridors, the pens and the open runs. It would be months before I ventured into unexplored territory, turning off one pathway onto another, following the strange hooting sounds that were nothing like those of rodents.

I was too busy acquainting myself with the rat room. Before the introduction of plastic boxes, my rats lived in wire cages stacked in aisles, floor to ceiling, in a windowless room kept at a constant temperature. They chattered and rustled like my father’s pigeons, going about their rat routines in the best way they could manage through the wire grilles and barriers to physical contact. I doled out compressed food pellets, filled their water bottles and took away their excrement. For company I 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 or electrodes if they weren’t.

On cleaning day I worked my way up and down the aisles sliding out the trays under each cage, heaping the shit and sawdust into a wheelbarrow using a scraper. And I didn’t always avoid tipping the sloppy mess onto my feet. The sweetish fetid smell got into my pores, my hair, my mouth, and never left my clothes. “Fat lot of good your posh education is in here, eh lass?” Old Jack liked to say. No amount of trying to set the record straight worked against Jack’s idea that I was a stray silvertail landed in the wrong part of town.

The cycle of life plays out quickly for lab rats, with longevity usually only granted to the population kept for reproduction. The breeding males with their disproportionately large testicles had the easiest time of it, sitting out their sullen isolation until the boredom was broken by a fresh virgin dropped into their laps. The females popped out litters after three short weeks, nursed the tiny pink jellybean pups to weaning age, grew protective and worried when their babies were snatched away, then quickly forgot them as a new pregnancy evolved.

We bred Wistars and Sprague Dawleys, both white, both red-eyed in appearance but importantly different in research terms. Mixing the breeding lines was the first thou-shalt-not commandment I learnt. Any rat that hit the ground, no matter how quickly retrieved, was dead meat. Maintaining the integrity of these albino freaks was what we lived for in the rodent rooms. Researchers need clones, not mongrels with idiosyncrasies that can’t be factored into their experimental design. Once rats have cycled through 20 generations of brother–sister inbreeding, each individual is 98% the same as the next; after 40 cycles the percentage nudges 100.

Six months into the job, the wire cages were dismantled and replaced by plastic boxes. Our rooms became less humid, less smelly, and we agreed that the rats seemed happier. Of course we judged the index of happiness by our own standards. That an animal as social as a rat might prefer mixed company to cleanliness never entered our heads.

I avoided any behaviour that seemed overtly cruel even though my orientation (as dictated by management) was ruthlessly eugenic. 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 for the never-seen professor who transmitted his requests by telephone. The dead bodies went into a box to be collected by Dudley, the taciturn disposer of corpses. 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. When sufficiently full, we poured undiluted chloroform into the tin, clamped on the lid and waited for the scrambling to stop. Dudley told me they burnt quicker with a bit of chloroform to kick things along.

Perhaps my knack for snapping necks without a pang of guilt came down to me in the blood. After his tour of duty in the atomic-bombed ruins of Hiroshima, my young father, needing funds to marry, heard there was work in the killing sheds at Homebush Abattoirs.

The way he tells it, he adapted quickly to the implacable momentum of the slaughterhouse. He hoisted squealing pigs onto upward rising conveyor belts, cut tendons, slit throats, slipped and sloshed in ankle-deep blood. Two thousand pigs on a good day. Once in the gut sheds he chopped the end of his little finger clean off at the first joint. As children we used to hold up the stunted digit and marvel. How did it happen? Was there a lot of blood? Did you scream?

My father killed with great dexterity, like an Easter Show woodchopper. Vets were banished from our house in my growing-up years. If the family dog was in the throes of tick-bite he would wrest the animal from our clinging arms, ignore our pitiful cries of “please Daddy, don’t” and carry the limp pet off down the backyard. In the morning we’d put flowers on the little mound of dirt and despise him for his black heartlessness. On his retirement farm in the high country he had a special shed where he killed and dressed sheep for the table. “You eat lamb,” he’d say. “Where do you think it comes from? Outer space?” Good slaughtering was a skill. There were no shortcuts, and never any excuses for cruelty. “Blokes in a hurry at Homebush,” he’d tell us, shaking his head, “cut into a beast before it was dead, just to speed up the line. No need for it.”

During my years at the animal house, Peter Singer was gestating his 1975 book, Animal Liberation. The shift away from disregard for the subjective experience of experimental animals to today’s acknowledgement of animal rights (with the accompanying hogtying grip of ethics committees in tertiary institutions) had everything to do with the movement started by Singer. Once researchers believed that the smaller animals felt no pain; some still hold that belief. But where in nature do we see creatures giving up their lives or limbs with no show of protest? The mouse imperfectly caught in the trap squeals. The fleeing rat struck by a stick cries out in distress. The spider or ant reels and struggles like a drowning person after a whiff of Mortein. Even the fabled lemming tumbling to its death scrabbles its paws at clean air. “The experimenter who forces rats to choose between starvation and electric shock to see if they develop ulcers (which they do) does so because the rat has a nervous system very similar to a human being’s, and presumably feels an electric shock in a similar way,” wrote Singer.

The tenets of ‘speciesism’ as described by Singer were unknown in the animal house. We bred them, fed them, then shipped them off to the university in a truck, where anything could happen to them and usually did. If rats weren’t the ticket for a particular experiment then a few dogs would do, and if dogs failed the criteria then we had (from time to time) gibbons, sourced in Sumatra.

My time at the breeding station was not an Orwellian Room 101 experience. The ‘worst thing’ in my world had already happened at the hands of some unknown troublemaker who had fired a gun at me one night on a lonely road. Rats presented no threats to my physical or emotional wellbeing; it was strangers and loud noises and cruising cars that excited my adrenaline, not the rustle of tiny feet in sawdust. I enjoyed my work and gave no thought to the active part I played in facilitating the sacrifice of rodent lives to the engine rooms of science.

However, I was affected in a very different way when I ventured out of the cocoon of the rat room. At the far end of the animal house, behind doors, I discovered a chamber of horrors: dogs brought back from the university dental and surgical departments, sad creatures, sadder than pound dogs, with strange additions to their natural morphology. Skin grafts shaped like handles sewn to the torso between their hips. Missing teeth. Misshapen throats. Some went back and forth to Sydney until they were no longer wanted or suitable, and then they were euthanised – that soft, seductive word implying a gentle roll into sleep. From the dog pens, the carcasses went straight to the incinerators. The smell on the wind could make you sick to your stomach.

In the same valley as the animal house the university had an agricultural outpost. When the killing and the burning flesh got too much, I’d take my lunch break outside and watch the undergraduates in dungarees move along the rows in what looked like some version of hippy heaven, stopping to do the graceful work of spreading an ear of wheat on the palm of a hand to take its dimensions. In the way that compartmentalising allows us to entertain both sinister and benign views of the same predicament, I would finish my sandwich, take a last wistful look at the sunbaked fields then go back to the rats.

 When I picked up my studies again and handled rodents in pharmacology practicals in the early 1970s, I participated in what I now see were unnecessary demonstrations of superior firepower to prove outcomes that were already known. Classes of clumsy students wielding syringes (some intent on cruelty; some not meaning any harm but effectively prolonging the agony with repeated timid pokes) lunged at defenceless mice as part of their training, purely to confirm information that had been on the record for centuries. Morphine dulls pain. Diuretics make you pee. Digoxin slows heart rate.

I freely acknowledge a case of retrospective guilt here. At the time I was trying to get my grade average up.

With age comes reckoning. And more, if we are to believe findings published in a recent edition of Psychology and Aging. “Emotional intelligence” peaks as humans move into their sixties. Older brains appreciate the “sadness” of sad situations because the “detached appraisal” switch that was employed in youth breaks down. This is interpreted as an evolutionary uncoupling of pathways and network systems that were built up in the storms of shaping a life out of the materials to hand and that are now largely redundant. Without battles to fight, the “brain on ice” (Lenin’s words) begins to thaw out.

I come back to a winter memory of my father tethering his kelpies in the overturned shell of an old water tank, the high country wind cutting through the holes like frozen spears, the dogs huddled, flat, my father contradicting my city-girl fussing with a farmer’s-wisdom counterattack about how working dogs expect to be left out in the cold. Now in his eighties, Dad has a fox terrier (traditionally a ratting dog) permanently on his lap. He spends $800 on vet bills, wraps the dog up in various coats when a cloud passes over the sun and thinks I’m hard for fending off its yappy, heel-nibbling carry-on each time I visit.

He remembers me bringing home mice from the animal house. Boutique colours created on the quiet by Old Jack. He remembers them breeding “like rabbits” and escaping into the neighbourhood. Maverick exercises like that would never play today. Ethics committees employ an animal welfare advocate to argue the case for lab animals. Rodents are given enriched environments, toys, the opportunity to forage, to socialise, to play. The numbers of small mammals (millions) in research projects are being steadily reduced. Compromises have been struck. Welfarists (who regard a primate to be as important as a mouse) challenge old assumptions about the perception of pain in animals at the same table as scientists who make the point that, while lab animals cannot give consent, it can at least be said that being purpose-bred is a superior starting point to being shipped in from shelters or pounds. More effort is made to add analgesics to the list of ingredients in an experimental design. And, not before time, science is embracing alternatives: fruit flies, locusts, mathematical modelling, computer simulations, tissue cultures.

Occasionally, a bush rat will climb up to the high platform of the bird feeder at the bottom of my garden to nibble at the husks of seed left out for wild birds. Its agility is astonishing. Up a tree trunk, out onto a thin limb that sways under its weight, a leap, a grasp, an acrobatic upside-down twist and there it is, hoovering up the leavings of the last pair of lorikeets. At night, possums do the same thing. If we have guests we turn on the floodlight to watch and smile at their “caught in the act” expression. But possums are one thing and rats are another. My father, no lover of rats, puts out baits that he knows I hate. He has no sympathy for my argument that tricking an animal into swallowing a slow, painful poison is worse than a quick execution by trap.

I rarely get worked up about wild rats. They know how to play the game; their ability to operate successfully under the radar of human domination is legendary. They shadow our lives like thieves and panhandlers, foraging in the foodstores and drainage systems of human settlement, silently stalking the grain tiller, the harvester, the storeman, the cook and the disposers of kitchen slops. And that’s the good part.

Where I see red is when unnecessary exploitation of lab rats is pushed under my nose. Recently on the TV news two scientists from the University of Sydney smiled into the camera and broke a good news story, which boiled down to something like: we have produced a batch of happy rats by giving them oxytocin, a feel-good cuddly drug that makes them more social, and more responsive to each other. The impetus? The rationale? To then trial the drug in humans with social anxiety disorder. I was struck by a kind of fury at the way the message was lobbed into my living room. Social anxiety disorder? The Big Pharma–invented condition that only a drug can cure? ‘Creating’ rats who like to be with each other, want to touch, stroke, circle around each other like uninhibited kids with energy to burn and no one to set limits? Rats do that anyway, without being injected. No need to pump a new mother rat full of oxytocin. She’s making her own. She’s soaking in it. Rats are social creatures. Even lab rats under artificial lights will call to each other.

I divert the conversation with my father away from Ratsak to the ever-expanding horizons of science. It’s true that the drugs that keep my parents (and me) going were developed in labs, and that, necessarily, animal sacrifices were made. My father wonders how I can argue against research when we need to get on top of diseases but, of course, I am not making that argument. I am pleading for better research based on better science. Badly designed experiments reflect badly on us all. I once listened, transfixed, to a discussion on “ethics and advocacy – insights into animal experimentation” on ABC Radio National, paying particular attention to a revelation made by Mike Calford concerning a meta-analysis undertaken at the National Stroke Research Institute: 8500 animal studies into the effectiveness of particular drugs in the treatment of ischemic stroke arrived at no useful outcome due to bad design. “That’s a lot of research energy and a lot of animals wasted, isn’t it?” asked the host, Natasha Mitchell. To which the professor replied: “It certainly is.” The sweetener in this story was the willingness of the scientists involved to go back to the drawing board and rethink their methods.

Montaigne’s essay On Cruelty has a sentence that presses on the sore point at the heart of animal experimentation: “I … cannot bear to hear the hare squealing when my hounds get their teeth into it, even though I enjoy the hunt enormously.”

“Science is about the hunt,” I say to Dad.

But the hunt need not be the blood sport it was in the past. If scientific research is lionhearted enough to spare the rat in favour of the tissue culture when such a choice is viable, then why not speed up the approval of alternatives and respectfully exit the rat room?

Gail Bell
Gail Bell has worked as a pharmacist, educator and writer. Her books include The Poison Principle and Shot: A Personal Response to Guns and Trauma.

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