My first lesson in animal rights was taught to me by a small white rat that I took home from the college psychology lab.
The introductory course in psychology used rats that were deprived of water for three days and then put in a cage 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 — if an animal is rewarded for an action such as pressing a bar, the animal will probably repeat the action.
At the conclusion of the course, the rats are put together in a trash can, chloroform is poured over them, and the lid is closed.
One day, I took a rat home from the lab.
“Ratsky” 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 at 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 were lying on my back reading, she would come and stand on my chest. She would wait to be petted, and if I didn’t pay her enough attention, she would lightly nip my nose and run away. I knew her sharp teeth could have gone right through my skin, but she was always playfully careful.
Like a cat, Ratsky spent hours grooming herself. Given food, water and warmth, I found that rats were friendly, fun and meticulously clean.
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, I noticed a lump in her skin. With time it grew, and after a long search, I found a vet who specialized in laboratory animals to take the lump out. It turned out to be a tumor.
After the surgery, she painfully tottered a few steps, trembling.
Despite the surgery, her condition worsened and her suffering was very apparent.
At night I would sleep with her in the palm of my hand so I would wake up if she needed my help. Before long, it became clear that Ratsky’s health was failing and that she was in great distress. Finally, she had to be put down.
I carry with me the vivid image of this tiny animal tottering in pain, of her in my palm trying to pull out the sutures that were a constant irritation to her. In the months that followed, I began to think about all the other animals whose suffering I had accepted so dispassionately, and I realized each one was an individual who suffered just as acutely as the little rat I had held in my hand. And that suffering was just as real whether the animal was a dog, a monkey, a rat or a mouse.
Now, as a practicing physician, I continue to be puzzled by the resistance to compassion that I see so commonly in others and that I, too, experienced for so long. Cruelty to animals is diagnosed as a psychiatric symptom predictive of antisocial personality. Yet we often fail to recognize the cruelties perpetuated so casually in laboratories.
Not too long ago, my alma mater sent me a survey asking, among other things, who had been my most effective teacher. I’m not sure they understood my reply.