Rats have rights, too
Colleen McDuling BSc (Med) (Hons), MSc (Med Sci)
Although rats appear to have small brains, they have an enormous capacity for learning, problem-solving, conscious decision-making and mourning. They also demonstrate a sense of humour, playfulness, altruistic (compassionate) behaviour, and much more besides. In addition, they display a wide range of facial expressions. It would further appear that they are also able to distinguish between right and wrong. In his behavioural studies on rats, Professor Laak Panksepp, Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology, and Professor of Psychiatry at the Bowling Green State University of Ohio, USA, discovered that rats emit ultrasound (sounds not heard by human ears) during play that is the equivalent of human laughter. They also emit these sounds whenever they are played with by humans. Professor Panksepp said: "Our work shows that rats are highly emotional creatures, with some basic feelings similar to our own. Few people realise how emotionally sophisticated these little guys are. The scientific world has vastly underestimated their emotional capacities... things that you can only see once you have become friendly with them."
All of my rats have been free-range with the entire house at their disposal. Males were "snipped" in order to prevent breeding. But why free-range? I wanted to give them as natural an environment as possible in which to live out their days. And to carry out my observations on them unhindered. Ethology is the scientific study of animal behaviour in its natural state. The father of modern ethology, Professor Konrad Z Lorenz, had the same idea and kept his animals in a state of unrestricted freedom in his home. In his book King Solomon's Ring, he maintained (as do I) that one can really get to know animals by letting them move about freely. "How sad and mentally stunted is a caged monkey or parrot, and how incredibly alert, and interesting is the same animal in complete freedom...one obtains a mentally healthy subject for one's observations."
Free-ranging allows for mental and cognitive (ability to learn) and normal social development. My beloved free-ranging rats showed such overall development and clearly demonstrated an ability to have fun. Play activities formed an appreciable part of their social interactions with one another, and with their daily routine. Their squeaking, prancing, running, chasing each other and other antics were a joy to behold. Whilst some people would object to keeping rats as pets, those rats that are living out their natural lives in an environment of affection, kindness and peace should be allowed the freedom they would have in the wild. Since rats have a high need for socialisation, under ideal circumstances, they should not be kept singly, but rather in pairs of the same sex or in small groups. If one wants to live with rats, they should be only those needing homes and who have been obtained from animal sanctuaries. The selling of live animals in pet shops should be discouraged.
As far back as 1977, Lore and Flannelly stated in Scientific American that rats survive by means of complex social mechanisms that ensure communal peace, equal opportunity between the sexes and early learning of vital information about the environment. Rat "societies" have a highly organised social structure where there is a significant amount of communication between the animals. Such principles may be applied to the domesticated rat as well, who are not so far removed from their wild counterparts. Invariably, laboratory rats are kept in cramped, overcrowded cages without the opportunity for exercise and proper interaction, let alone mental stimulation. These rats have no variety in their diet, have to sip water unnaturally from water bottles, and cannot get away from their own excrement. They are often handled insensitively by technicians who see them as nothing more than tools.
All of my rats have had names, and have responded to them individually, clearly demonstrating a conscious awareness of their own selves. Each had his or her own distinct personality. And even here, there was the entire gamut of personalities, from the withdrawn to the extrovert, to the lazy, to the mischievous, to the kind and affectionate, to the vicious (until completely rehabilitated), and more. Those rats liberated from labs demonstrated a distinct need for affection and, once their trust in me was established, unreservedly returned affection. All rats are very capable of demonstrating this to their humans, and forming very close bonds with them.
In 1993, I had two very old and frail unrelated female rats who formed an exceptionally close bond and who would sleep together, bring food to each other, and look out for each other. The altruism between them was incredible. In Hans Ruesch's Slaughter of the Innocent, he mentions two incidences where rats have been seen to demonstrate this altruism:
"When rats discover poisoned food morsels, they cover them with their faeces, to warn other less perceptive members of the community."
"A British miner once saw two large rats proceeding slowly along a roadside, each holding one end of a straw in its mouth. The miner clubbed one of them to death. To his surprise, the other rat didn't move, so the miner bent down to observe it more closely. It was blind and was being led by the other."
Rats are fastidiously clean animals and if left alone, will spend hours grooming themselves and discarding dirty bedding. That rats spread plague is now being contested. It is thought that plague is spread by the human flea and not the rat flea. It is further argued that unsanitary and garbage-infested conditions imposed on the environment by humans have led to more disease than could ever have been caused by any animal species.
Raising rats and keeping them in a deprived environment such as is imposed on them in laboratories is unacceptable and leads to indescribable suffering and stress. Indeed, we should ask ourselves the question: "If rats are so like ourselves in their habits and need for a stimulating and enriched world, what can we do to improve their lot in life, and how can we stop the Hell that is going on out there in our research laboratories, and stop them from being used at all?"