Enter the Rat Room: The Life of Macalester’s Lab Rats

By Eden Teller ’17. Contributing reporting from Evelyn Newman ’19.

Professor Julia Manor unlocks the door. I walk into a small, fluorescent-lit room — it’s about fifteen feet long by ten feet wide — and there are three shelves hugging the far walls, each one stacked with small plastic cages holding groups of white-furred, red-eyed rats.

The rat room — one of three that Macalester’s rats call home — lies in a narrow hallway in the depths of Olin-Rice. It looks like the rest of the building: tan paint, harsh lighting, hallway interrupted by carts of lab equipment or a student late for class.

I walk over to one of the cages. It’s the size of a large shoebox and there are two rats fidgeting inside. When Manor points to their water bottle, the rats scurry to where her finger touches the clear plastic of the cage. They sniff at the barrier.

There are almost 100 rats sleeping, eating, or wrestling in here, but the room is silent except for our voices.

The life cycle of a Macalester rat begins and ends in Olin-Rice. The psychology department breeds rats on campus, where they have around 500 at any given time.

From the moment they’re old enough to be handled, rats play with students who have been trained in rat-handling. This gets the rodents used to the human touch. At six months, the rats are ready to go to school.

They’re used in both lower-level psychology courses and upper-level neuroscience research seminars, where students test the rats’ self-control, intelligence, anxiety, empathy, memory function and other psychological responses.

Psychology major Graham Husick ‘18 took Introduction to Psychology last year, where he trained a pair of rats to perform a variety of tasks. He says the rats’ main use is to demonstrate psychological patterns that mirror human responses.

While there were a few incidents in his class — someone dropping a rat or pinching a tail while closing a drawer — Husik said Macalester “takes really good care” of the rates.

“People are pretty in control of them,” said Katheryn Paral ‘16, a psychology minor who worked with rats in Learning and Behavior her first year at Macalester. One of her rats escaped once while she was weighing it, but it only made it as far as the counter before Paral scooped it up.

“You definitely feel responsible for them,” Paral said. “They’re really cute and they’re really nice, so you don’t want to treat them badly. You see their own personalities in a way.”

Manor agreed.

“They [the rats] can make you laugh,” she said. “They act in crazy ways you never anticipated.”

Some researchers have developed software to mimic rat behavior, but Manor prefers live animals. She said that students adjusting experiments to match the rats’ individual quirks is an essential part of learning process.

Students do more than just learn about the rats — some take them home. At the end of every Learning and Behavior class, students have the option of adopting their furry subjects. Manor estimates that 10 percent of her students take their rats home after finals. And the commitment isn’t a long one: the lab rats only live for about two years.

The relationship between a student and their rat is more complicated than that of an owner and pet, though. While Macalester’s rat-focused psychology experiments depend on student training and observation, its neuroscience experiments sometimes involve injections that cause temporary memory loss in the rats. In other cases, students administer pain stimuli like small shocks.

Zach Busby ‘18, a psychology major and a student worker whose job is to care for the rats, says these features of the experiment are temporary. Drug-induced effects wear off in a couple of hours. “We calibrate the pain tests on our own hands. It’s all temporary pain if they have any,” he said.

Rosie Laine ‘19, is less certain. She is taking Introduction to Psychology this semester and has been hesitant during some experiments.

“I put my trust in the fact that Macalester treats them ethically,” she said. “But I did feel a little weird about it, honestly. I wonder if the tests are really necessary or educational.”

When asked about student concerns about Macalester’s rats, Manor said that in her four years teaching psychology, no one has come to her with serious complaints about the rats.

“People are pretty understanding,” Manor said.

If a student wants to learn more about the rat rooms and isn’t in a class that handles rats, they are often invited to talk to the professors who oversee the animals and are sometimes even taken on a tour of the rooms.

Jamie Atkins, a faculty member who oversees all of the animals used in psychology, neuroscience, and biology classes, said that while there hasn’t really been anyone with concerns about the rats while she’s been at Macalester, the college’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) tries to be transparent with any student curious or worried about the animals.

That said, even in purely observational experiments, the rats’ lives aren’t exactly a cakewalk. They are placed on lower diets or deprived of water leading up to a training session to incentivize their participation in experiments. In class, students use treats like sugary cereal or chocolate chips to tempt their rats across ropes or reward them for pushing levers. Manor said that these conditions are similar to what the rats would experience in the wild, where food and water often aren’t easily available.

At the end of their two-year lifespan, the rats begin to develop health problems similar to those of humans: cancer, heart attacks, seizures and strokes. When a rat is suffering without an option for treatment, it is euthanized, Manor said. The dead rats are sent to the Dodge Nature Center or the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center to become hawk or snake food.

Inside the rat room, Manor gestures that it’s time to move on. I back away from the cage and take a last look around to memorize the place — I’ve been told I can’t take pictures. Manor holds the door for me. When we leave, it locks automatically behind us, and the rats go on sleeping, eating and wrestling until their next journey out of the rat room.

Have an idea for a story? Email us at thespark@macalester.edu, and we’ll work something out. We promise you won’t get euthanatized or fed to hawks.

 

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