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Some animals can use tools? Who cares?

Written by PETA | April 8, 2008

Kathy Guillermo is the director of PETA’s Laboratory Investigations Department, where she works to expose the waste and cruelty of the multi-billion dollar animal experimentation industry. She also happens to be a damn fine writer, (and she’s got a great sense for snappy titles). This op-ed, about a recent study showing that some rodents can use tools, recently appeared in The Raleigh News Observer.

Some animals can use tools? Who cares?
-by Kathy Guillermo, PETA

Years ago, I had a wonderful companion animal named Angus. He was a remarkable little fellow who loved to greet visitors to my house and snuggle next to me on the sofa. His favorite food was Chinese carry-out, and he went bonkers when he saw the white cardboard containers come out of the plastic bag on the kitchen table. He was loyal and sweet-tempered – probably not so different from your own dog or cat.

Except that Angus wasn’t a dog or cat. He was a rat. A brown rat with shiny black eyes and a long pink tail. He lived on a table-top in my home, where he never had to be shut in his cage. He liked to cruise around the house perched on my shoulder.

So it was with particular interest that I read the just-released study on rats, which found that rats can be trained to use tools, to understand the tools’ functions and to choose the most appropriate tool when presented with more than one. Before this, the study says, it was thought that only primates and some birds, in addition to humans, were capable of figuring this out.

So here’s my response, and I hope it’s yours too: Who cares?

Should we change the way we view rats because some of them can be taught how to use a little rake to draw food toward themselves? Of course not. We should change our attitude toward rats because they are thinking, feeling, living beings with a sense of humor, an affectionate nature and a capacity for suffering that the human race should stop ignoring.

This study is just the latest in a long line of experiments that should have convinced us of this long ago. Last July, researchers at the University of Berne, Switzerland, announced that rats are influenced by the kindness of strangers. If rats have been assisted by rats they’ve never met before, they are more likely to help other rats in the future. A sort of rodent version of “Pay It Forward.”

Other studies have shown that rats become distressed when they see other rats being electrically shocked. We shouldn’t be surprised – though apparently the experimenters were – that the rats become even more agitated if they know or are related to the rat being shocked.

Scientists with special recording equipment have shown that rats laugh out loud in frequencies that can’t be heard by the human ear. Young rats who are being tickled are the most likely to giggle. Rats have been shown to be altruistic and have risked their own lives to save other rats, especially when the rats in peril are babies.

All of these studies, including the latest on tool use, are published in journals, and news releases are sent out, and science bloggers chat online about them, but in the end, what difference does it make to rats?

Rats and mice, that other unfairly maligned species, are still used and killed by the tens of millions in U.S. laboratories every year. They are denied even the minimal coverage of the Animal Welfare Act, the only federal law offering any sort of protection to animals in laboratories.

So while it may pique the curiosity of some that rats can be taught to use tools, the more interesting result of this and all the studies that came before it is that experimenters apparently can’t be taught to put the results of studies to good use. If experimenters had this ability – the sort of reasoning that should get one from A to B in a logical way – they’d read the evidence that rats can think, learn, feel, laugh, act altruistically and risk their lives for others, and they’d stop caging and hurting them in laboratories.

When a person knows that another being can suffer, and yet deliberately sets about causing that suffering, shouldn’t we worry less about which species can use tools, and more about the callousness of some people?

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  • lynda downie says:

    Susannah I absolutely agree with you that animals have no need of a human standard to measure their value and intelligence. The problem is that animals are held captive by people in power who don’t share our views. How do we free them from the iron grip of vivisectors and agribusiness etc? If we assert that animals are intelligent and have value independently of humans they can simply counter that animals are unthinking tools of science food products etc. It’s our word against theirs in a fight that’s weighted in their favor. But we can’t be dismissed so readily when we have the scientific evidence to back our claims of animal intelligence. I’m an abolitionist but I think it’s going to take all we’ve got including science to challenge those who with disdain and ignorance excuse their abuse because ‘it’s just an animal’. But I welcome any counter argument you have to my opinion.

  • lynda downie says:

    Thank you Maya. True. A species may form isolated populations that differ from one another because they have to adapt to different environments. And as you say the better we understand animals the more able we are to protect what habitat there is left for them.

  • Susannah says:

    All of those studies are pointless as if intelligence can only be measured by human standards! Animals all have their own “standards” and most of us couldn’t do what they do either. Hopefully through the efforts of organizations like PETA the time will come when our consciousness will expand to include the fact that not all animals have to be US in order to take their rightful place in the universe and that conversely WE have no right to use them in ways we would not condone using each other.

  • Maya, CVT says:

    Lynda that’s a great point! I’d also like to note that the media unfortunately has dumbed down this science. When biologists study wild animal behavior they are trying to catalogue their natural history. Seeing crows use tools for example may be a clue to their evolution. Some species on one island will behave differently than species on another island. Learning how wild animals evolve helps us understand them better helps educate students and allows us to forecast how to protect their ecosystems.

  • Taylor says:

    Umm I thought PETA was altogether against animals? And I’m not trying to be a jerk because this for me was a very interesting piece to read.

  • krknv says:

    Are you telling me PETA scientists shocked rats!!! I’m going to be sick.

  • Melbourne says:

    Awwwwww such a cute rat!!!

  • lynda downie says:

    Excellent paper. Like Kathy I think these studies are pointless if they don’t make a significant difference in the lives of animals. I just have to add though that I think they are important in that some people insist on scientific evidence that animals can do anything. We’re coming from a dark history in science where animals were viewed as incapable of even feeling pain which was used to justify vivisection. Any progress in the scientific understanding of animals can give strength to our arguments for their appropriate treatment.

  • Judith, Freedom Fighter for Animals says:

    Hanna B Rats are so wonderful. When I had my two little guys that I rescued so many years ago they were so wonderful. That was in 1968 when I took them from the sicence Lab who were going to feed them to a snake. I had both boys for about 7 years. When my parents came in to say goodnight to me there was a dog and my two rats in my bed and we all cuddled. My parents learned to except everything I did for the animals. LOL My Ernie 1 and Ernie 2 never pooped in the bed! Rats are wonderful companions. Peace!

  • HannaBanana says:

    Stephanie that’s funny. My sister told me that when she comes over I have to put my rats back into their cage….I told her “sure if you’ll lock your cat in the closet when I come over.” …I’d never ask someone to do that…but I hope she got my point..haha. Animals are animals… They are all awesome.

  • Pamela L. says:

    I can relate to Kathy’s adorable story of her pet rat. For years I have had winter visitors only two probably diffferent each year 2 little mice who lived in an old shoe who I fed and talked to all the time you better believe they are intelligent I believe they understood every word I said. THey dined on my offferings peanut butter bread and crackersand cheese I also put out soda bottle tops with water in them. Like clockwork they would disappe ar when the weather got nice. This not a conversation I share with everyone as we all know there are those people who use the words “ugly rodent” and “vermin”. To each there own. Also I have always felt that animal experimenters especially the horribly cruel and vile would at some point have to answer to a higher powerif you will and have their day of reckoning. Perhaps at some oint in time they themselves would be the subject of senseless experimentors.

  • Dogwalker says:

    Great job Kathy! My sentiments exactly and ditto for all the experiments on parrots that can “count” chimps and gorillas using sign language or playing video games indeed all the lab work that destroys the lives of the subject animals to try to show how humanoid they can be trained to become. Let them be their natural selves! And all animals of every stripe and shape are brilliant at doing whatever it is they do in nature. Perhaps we should turn the tables around and ask these researchers to try to get enough to eat by catching insects on the wing using echolocation or maybe just find enough worms to feed a family without using tools like the robin in my yard is doing right now.

  • Stephanie says:

    This is so cool! I always have had nothing but compassion for animals but my not so supportive family has never thought I would be so compassionate if a rat or mouse found their way in my house. If they only knew.

  • Scarlett says:

    i loved all my pet rats and they loved me

  • Cali says:

    I would give my right arm to hear a baby rat giggle. I bet that is the funniest sound on the planet.

  • HannaBanana says:

    Jack I love your latest blog. About 18 months ago I adopted 2 baby boy rats and I have fallen so in love with these adorable little animals. They are so funny highly intelligent and creative…I will probably always rescue them. Not only does Kathy’s article rock…she’s a saint for doing what she does.

  • Barry Kipperman,DVM says:

    Excellent piece and observations. Couldn’t have said it any better.

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