Some animals can use tools? Who cares?
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?