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University Of Utah Investigation: Angus and Me

PETA’s Vice President of Laboratory Investigations Kathy Guillermo talks about the relationship that she had with a unique animal companion.

 

Years ago, I had a wonderful animal companion 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 tabletop in my home, where he never had to be confined to a 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?

This study is just the latest in a long line of experiments that should have convinced us long ago that rats are thinking, feeling, living beings with a sense of humor, an affectionate nature, and the capacity for suffering. 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.

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 risk their own lives to save other rats, especially when the rats in peril are babies. Sadly, rats and mice 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. 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 human beings?

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