Mar 5, 2021 | NEWS | By Esteban Candelaria, Lorea Zabaleta, and Cameron Howell | Illustration by Bibi Powers

This report originally appeared in the CC COVID-19 Reporting Project, a twice-weekly newsletter partnered with The Catalyst that covers the pandemic’s effect on higher education. For more COVID updates delivered straight to your inbox by CC student-journalists, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter here.

One of the only people in the building, the animal colony keeper for Colorado College’s rats, Kris Barney, walked down the quiet hallway of Tutt Science Center and turned right into Room 301. As he walked in, dozens of little feet scurried in their cages, intrigued by his presence after three days of solitude.

After Barney refilled each water bottle, changed beddings, and gave each rat at least four days’ worth of food, he disinfected everything that he touched, despite being one of the only people to go in the room for months.

When the pandemic shut CC down last spring, the psychology department had a decision to make — let their lab rats live on, or shut down the colony and euthanize them humanely. After a discussion with CC’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, psychology professor Lori Driscoll said the department decided to keep the colony throughout the pandemic, with a few tweaks. 

Now, there may only be one person where the rats are kept at a time, as the space is quite small. Also, the colony’s population during the pandemic went from an average of 60 to 70 rats to 22, Barney said.

For Barney, that meant that what was normally a daily routine for him became something he only went through once every four days, after he decided to cut down on time he spent inside the building.  

Until Block 5, the rats were not visited by anyone beside select psychology department faculty and staff, which Barney said seemed to have impacted the overall behavior and demeanor of the rats.

“They don’t seem as active as they typically are or were when I was going in every day,” Barney said. “They’re a lot more docile and not as active.”

But now, Barney said he is visiting the rats more often, as classes with laboratories incorporating rats are ratcheting back up and the psychology department has begun to replenish the colony’s population for students that opt to participate in on-campus laboratories with rats.

Starting up rat labs during a pandemic 

Because many of the rats had become less socialized in their time alone during the pandemic, paraprofessional Jess Keniston said she had to help the rats transition so they would be more used to human interaction and less likely to be aggressive toward students.

“I gentle them, which is I just go in every day and I pick up each rat for a little bit of time, so that they are ready to be picked up by students,” Keniston said. 

The difference between the Introduction to Psychology class’ rat lab this block versus what it looked like before the pandemic is mostly that the laboratories are optional and are done by only one student, as opposed to the usual pair. 

Kristi Erdal, a professor of psychology who is currently teaching the introductory course, said that the room has been arranged so that everyone has their own desks six feet apart, Oscar boxes to train their rats, levers, and food cups. 

“None of that exchanges hands or goes to another rat or goes to another human. It’s all, you know, one rat, one human, together, the whole block,” Erdal said. “And I think that puts everyone’s mind at ease, just knowing that there’s no real way that people are going to share any germs.” 

Erdal said the department has been closely following the science regarding whether or not rats can contract COVID-19 all year. 

“Even up until last month, there wasn’t any explicit studies that said ‘okay rats can contract COVID,’” Erdal said. “But we all knew they’re mammals, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be contracting COVID like other mammals, so we were not at all thinking that they couldn’t.” 

However, Erdal said that this did not dissuade the department from using the rats because of the precautions taken by humans. Driscoll said that the department expects any risks to the rats to be minimal. 

Overall, the department is happy to be reintroducing the popular rat laboratories to in-person learning. Keniston said the labs are a major reason why people take the class. 

“I think having that still be part of Intro to Psych makes the class so much more rich than it was when it was just online,” Keniston said. “I’m hoping that we’re being as safe as possible for all of our sakes, including the rats now.”

About the CC COVID-19 Reporting Project

The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project is created by Colorado College student journalists Esteban CandelariaLorea Zabaleta, and Cameron Howell in partnership with The Catalyst, Colorado College’s student newspaper. Work by Phoebe Lostroh, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology at CC and National Science Foundation Program Director in Genetic Mechanisms, Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, will appear every Monday.

The project seeks to provide frequent updates about CC and other higher education institutions during the pandemic by providing original reporting, analysis, interviews with campus leaders, and context about what state and national headlines mean for the CC community. 

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