Apr 16, 2021 | LIFE | By Zeke Lloyd | Illustration by Xixi Qin

Skunk, a Long-Evans lab rat, spends all of her day in the Tutt Science Building. A black stripe runs from the back of her head to her tail. This coloration gives her an inverse resemblance to the smelly rodent she is named for.

For a few hours each day, Skunk is visited by Violet Datcu ’24 and her lab partner, Lily Byrne ’24. Each day, they work to progress the animal’s proficiency in basic tasks: eating after the sound of a knock, pushing a lever to receive food, and moving a marble down a track.

“Our rat is actually far along in its training. We should be able to test out, meaning prove we have taught her all the skills, in a week,” Datcu said.

The rat lab is a canon experience at Colorado College. The practice of training rats at CC is over 30 years old; it even remains a tradition despite the limitations of the pandemic.

Over the course of Introduction to Psychology, the students are expected to train their rat via operant conditioning; the rat is rewarded for performing tasks or semi-rewarded for attempting to complete them. The lab plays an important role in the students’ understanding of course material.

“Just watching another being evolve cognitively is a pretty helpful way to the see the information we’re reading in the textbook,” Datcu said.

In fact, the relationship between the human and the rat often develops far beyond the realm of science. According to the psychology paraprofessional, Jess Keniston ’20, it is not uncommon for students to form a close bond with the animal.

“The first day, my initial question was ‘What do you do with the rats after?’” Datcu said. “When I found out their devastating fate, I was so sad.”

When the experiment is done, the rats are euthanized and given to the Pueblo Raptor Center. Some refuse to let this happen. Sources have confirmed that there have been instances of rat theft. Such schemes are difficult to cover up, though. Students are responsible for their own rat, and stealing it would raise suspicions directly around them.

It would be possible, though, to buy a second, identical rat and use it to replace the original. As there are a large number of rats in the class (and because many of them look alike), it is unlikely that such a plan would fail.

Would it be ethical, though? Is there a moral issue with rescuing your own rat and putting another in its place to die?

It is easiest here to find a parallel with the trolley problem. The traditional form of the philosophical inquiry is simple: If a train is going down the tracks, en route to kill five people, would you pull a lever to make it switch courses and kill only a single person?

At its base, the question asks if doing nothing and allowing the five people to die is worse than doing something and directly causing the death of one. Here, no action leads to the death of a friend (which is the rat with whom you have bonded). Taking action, meanwhile, would save your friend but lead to the death of a stranger (which is the store-bought rat you put in its place).

Datcu, who has formed a close bond with Skunk, still takes issue with the action. She believes that by participating in the lab and working to help young minds understand both psychology and animal research, the rats have lived meaningful lives.

“Any other rat that I did switch out with mine would be gassed and euthanized for no reason. That rat would have had the ability to live however long its life would have been in the normal word,” Datcu said. “Why subjugate another animal to that if it hasn’t provided much of a purpose?”

Datcu also questioned the quality of life for stolen rats. “This rat has no self-sufficiency; if I were to try to ‘save it,’ it would live in a cage in my room because it can’t hunt or protect itself or survive in any form of environment.”

Dorm life might not be that terrible for a rat, though. “I have known some nameless people who had some illegal pets in the dorms and done a fine job,” Keniston said. The paraprofessional also points out that unlike the original trolley problem, in this situation, the net difference in “lives taken” is the same.

No matter what, one rat will die. The choice is not in saving more lives or less, but instead in which rat to save. Deciding the value of a life can be difficult, and Keniston argues that the decision should not be based entirely on affection for one creature.

“Who is to say that that rat’s life that you bought has less value than the rat that you trained? Not you,” Keniston said. “Maybe that rat that you [bought] could have cured cancer.”

The question at the center of the inquiry is whether the bond between person and rat is ethically significant enough to warrant the death of an innocent rat. In all fairness, that bond manifests itself in the real world, most importantly through the happiness gained by both the savior and the saved.

On the inverse side of things, the death of the lab rat would cause the student sadness, and there is no guarantee that the store-bought rat is ultimately going to live a long and happy life. Should this potential happiness (or sadness) of the two parties be factored into the question of morality?

It might also be argued that by going through the risk of stealing the lab rat, a student demonstrates a readiness to put forward a large amount of effort for the animal. Accordingly, they would likely take good care of it if it were in their possession. The lab rat would be promised a good life, while the store-bought rat is not guaranteed one.

This question of right and wrong might not have an easy answer, but that is not to say it doesn’t leave the mind running on a hamster wheel.   

I’d like to say that I don’t condone anyone stealing their rats,” Keniston said. “But it is an interesting moral dilemma.”

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