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A few days ago, I received this exceptional story from a friend. The twist at the end is especially noteworthy. Until about a year ago, I was fairly ignorant about these animals. Stories like this changed my mind.

If this story affects you, please visit an excellent website which is sponsored by NJARA at: www.askuswhy.com/home.htm

I am sometimes asked 'Why do you spent so much of your time and money talking about kindness to animals when there is so much cruelty to men?' I answer: 'I am working at the roots.'"
-- George T.Angell (1823-1909)



This Lesson in Compassion Weighs Just One Ounce
By Neil Barnard, M.D.


For some years, the last full week in April has been set aside to recognize the suffering of animals used in experiments. I never think about World Week for Animals in Laboratories without thinking about Ratsky.

Ratsky is the name I gave a small white rat I took home from the college psychology lab many years ago. My first lesson in animal rights was taught by this little animal.

The introductory course in psychology at my college used rats who were deprived of water for three days and then put in a "Skinner box" (a cage developed by B.F. Skinner that delivers a few drops of water when a bar is pressed by the thirsty animal inside). At the end of the course, the rats are put together in a trashcan, chloroform is poured over them and the lid is closed.

Students could sign up to implant electrodes into a rat's skull to show that electrical stimulation of the brain can affect behavior. During the implantation procedure, a stereotaxic device holds the rat's head still, its metal bars thrust into both ear canals, breaking the eardrums. My professor's response to my concern about the effects of this procedure on the rats was a joke. "Well, I guess he won't be able to listen to his stereo in the morning." But while I was struck by the callousness of his remark, I was sufficiently desensitized myself that I proceeded without batting an eyelash.

One day, I took a rat home from the lab. "Ratsky," as she came to be known, lived for some months in a cage in my bedroom. And in her cage, she behaved the way I assumed rats behave. But when I started leaving the cage door open so she could walk around I began to see things I hadn't anticipated. After several days of cautious sniffing about at the cage door, she began to investigate the world outside. As she explored my apartment, under my watchful eye, she took an interest in me and my friends.

She gradually became more and more friendly. If I was lying on my back reading, she would come and stand on my chest. She would wait to be petted and if I didn't pay her enough attention, she would lightly nip my nose and run away. I knew that her sharp teeth could have gone right through my skin, but she was always playfully careful.

I realized that street rats are to rats as street people are to people. Given food, water, and warmth, most rats are friendly, fun and meticulously clean. If not forced to live in an unclean cage, their skin has a distinct perfume-like scent. Like a cat, she spent hours carefully grooming herself.

One day, I noticed a lump in her skin. With time, it grew, and it was all but impossible to find a veterinarian who would treat her, since she was not a dog, cat or farm animal. Finally, I convinced a vet, who specialized in laboratory animals, to take the lump out. It was a tumor.

Because rats are meticulous about their bodies and work tirelessly to rid themselves of any bits of dirt, they have to be put in body casts after surgery to prevent them from removing their sutures. When I cut Ratsky out of the cast, she painfully tottered a few steps, trembling. I discovered that the vet had not only removed the tumor, but had also inadvertently removed her urethra, the tube that leads to the bladder, so that urine spilled from her bladder into the abdominal cavity and was a caustic irritation under her skin.

The vet tried to correct his mistake in a second operation, but he was very uncertain whether it would succeed.

When friends could understand caring for larger animals, I found that few people could understand the suffering of this little mammal. Nonetheless, her suffering was very apparent. At night I slept with her in the palm of my hand so I would wake up if she tried to chew out her sutures.

Before long it became clear that Ratsky's condition was worsening. The reconstructed urethra closed off, causing her great distress. Finally, I had her euthanized.

I carry with me the vivid image of this tiny animal tottering painfully out from her cast, of her in the palm of my hand trying to pull out the sutures that were a constant irritation to her. In the months that followed, I began to think about all the other animals whose suffering I had taken so dispassionately and I realized that each one was an individual who can suffer as acutely as the little rat I had held in my hand. And that suffering was just as real whether the animal was "bred for the purpose" or chained in someone's back yard.

Now, as a practicing physician, I continue to be puzzled about the resistance to compassion that I see so commonly in others and that I, too, experienced for so long. Cruelty to animals is diagnosed as a psychiatric symptom predictive of antisocial personality, yet we fail to recognize the cruelties we perpetuate so casually in our own lives.

Not too long ago, my alma mater sent me a survey asking who had been my most effective teacher. I'm not sure that they understood my reply.

(Neal Barnard, M.D. is the president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and is author of "Foods That Fight Pain: Revolutionary New Strategies for Maximum Pain Relief.")

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