Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Rat Bites

Some years ago when I was a graduate student in the Cauller NeuroEngineering Lab, I noticed that something seemed to be amiss. There was a broken flask on the floor and I thought I might have possibly heard something even though I was alone. I put it out of my mind and left.

I returned to the lab a day or two later and I was working quietly when suddenly an escaped lab rat started moving about on the lab bench. The poor thing must have been running around loose in the lab for at least a couple of days as the lab had been mostly absent recently due to a school holiday or break. As a part-time student in the lab focusing primarily on software, I had no previous experience with handling lab rats but I thought I might put this one back in its cage by myself.

Figuring that it was probably hungry, I put some pellets out on the lab bench and when it started to nibble at them I grabbed it with my hand from behind. The rat twisted its head around and gave me a severe bite to one of my fingers. Instantly I thought of at least three key mistakes that I had just made.

I did not release the rat immediately because the damage was already done and I thought I could finish my objective quickly. I transferred the rat from my wounded right hand to the left as I quickly walked to the cage, careful to hold the rat firmly without putting too much pressure on its small body. I then received an even more severe bite to the tip of my left forefinger.

I held on and was able to get the rat into the cage. A student in the adjacent lab treated my wounds and I was reassured by the other students that lab rats are extremely clean animals so I had nothing to fear. They were, of course, quite right as the only long-term consequence was a small scar which is barely perceptible today.

When I reported the incident to Dr. Cauller, he was somewhat surprised as lab rats tended to be docile based on his many years of experience in handling them. He put his hand in the cage and the rat lunged to bite at it. He had only exposed the flat of his hand toward the rat so the teeth could not get a grip.

Dr. Cauller then stated to me that lab rats can sometimes turn feral if on their own for awhile without human supervision. Furthermore, this one appeared to have some bruising on its tail, suggesting a possible explanation for its unusual behavior. He told me he would have to put this animal down as it was now too aggressive to be around students.

I think there are several lessons to be learned from this. To bring out one in particular, I want to emphasize the part of my story in which I optimistically transferred the rat from one hand to the other after receiving the first painful bite. I think that this says something about me, both good and bad, which I will have to consider.