A heartbroken rat

Last week I had to take a "Laboratory Animal Science" course, since I will be working with mice as a part of my MD dissertation. This is a requirement in Germany, if one wants the Medical Doctorate title (or Dr. med. as they call it here).

There are three practical days in this course, in which we get comfortable handling rats and mice. I was in charge of looking after a curious female mouse and a sweet male rat. My mouse promptly bit me on my thumb as I picked her up. When I picked up my my rat from the neck, he just looked at me and didn't even squirm. He sat very still, as I cradled him in my arms and stroked him - like a cat.

"These animals act just like people," my course instructor mused. "The females are aggressive, but the males are gentle."

It's true that the male rats were very quiet when they were picked up, while the female rats screeched at the top of their lungs. (I actually can't stand the sound.) Like women, female rats also looked out for one another: If one was being held down, her girlfriend would sneak up next to her and try to bite the handler.

This lovefest unfortunately didn't last long. I "looked after" the animals by basically torturing the poor things for the whole afternoon. I learned to punch holes in their ears to distinguish them from their neighbors. I was taught how to give them injections, either through their tails or abdomen. I also learned how to take blood samples, which were usually taken from facial veins and, sometimes, even from behind their eyes.

"You'll feel some resistance behind the eye socket, but you just have to push through it," my instructor told me. I shuddered.

The mice and rats were all under anesthesia at this point - their eyes blankly staring, their bodies limp. I picked my mouse up and cradled her in my hands to warm her up. Although her heart was still beating, her body had gone cold.

At this point, we were told to practice "sacrificing" the animals. With mice, this meant dislocating their spines from their skulls with our bare hands. I just couldn't do it. I asked my neighbor to do it for me.

"Wouldn't you kill a mouse if you saw it in your basement?" another classmate asked me.

Many of the rats in the class, however, died just from the anesthesia - which was unusual, we were told. But my rat was still fast asleep, though his heart was beating weakly. One of the course instructors wanted to demonstrate a heart puncture, and she settled on my rat. As the needle plunged into his heart, my rat softly whimpered and then let out a long, loud sigh.

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It reminded me of something I read of Charles Dickens: "In the early evening he sighed, a tear ran down his face, and he died."

"Why me?" my sweet rat seemed to be saying.

And then he died - literally of a broken heart.