What is it about keeping lab mice that continually seems to conjure images of World War II? Is it the obvious:that, in the case of lab mice, we are all Col. Klink, the hapless commandante of Stalag 17, doomed to dominance ohne respect? Or is it domething else in the increasingly murky relationship between the muridae and you and I?
I was thinking about this the other evening on the way home from a family get together. As such events incline, it was pretty good, save for the continuing presence of my niece's fiance, a 250-poudner named Arthur. It's not the guy's weight that bothers me, nor even his gang attire, gun-tattoos and generally unkempt appearance, and, above all, his refusal to talk. To anyone. I've decided to cut him a break on all that a while ago after my mother said, with an eyebrow rising, "Greg, he's only 22. After all, we all do change, right?" No, there was always something else that bothered me about the guy, and now I know what it is: he's a reptile guy. That's right, the dimwad loves snakes.
I found this out when I began talking about my mice, and my niece, now tattooted too, said, "Oh, Arthur would be very interested in your meese, wouldn't you Arthur?"
For a moment I thought jumbo boy was going to pee himself. "Oh, yeah," he said, his eyes going into a wierd, I-just-saw-Cameron-Diaz-naked pinwheel state. "I have snakes." And mice, that's what they like to eat.
It wasn't so much that he has a pet that got me, or even, for that matter, the choice of pet, although I reserve the right to ream him out for that later. It was the glee--that same glee I've noted in other cases of mouse-human interaction: that wierd bit of sadism that seems to emerge when humans use mice. It is an almost irresistable force, and it happens to the most humane among us: the naturalist Earnest Seton ( see: Escape!) and his grimly gleeful depictions of mice being flayed on fences by raptors; the lab assistant who, after being bit through his glove for the umpteenth time that day, hauls off and "splats" the little bastard against the lab door; the new mouse owner (me) feeling the blood rise after failing to catch an escaped mouse for hours.
Last night, I got another dose of it. I just happened to be watching Mo, my oldest mouse, as she climbed up on the rim of her feed dish, then reared and stretched. I have watched this dozens of times and took little note of it until she then, in a mighty leap, sprung to the top rim of the open-top cage and began to pull herself up. It was Mo's great escape, number two! My reaction? I used a towel in my hand to nudge her down--not roughly, but not as gentle as the situation called for. I felt bad and balled up a piece of paper and left it for her, as she loves to rip it up and play with it. I am such a Klink.
Where does this overkill reaction come from? It seems to me that it is important to ask this question if we are to have a society that models its medical future on the mouse--somewhere along the line, all such "soft" or "emotional" or "moral" questions will eat at the science, if left unaddressed. We see now, for example, the growing body of literature surrounding "enrichment"--essentially holding that if we continue to keep lab mice in barren cages, we may get lab animals that are neurologically tweaked by that barrenness, and hence poor scientific proxies.
Then I recalled something eloquent that Desmond Morris once pointed out about our common bond with other mammals. It is this: all of us once cowered in the same corners and hillocks when the reptiles still owned the earth. Perhaps some of us also digested something of the reptile's ways--the relentless, unblinking, all-devouring headset that thwacks when it ought to pause. That's a lot of unscientific pondering, I know. I know. But I think most of us embrace animal welfare and humane lab practices, no matter where you fall on the animal rights/human dominance spectrum. The more we handle creatures that are bound, inevitably, to die for our health, the more we're bound to contemplate such matters.
This morning, upon rising, I noticed something new in the cage--something that had never happened before. Mo and friends had taken the ball of paper I'd put in the night before, and, instead of ripping it to shreds as they normally do, they had carefully unfurled it and then lay it, Christo-like, across the top of their little wooden "mouse house," thus sealing it off.
They had all gone underground.