After adolescence filled with near escapes and plenty of sewer sex under the streets of Jerusalem, I enjoyed the secure ascetic life of a lab rat. Home was a five-gallon Styrofoam container that nobody could reach on top of the refrigerator where the Boss had tossed it. Nights were quiet. By the time the Filipino workers mopped the floors at first light, I'd already worked my way through the wastebaskets that often contained some Korean cookie crumbs, leftover borekas, and sometimes a spectacular chunk of pizza with a puddle of Coke at the bottom. When the pickings were slim I gnawed on the rubber insulation wires at the back of the floor centrifuge till I got a shock that fried my whiskers and threw me under the lyophylizer. For roughage I nibbled at the corners of cardboard boxes stacked in the closet. After one of the cleaning people found where I did my business in the warmth behind the freezer condenser ("Aiiii! Isang masamang amoy! Big stink!"), I learned to pee and poop in the sinks.
During the day I'd nestle inside a pile of soft shredded pages gnawed out of the lab supply manuals. Between naps I kept an eye on the humans through a hole I nibbled in my Styrofoam home and listened to the chatter of Freda Schwartz, Li Song, and Sam Bream, the humans who worked in the lab. My life was different from my adolescent wilding out in the world where as a hooligan youth I'd roamed the alleys, owning the night, looting a box of groceries or swarming with my brothers beneath the feet of a screaming elderly couple who regretted their late night shortcut home. They don't call a group of rats a "mischief" for nothing.
Now and again I'd still have nightmares of the feral cats who sent me squealing straight up a drainpipe to escape their claws and fangs. After those dreams, I'd hunker down in my hidey-hole, hoping to stay forever. Though sometimes despite the safety and comfort in the lab, I did get bored, and, yes, lonely.
Life changed so much for the better when Sam forgot to sign off on his computer. That night his monitor glowed on the lab bench with a screensaver of a continuous waterfall in the woods. I crept close to watch, us rats being nearsighted. When I stepped onto the keyboard, the whole scene disappeared and the screen showed a bunch of little boxes. It happened so unexpectedly that I jumped two feet in the air and fell off the countertop. In not so very much time, experimenting key by key, I'd learned to open various programs. It was another great night indeed when I accidentally found a way to stream movies. I did all the animal movies first--just anything with four legs, Bambi, Lassie, Babe, Black Stallion, Home Free. One night I found Ratatouille, about a rat that became a famous chef in Paris, a rat who could be whatever he dreamed.
As my taste became more sophisticated, I watched movies like Midnight Cowboy, where Ratso Rizzo, a human who embodied ratitude, was shown to be a good guy after all. Night after many nights, the computer was my life. I learned to read and write on www.starfall.com, and even became a slow two-paw typist. Google, Hulu, Wikipedia, and YouTube were my classrooms.
Time passed and it seemed the humans needed to renew their grant to keep the lab going. The Boss came down from his office somewhere in the hospital to talk with the staff. He was a big Russian, with feet that could squash you flat, and he talked so loud that I laid my ears back and covered them with my paws. And smell? I live by aroma, the sharp and the nuanced, but the Boss resembled the dumpster behind the Renaissance Hotel that overflowed with bad meat, stale milk, empty liquor bottles and discarded little shampoo containers. Unlike our general reputation, we rats are very clean, bathing ourselves at least six times a day. Though we don't have thumbs we lick our paws to get to the hard parts.
The Boss stood in the middle of the lab and shouted, "Peoples! We need thiss research at new level. What we need iss new idea." Freda, the lab manager nodded vigorously, knocking her wig askew. Sam nodded too. He was a graduate student from Haifa who was finishing his PhD so he had to listen politely to whatever the Boss told him. The Boss dropped his arms, and said, "One new idea, одна идея. Iss too much to ask in order to keep our lab running?" Even little Li, the Christian predoc from Korea, who was scared of the Boss and didn't understand much Hebrew, English, or Russian, bobbed her head as she put some Erlenmeyer flasks on the drying rack.
From my perch on top of the refrigerator, I too agreed with the Boss. If the lab closed, my I would be forced to resume life on the streets. If they needed a new idea, I was there to help.
That night I booted up Sam's computer and read a draft of his email to the boss in response to the request for new ideas. It was long, turgid, and included a lot of formulas with spectrophotometric and biophysical testing of a variety of mixtures in various concentrations. For years, the Boss had been trying to find a lung treatment for patients in the ICU who were stuck on ventilators. The goal was good, but esoteric experiments in test tubes weren't getting him anywhere. I deleted Sam's email and wrote in its place:
------- Original Message ----------
From: "Bream, Sam" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Dr. Karnokioff@hu.edu.il
Subject: RE: FW: new idea
Date: Mon, 20 Oct 2012 02:00:36
Say Boss, I think we've got to make this work more relevant to people.
The next day Li brought in a green metal box with holes in it that looked like a small suitcase. Out of one of the holes I saw...a small pink nose that sniffed then disappeared. There was much putting away of equipment and opening of boxes and setting up new stuff on the counter by Freda and Li. Sam pitched in with the heavy lifting. After things were in order, a snow- white Sprague Dawley female was pulled by the scruff from the metal box by Freda and plunked, timid, cautious, alone, onto the counter. A rat?! I had no argument with experiments on fruitflies, zebrafish, or even, if you pressed me, mice, those annoying little critters that were basically just rat wannabees. But not us! Not rats!
Despite her fear that pulled my heart halfway out of my chest, the female moved with a sensual grace that reminded me of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Her pink nose had a black spot right on the tip as if some errant mutation contaminated the uniform gene pool from which she emerged. And I've got to say, the most fetching little pink eyes. She had me at her first squeak when Freda pushed her into a small Plexiglas tube and drew blood from her tail.
That night they left her, Millie, I learned her name was, in the box with no food or water, breaking at least three of the rules promulgated by the Hebrew University animal use committee. The box had a tricky catch, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't open it. Through the air holes we touched noses and communicated. She appreciated my concern, but was used to a cage and wasn't too alarmed. She was such a purebred; I worried that she would have little interest in an orphaned gray street rat of highly mixed parentage. Millie's fur smelled like grape soda. We stayed close all night as I thought and thought how to spring her from the box. I could flood the lab by gnawing through a hose in the distilled water filtration unit, but that would risk Millie in the box on the floor. Even crawling up the phone line on the wall, I couldn't reach the emergency fire alarm. There was no way I knew to get out of the lab, and what help could I bring anyway.
The next day, Freda taught Li how to draw more blood from Millie's tail, and then Li took Millie out of the lab in the green box.
I was smitten. I looked up the word on the free dictionary on the web. "Marked by foolish or unreasoning fondness." I didn't think I was foolish, Millie was gorgeous and a delight to commune with despite the hard steel wall between us during our night together. And I was certainly not unreasoning--I lay awake in the daytime and mused over every nuance of nose wiggling and whisker touching, every movement of each of us trying to get closer. Was I too rough for her, a gray-scarred street rat, when she was the essence of purity and grace, matched with good sense? She didn't worry about what she couldn't do anything about, while I thought and thought (ineffectively) about how I could find and free her. The following night I printed out a picture of a Sprague Dawley that resembled Millie, then took the sheet and stuck it to the inside wall of my hutch. I scrambled up a counter and overturned a bottle of methylene blue, touched the liquid with my nose, then scurried back up the wall and carefully put a dot on the tip of the pink nose of the rat in the picture. Sure enough, it looked like her. My Millie.
In the next weeks they repeated this blood-letting procedure on other rats, and though I missed Millie I was hopeful that she was living in the safety of the animal quarters that she was used to, fed, warm, and comfortable, though sometimes I hated myself for hoping it might soon be Millie's turn for Li to draw blood so I could see her again.
And then so it was. Li brought the green cage back to the lab. I'd recognize that dotted pink nose anywhere as Millie sniffed through the holes of the cage. When Li took Millie out of the box, I could see that she was now pale even for an albino rat. They left her in the steel box again overnight. Millie and I communicated our affection through the airholes. I knew something was up since Millie was the only one they kept in the lab these days.
In a panic I jumped to the computer and opened the recent lab files. I saw what was coming: a tracheotomy, then a ventilator, artery catheterization, lung injury, experimental treatment, more bloodletting and death. This was their new idea that I had unwittingly suggested. Millie could smell my fear, but I distracted her as well as I could by telling her the plots of animal novels that I'd read online, narrated by whales, salmon, dogs, bears, deer, pigeons, parrots, wolves, pigs, and spiders, but only a few by rats and then only giant mutant rats that terrorized the world.
At nine in the morning, the Boss was there to supervise. He peered over Freda's shoulder and offered suggestions as Freda with her hand in a big bite-proof glove pulled Millie from the metal box. Quickly she shoved Millie into a Plexiglas restrainer and shot some pentobarbital into Millie's abdomen. Millie fought the drug but soon she was drowsing and Freda pinned her paws to a corkboard and readied the surgical instruments.
My plan was ill formed: create a little chaos and maybe somehow something good would happen. From what I read online this was the standard modus operandi in Israel. Standing on top of the refrigerator erect on my trembling hind legs, my back to my safe and secure Styrofoam home, I wanted to sound like the Wizard that scared the hell out of Dorothy and her buds. But I felt like the wussy little wizard behind the screen. Maybe I could forget the whole thing and crawl back into my hidey-hole. Be secure. Life might go on as before. But it was for me that I was doing it, not only for Millie. For Chaim, Life. I raised my forelegs high over my head like a small but potent demagogue. Taking a deep breath, I SCREECHED!
The humans, used to rats that were pinned down and anesthetized, turned towards me, a live rat taking control of their lives. Their mouths dropped open. Li screamed and collapsed in a chair. The Boss threw a scalpel, just missing the back of Sam's head. Freda shouted, "Do something," at Sam, so he got a broom and took a swipe at me.
I leapt from refrigerator to lab bench to surfactometer, then crawled up the back of the cold box and made an appearance on top. Just as they closed in, I scrambled onto the blood gas machine taunting them by flicking my whiskers. Freda tried to throw a lab coat over me. I jumped to the floor and ran a circuit between their legs. It was a close thing, but I was fighting for a cause greater than myself.
Freda grabbed the phone and yelled for help. After she'd reached up and yanked the fire alarm, Li collapsed back on her desk chair, her legs straight out in front of her after. The Boss did a little Russian dance of rage, while I did figure eights under his stomping feet. He pulled the emergency shower that was used for acid splashes and it sprayed a corner of the lab wetting the floor. Turning to keep me in sight, the Boss slipped and fell on his butt. In response to the alarm, the anesthesiology resuscitation team was the first to arrive and they gave the Boss oxygen and checked his blood pressure while he sat in a puddle on the floor. Other lab workers peered into the lab, blocking the hospital security folks who soon crammed through the doorway. They were knocked aside by the police in full riot gear and then the fireman. I hurtled along the lab bench scattering glassware that shattered on the floor. Around and over and through the lab I charged. I could do the whole lab with my eyes closed just navigating with my whiskers. Sam was getting better with the broom, so I ran even faster and upset a Bunsen burner that lit some spilled solvent in a gloriously distracting bloom. Just as I hoped, the ruckus bought time for Millie's anesthetic to wear off some. I jumped to the counter top, freed her, and bit her tail to get her fully awake. Instantly, Millie got the get, and we both, stoked on adrenalin, streaked out the door.
Out of the lab, back in the world, I kept a nervous eye out, for Millie. Like a nun sprung from a convent, she stopped to look and smell just everything. Ice cream! Tr affic! Insects! Feces! And, yes, cats! They wanted to kill us and all we wanted was to live in peace.
We found our new safe haven in a Jewish-Arab high school downtown. Millie gave birth among old boxes of used paint tubes in an overstuffed loft of the art teacher. It was a tough thing as kid after kid popped out of her, and I paced and paced, stopping only to lick Millie's damp face. After their birth Millie kept her eyes closed for a long time as the kids all nestled up to get some milk. When I nosed her cheek, she finally opened her eyes and snuggled against me. I was so happy I chattered my teeth and Millie laughed because my eyeballs jittered.
At night we had the run of the school that had a good library and plenty of computers. I got off emails explaining my views on animal research to the president, prime minister, members of the Knesset, the deans of the Israel universities and research institutes (and just for good measure, the dean of Al Quds medical school on the other side of Jerusalem), the Association of American Medical Colleges, National Institutes of Health, Jerusalem Post, London Times, Le Monde, Spiegel, New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. The Boss was copied. One of the deans responded. Said he chuckled at my signing the email as A. Rat, and suggested a future in humanities rather than science. He insisted that animal experimentation was no more unethical than eating hamburger. He had a point but I shot back with Aristotle, "...matters of moral action...have no fixedness .., but it must be left in each instance to the individual agents to look to the exigencies of the particular case ..."
Millie and I home-schooled the kids who soon danced on iPad screen keys rather than doing the quaint two paw typing on old-fashioned keyboards like Dad. They learned, but if I didn't keep discipline, they would play http://www.global conflict palestine.dk/gc.html all day long. Millie told me I was getting preachy again, to lighten up, that we'd been young once ourselves. Our kids grew and investigated the world in ways that amazed me. They even made friends with a litter of kittens that one day shared our loft. The mother cat watched from a distance but didn't interfere. Something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for was Kant's definition of happiness. It worked for us.
Eventually Sam emailed me that the Boss's research grant was renewed contingent on the use of mice rather than rats. In appreciation I helped Sam and Li write a review that is already available online. You can look it up.*
*Bream S, Song L, Rodenz R. Mice vs. rats for models of lung injury. Amer J Resp Crit Care Med. Epub ahead of publication.