University’s research on rats inhumane: usage of rat testing in psychology labs is unethical, cruel

Many readers may be surprised to learn that there is a class in the Psychology Department at the University that conducts animal research. The course—the so-called “rat lab”—partners students with rats in order to understand how learning occurs and behaviors form. Students condition the rats to perform tricks, such as jumping through a hoop or shooting a ball into a goal, by withholding water from the animals until the student is satisfied with the result or the rat’s effort. Students typically devote the entire semester to teaching the rat to perform one or two tasks.

After the semester is over, the fate of the rats is limited to either being adopted by a student, sent to a sanctuary with hundreds, if not thousands, of other rats, or being euthanized. Because many students do not adopt their rats afterwards for any number of reasons, including not wanting the responsibility or not being allowed to keep it if they live on campus, most of the rats do not find happy homes after the lab has ended. Very few are ever euthanized for lack of alternatives, but it does happen.

In essence, the rat lab is unnecessary to students’ learning, and the displeasure that the rats are subjected to is not justified by the educational value of the class. Although rats are treated more humanely at our university than they are at many others, being spared from invasive surgical implants and chemical toxicity tests, they nonetheless experience discomfort and suffering and, in some cases, death. There is no need for the cruelties of the rat lab when there are alternative experiments that do not involve nonhuman animals.

While your personal opinion on the ethics of the rat lab probably depends on what you think of animal testing in general, there is a valid case against the experiments based in fact. Rats in the lab spend all of their time locked in a cage, only free to roam outside during the experimentation activities and about half an hour of daily leisure time. When the rats finally do get out, they’re usually forced to do exhausting and confusing activities, all the while being deprived of water. The rats are often very stressed and deal with chronic health or behavioral issues.

You may think that none of this is cruel—after all, they’re just rats, right? Well, the fact that these animals are part of experiments that test their ability to learn and remember, as well as to respond to negative and positive stimuli, is surely an acknowledgment that they can feel pain and pleasure, and that they have memories. It wouldn’t make sense to use an animal in a learning experiment if you didn’t think that it could think and learn.

While it is true that the lab isn’t as cruel as it could be, this does not mean that it is cruelty-free. Hardships don’t start for the rats once they’re in the lab, but in fact start when they are born. The rats used in the rat lab are bred in a laboratory, specifically for the purpose of being used for research in educational and biomedical facilities. Some rats are born with health problems due to the unnatural conditions of their lives in captivity, and many of the rats that die in the rat lab die because of these underlying health issues. From the beginning, the rats are doomed to a life with little potential to be free and happy.

It should be noted that there are institutional checks that seek to limit and reduce suffering in the rat lab and any other research at the University that might involve animal subjects. The primary obstacle that these experiments must pass is the Institutional Review Board (IRB), which is present at almost all colleges and universities. The IRB sets standards for the ethical care of animals and oversees compliance with these standards. The problem is that these standards may be easy to work around if the research is conducted in the name of science and education, or the standards may be weak to begin with. Students and instructors also try to make the rats as comfortable as possible.

But the fact remains that the quality of life for the rats in the lab is subpar. One student I spoke with adopted a rat from a friend who took the class. She told me that her rat is often skittish and displays other behavioral issues. She also said that her rat experiences physical health difficulties, as it is common for these rats to age prematurely. Even when the rats are able to find good homes afterward, they are left with enduring health problems.

I see no reason to continue with the rat lab when there are many practical alternatives that do not involve nonhuman animals. Couldn’t the same objective be achieved if children or adults were used for similar, or even more complex, experiments? These results would be more valid because the human subjects could explain their reasoning and describe sensations that they feel to the researchers, which rats cannot do. Plus, humans can receive benefits from participating in the research, such as financial compensation, which rats also cannot. Lastly, and most importantly, humans can give their consent to the experiments, which rats cannot do.

The ethical debate should be settled: there is too much potential for cruelty in the rat lab to justify its educational benefits. The Psychology Department and the University should instead use only human-based experiments that present no risk of suffering or unreasonable discomfort to the research subjects, and for which the subjects can consent to participating in.

Animal experimentation should have no place at our University.