The Rat Mobility Experiment

Professor Yanek of UCLA’s biology department decided upon a peculiar study: he wanted to determine how a rat’s mobility is affected with the application of electric shocks. The aim was to analyze how mammals weigh pain versus a reward of mobility. It was Yanek’s hope that this line of research could have applications ranging from consumer marketing to prisoner rehabilitation.

Yanek led a team of six diligent graduate students. Their duties involved carrying out his experiments and assisting with undergraduate student instruction. To ensure that his team felt empowered and invested in the experiments they were doing, he always made sure to leave out minor details and procedures that required them to figure things out on their own. He didn’t want them to think they were automatons simply following a recipe.

The lead team member of the rat mobility experiment was John, a 25-year-old who was only three semesters away from achieving his masters in neurophysiology. Shy but congenial, John took a year off after graduating with his bachelor’s degree to live in the Peruvian city of Puno, where he taught English at a private school. He kept in touch with a sweet girl he had a relationship with named Loira, but he was sure he didn’t want to return. He had many reasons: the street environment was hectic and sometimes dangerous, the café culture was sorely lacking, supermarkets were often out of basic items, and bad restaurant hygiene would easily cause foodborne illnesses. Halfway through his stay he longed for the comfort and predictability of American life.

With Yanek’s assistance, John planned the experiment. There would be one control group and two variable groups. Rats in the control group would be fitted with a simple GPS sensor attached to their tails before being set loose from the biology building, referred to as the “epicenter.” Measurements would be taken to see how far they would stray, with no limitation placed upon their movement.

Rats in the first variable group, in addition to being outfitted with a GPS sensor, also had an electric shock collar firmly attached to their necks. The collar would deliver a crippling jolt when the rat strayed 500 meters from epicenter, persisting until it turned back. Rats subjected to this condition was known as the 500 Group.

Rats in the second variable group were also outfitted with an electro-collar and GPS sensor, but their shocks were to be delivered differently. At 200 meters, the rat would receive a mild shock meant to stun the animal, but not cause any pain. At 400 meters, and every 200 meters thereafter, the intensity of the shock would increase slightly, only matching the shock of the 500 Group when 2,000 meters from epicenter was reached. Rats subject to this variable were known as the Every 200 Group.

John’s hypothesis, which Yanek agreed with, was as follows: the control group would travel the farthest from epicenter since they had no constraints placed on their movement. The 500 Group would travel an average of 400 meters to place a safe cushion from the painful shock they would receive at 500 meters. The Every 200 Group was predicted to settle at around 1000 meters, when the shock became uncomfortable but not extremely painful. It was thought that the Every 200 Group would endure a handful of mild shocks to experience greater mobility.

There was a disagreement with the university chancellor on whether live rats can be released into the public. Instead of the planned release of eighteen rats, six for each group, they were authorized to release only six in total. This greatly reduced the robustness of their data, but it was better than nothing. Besides, Yanek knew that a successful preliminary study would grease the wheels for something more ambitious down the line.

As the study’s start date grew closer, there was a meeting between Yanek and John to make final preparations.

“Have the rats been ordered?” Yanek asked.

“Yes, I ordered eight brown rats, model H-1057, including two backups in case of accidental death.”

“Did you retrieve the electrical collars from the storage unit and test them?”

“Yes, I tested six of them on myself. They are definitely working.” John grimaced slightly but Yanek didn’t notice. “I also calibrated them.”

“The GPS units?”

“I calibrated those as well, and tested them at a distance of 100 meters. All are accurate.”

“Good, good.” Yanek tapped a pencil on his desk, focusing on the wall behind John. “For the six days the experiment is running I expect you to be on call and take care of anything that may come up. Is your car in proper functioning order to retrieve the rats at the end of the experiment?”

“Yes.”

“There is one change I’d like to recommend. Since there are so few rats in the study, we must increase the strength of our data. Therefore it would be better if you take distance readings every two hours instead of every four, like we had previously discussed.”

John knew this meant his nightly sleep would suffer during the course of the experiment, but even if he wanted to say no, it wouldn’t be wise. Yanek was the final authority on whether he would get his Master’s degree or not. The last thing he wanted to do was create tension.

“I don’t expect this to be a problem,” John said. “My schedule will be clear during the six days the experiment is running.”

There actually wasn’t much to clear. John’s social life since coming back from Puno nearly two years prior had degraded into solitary nights watching movies. He’d drive to school from his shared apartment in Ontario and then drive back home. Though John was introverted, he didn’t mind passing the time with casual friends, but that changed one night at a friend’s party.

At the party, a pretty girl named Amy took an interest in him for reasons he was unsure of. They chatted for two hours over the course of several drinks. Feeling alcoholic courage, John was able to touch her occasionally on the shoulder. Numbers were exchanged when it was time for her to abruptly leave due to some commotion caused by her husky girlfriend.

John drove home that night excited about his first prospect in months, but he started drifting in his lane. It’s arguable whether this occurred because he fantasized about seeing Amy again or because he was influenced from the six drinks he had, but he was eventually pulled over by a policeman.

In spite of passing the field sobriety test, the policeman goaded him into taking a breathalyzer, stating that if he refused, his license would be automatically suspended and he would have to show up in court. John figured he could beat the breathalyzer thanks to his Irish roots, especially since he didn’t even feel buzzed from the drinks he had, but he blew a BAC of 0.09, just over the legal limit of 0.08. He was arrested and put in jail.

He had to borrow the $8,000 in lawyer costs and fines from his parents. Thankfully his license was not suspended, but the judge remarked that if he was caught again, he would have to face at least two weeks of jail time. As for Amy, she cancelled on their first date and didn’t respond to John’s attempts to schedule another.

Since the night of his arrest, he didn’t dare risk drinking and driving. He tried to go out sober, but with everyone else drinking, it wasn’t fun. He still needed social interaction, however, so he started venturing out to happy hours in the early evening, only imbibing one drink that he would nurse for the hour or so he’d stay. He could probably handle two drinks, but a new law changed the legal BAC to 0.06. He was unsure of what was a safe limit and didn’t want to take a chance.

Getting laid would have been nice for John, but he found women hostile to his attempts. They would say things like, “Give me one reason why I should talk to you” or  “Is that all you got?” One night he got angry at a girl who asked him “Is that a line?” and replied by saying, “Well, it worked on your mom.” She responded by throwing her drink in his face. John responded in kind by splashing his remaining warm beer on her chest. She pulled her fist back, as if she as going to hit him, but ran up to the bouncer instead. John was ejected. The bouncer said, “You can’t just grab a girls breasts and throw beer on her because she doesn’t want to talk to you.”

“That’s not what happened!” John yelled, uselessly. Looking inside the bar he could see the girl sternly talking on her phone. Was she calling the cops? He didn’t want to wait around to find out.

This incident scared him straight from going out at all. The only social interaction that remained for him was chatting to co-workers and having occasional Skype sex with Loira. He would stroke his penis in front of her while she inserted household objects into her vagina.

By the time the rat mobility experiment was ready to go, John’s schedule was so open that he could even take hourly data readings without any impact to his social life.

Rats are social animals. Once isolated from each other, they grow despondent and anxious, not unlike people, which is why they make such a superb human experimental model. While it may be absurd to state that rats have free will, laboratory assistants of the world can delight listeners with tales of their seemingly human traits like happiness, frustration, curiosity, and sadness. They will also explain how rats born in captivity have an endearing need for submission, of wanting to be taken care of by their human masters instead of risking escape into the wild.

One sensitive issue of doing rat experiments is that of naming. The first rule any rat handler learns is to never name a rat. Doing so increases emotional attachment to the animal and leads to subconscious attempts to protect it, possibly jeopardizing the entire experiment. Absolute emotional apathy much be maintained at all times, because at the end of the experiments all rats are killed. If scientific progress is to be achieved, it is important that rats aren’t reused across different experiments. In spite of this, it’s impossible for handlers to resist noticing personality differences between rats. Some seem more energetic, some seem more shy, some love to sleep, some prefer exercise, and so on. When the eight brown rats finally came in, John took particular notice of number six, whose body remained unusually inert while its whiskers and mouth were in a constant state of fantastic twitching. Going against lab protocol, he named it Bolivar.

One day before launch, John successfully tested all the equipment. The rats were fed their last laboratory meal and rested for what would be a six day adventure before their demise. On the way to the storage closet to retrieve a few clipboards, John walked by the break room and noticed his colleagues in the middle of a discussion.

“It’s the role of the government to promote equality among its citizens,” Sandra said.

“I agree,” Becky chimed in. “This is why more must be done to decrease the unequal wage gap. It’s not fair that women are paid less for the same work.”

Andrew was next to speak: “Things are getting better, but we still have a long way to go. Thankfully we have a president who is aware of the problem.”

“Women deserve equal rights—.”

“And they must be protected—.”

“We should create new laws—.”

“There are not enough female CEOs—.”

Unable to help himself, John walked into the conversation to state his views on the matter. “I couldn’t help but overhear your discussion. While it is true that men, in aggregate, make more than women, it can be attributed to the personal decisions that both sexes make. Men choose more dangerous jobs, which have a higher chance of workplace injury or death. These tend to pay more than female-oriented jobs like teaching and clerking. In addition, men choose more math-intensive fields like engineering and computer programming, which as you know come with more lucrative salaries. Lastly, men work longer hours. They don’t take maternal leave or cut their careers short to raise children. It would also be prudent to do a basic smell test, for if women really were cheaper labor, men would rarely be hired because corporate shareholders care primarily about profit.”

John was proud of his intelligent and factual explanation, but he did not receive a response. His three coworkers awkwardly stared at each other, waiting for him to leave. John excused himself to continue his work, eventually finding the clipboards he needed.

The day of the experiment finally arrived. One hour before the rats were set to be released into the city, John was called into Yanek’s office. John thought Yanek intended to give him words of encouragement, but he reprimanded him instead.

“John, it has come to my attention that you have made misogynistic statements about women, saying that they are not good at math.”

“What?” It took him a few seconds to realize what Yanek was referring to. “I just said that men are more likely to pursue careers that involve math. I never said women weren’t good at it.”

“I see, but there were three witnesses that suggest the contrary.”

“Witnesses?”

“Look, I don’t think you are misogynistic, but I have to put this incident in your personal file, as dictated by university regulations. Now, is the experiment ready to start?”

“Yeah,” John said, looking down at the floor. He had already outfitted the rats with their electro collars and GPS devices. All that remained was releasing them and monitoring their movements on the computer every two hours for six days.

The release happened on the loading dock in the back of the laboratory building. John let go of Bolivar last, patting him on the head and wishing him luck. The rats scampered off and John returned to his workstation. On his computer screen he could see that the rats were heading towards Encino. At approximately 200 meters, the Every 200 Group stopped dead in their tracks upon receiving their first mild shock, while the 500 Group continued on until they received their massive shock at 500 meters. The control group continued unimpeded.

John was genuinely excited about the experiment before it began, but now all he could think about was his future. He had to be very careful about what he could say on campus if he didn’t want to get kicked out of the program. With an already debilitated social life, he was disappointed at not being able to have intelligent conversations at work. There was no longer anyone in Los Angeles that he could talk to about his thoughts.

For the next six days, John carefully recorded rat movements. He was fatigued throughout but the data was solid, with not a single recording error or dead rat. On the last day, he noticed a surprising outcome that went against the hypothesis that he and Yanek agreed on. He went to Yanek’s office with the preliminary results.

“The control group, with no electro collar, maintained an average daily distance of 5,230 meters from epicenter. The Every 200 group maintained an average daily distance of 88 meters, remaining right here on campus. The 500 Group maintained an average daily distance of 454 meters.”

“Fascinating!” Yanek replied. “The 500 Group, as expected, approached the limit of their big shock, but the Every 200 Group stayed far away from even the most minor shock. Are you sure their 200 meter shock was on the lowest setting? It should not have caused them much pain.”

“I’m sure,” John said. “They did venture to 400 and 600 meters to experience the escalating series of shocks, but they quickly retreated back to campus. They are currently residing near the Delta Gamma sorority house.”

“I surmise that the quantity of shocks scared them, and not necessarily the intensity.”

“It could be, or that they didn’t figure out exactly when the shocks were coming, and remained in a state of fear and immobilization. The 500 Group knew of only one shock, and so could freely travel within the wider range before it.”

“This has very interesting implications in both rat and human behavior. As you may well know, one scientific study is usually the seed for another, so piece by piece we shall come to understand how randomly inflicted pain influences animal behavior. I will start thinking of a follow-up experiment to expand on these findings. Exciting, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir, it is exciting,” John said flatly.

“Now go retrieve the rats so we can give them to Javier for disposal in the incinerator.”

When John went back to his workstation, he looked at the screen and noticed something strange. Bolivar, who was part of the Every 200 Group, was suddenly in West Hollywood, a distance of 6,600 meters. John thought it had to be an equipment error because at 2,000 meters he should have received a near death shock.

John gathered the rat-catching equipment, including the tasty rat treats that would be used as bait, and spent the next several hours with a handheld GPS unit, nabbing the rats one by one. Most rats went willingly, perhaps tired of their city journey and in need of scheduled feedings. When it was time to catch Bolivar, John noticed he was almost in Glendale. He finally caught up to him scattering through a strip mall, and immediately noticed that his electro collar was missing. He tried to corner Bolivar into a box with rat treats but he attempted every manner of escape. John had no choice but to shoot him with a tranquilizer gun while a handful of spectators filmed the scene with their smartphones.

Three days later, the public transit authority called Yanek’s office to say they found a collar tagged with university information near one of the bus depots. It was a surprise for John to see the steel collar cracked open with considerable force, as if a heavy machine ran over it. Yanek and John agreed that there was no way Bolivar consciously risked his life to have the collar removed, and that it must have been a manufacturing defect. Like the rest of the rats, Bolivar was burned into ashes.

Months went by and John attended the laboratory’s holiday party. Everyone had a little too much to drink, except John, who asked the new intern if she would like to see a movie with him. She was chubby, but John hadn’t been laid in a while, so even an additional 15 pounds on her frame wouldn’t have stopped him from the attempt. She told him maybe, but the next day he was called into Yanek’s office for making “unwanted advances.” He was put on a three-month probation. If he made one infraction during that time, he would be kicked out of the program.

He didn’t make it to the end of the probationary period. He sold his things and bought a one-way ticket to Puno. Loira picked him up at the city’s tiny airport.

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