The Last Days of the Lab Rats

               Bioengineers are trying to replace the lowly lab mouse with insentient but biologically sophisticated substitutes. 

                                                                           The Boston Globe

It was getting late, and I was getting frustrated.  I’d been stuck in a blind alley of a maze for probably five minutes, my blood sugar too low for my brain to figure a way out of the stupid place.

Same with my job.  I’ve been running mazes, pushing pellet and water bars in response to positive and negative stimuli, doing the whole double-blind test thing now for nearly three decades.  You’ll forgive me if I say that I’m getting tired of the rat race.

I closed my eyes for a second, trying to recall how I got into this mess–both my immediate dead end, and the larger rut I was stuck in.  I retraced my steps in my mind: I made a left turn last, so make a right turn.  Before that I made a right–now take a left.  Ah–there it was!  The pathway home.  I stumbled out of the maze and saw Pinky, my son, running to greet me.

“Hi dad!” he yelled as he jumped into my arms.  Let me tell you, there’s nothing like it, the love of a boy for his dad.

“Hey Pinky, how’s it going?” I said as I gave him a big hug.

“I scared the crap out of a woman today!”

“Great!  Did she say ‘Eek–a mouse!’”

“Yeah–and she climbed up on a chair to get away from me!”

“Outstanding!”  He was a chip off the old block.  “You’re going to be a real rat someday!”

“Thanks, dad!”

“As long as you remember to stay away from . . . “

“I know–don’t fall for the old cheese-in-the-mousetrap bit.”

Kids.  You try to drum some sense into them, I thought, and you hope some of it sticks, to mix my metaphors.  He was a good boy.

“Hi, honey!”  It was my wife, Minnie.

“Hello, beautiful,” I said as I gave her a peck on the cheek.  I was feeling like the luckiest guy in the world right then.

“How was your day?” she asked.  It was just a greeting.  We don’t talk about serious stuff in front of the kid.

“Same mouse droppings, different day,” I said with resignation.

“Well, just be thankful you’ve still got a job!” she said, her face an oxymoronic mixture of relief and concern.  I’m not saying she’s an oxymoron, it’s just that–well, she spends her days in a world that’s very different from mine.

“Any mail?” I asked, eager to hop onto the exercise wheel to work off some of the tension of the day.

“A few bills, a fund-raising letter from an anti-cat group, and this letter from work.”

She handed me an envelope with the familiar Droper Labs logo in the upper left-hand corner.  I slid my paw under the flap, ripped it open and took a glance at the letter inside.

“What’s the matter?” my wife asked.  “Your face just turned white.”

I tried to conceal my sense of panic.  “Sweetie, I’m a white rat–remember?”

She didn’t fall for it.  “What does it say?”

“Pink, buddy, why don’t you go play for awhile,” I said to my son.  “Go gnaw through some of the lunch bags in the employee lounge.”

“You mean it?”

“Sure–just stay out of the microwave.”

“Okay, dad!”

“Don’t spoil your dinner!” his mother called after him as he scurried off.

I turned to face my wife.  “I’ve been laid off,” I said.  “They’re giving me two weeks worth of pellets and that’s it.”

“Oh dear,” she said.  The sound of her voice was half an exclamation, half a groan.  “It won’t be easy for you to find another job at your age,” she said.  “You’re too old for Disney.”

I instinctively reached up, touched the top of my head and felt the fur that remained there.  I wasn’t that old.  But she had a point.

“We’ll be all right,” I said, but without much confidence.  “I’ve squirrelled a few pellets away over the years.

“Could you . . . go back to them . . . and beg a little?”

“No way,” I snapped.  “Not after the way they’ve treated us.”

“Sweetie,” she said, “now is no time to stand on pride.”

“You don’t understand–they’re replacing living, breathing lab rats with insentient but biologically sophisticated substitutes.”

“Your job is being . . . automated?”

“Not exactly.  I’m being replaced by a complex, living microtissue from cultured cells.  Sort of like a cloned boob from the . . . uh . . . decolletage of an opera diva.”

She stared off into space and sobbed quietly.  I put my arm around her and tried to comfort her.  I’ve never felt like less of a rat than I did just then.  My whole being–who I am–was bound up in my ability to bring home the pellets every night.

We both started when we heard Pinky come racing around the corner.

“Dad–guess what!” he exclaimed before he screeched to a halt when he saw the sad scene his mother and I made.  “What’s the matter?”

It was time to level with him.  “Pink, buddy–there’s going to be some changes around her.  Daddy lost his job–I’m going to try and catch on at another lab, but it won’t be easy.  We’ll cut back, but we’ll be fine.  I just want you to know that your mother and I love . . .”

“It’s okay, Dad–don’t worry,” he said.  I had expected him to be crushed by the news, but he was completely unfazed by our uncertain prospects.  “Everything’s taken care of–food and shelter.”

“How?” his mother asked, genuinely puzzled.

“I found a 3-pack of Pringles!”

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Wild Animals of Nature!”

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