By DIONNE SEARCEY
In her fight for the rights of some of the smallest creatures, Stephanie Ernst offers a video of a frolicking, fluffy mammal snuggling up with a pet cat.
"Rats don't get a fair shake," she writes in an introduction to the video on her animal-rights blog. "This one is quite adorable and may lead you to see rats a little differently."
Unfortunately, stripped along the bottom of the video is an ad for an exterminator automatically generated by the YouTube.com service hosting the online clip.
"Immediate rat solutions!" it reads. "Free inspection the day you call."
Says Ms. Ernst: "It's horrible."
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One Woman's Fight for Rodent Rights
Amber Allinger is working to shed prejudices against rats. She's even doing her dissertation on the rodents, which she calls sweet and nice. WSJ's Dionne Searcey reports.
Ms. Ernst, a resident of St. Louis, is most concerned about the welfare of lab rodents. Animal advocates say rats and mice make up 90% of animal testing conducted in university laboratories and other research facilities in the U.S. In 2002, the Animal Welfare Act was amended to exclude rodents from protections offered to bigger lab animals including dogs, monkeys and even guinea pigs.
"Rats and mice tend to get a bad rap" that influences people from the time they are children, says Ms. Ernst. "We just have these biases built in that are not really representative of who they are."
Animal-rights advocates in the U.S. have scored coups in recent years for an assortment of uncuddly animals. A new law requires bigger cages for egg-laying chickens in California. Foie gras, a delicacy made from the livers of fattened geese and ducks, has been banished from some restaurant menus.
But public sympathy for rats and mice hasn't grown much in three decades since the animal-rights movement first organized in the U.S. Viewed as pests and greeted with shrieks, rats are much less likely to attract public sympathy than, say, the furry bunnies that serve as the poster critters for cutting back on animal testing.
So, rat lovers have a tough job. Researchers who use federal funds are asked to adhere to basic guidelines for rodents, such as avoiding overcrowded cages. But privately funded research labs are legally bound by no rules in their testing of rats and mice.
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"I used to see rats and think, 'Ew.' Now I see rats and think, 'Those rats have probably got a family somewhere.'" -- Chad Sandusky
"You see people shut down if you talk about how a rat can suffer," says Chad Sandusky, director of toxicology and research at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group that fights for animal rights and advocates vegetarianism.
Years ago, during his doctorate research on allergic reactions in humans, Mr. Sandusky experimented on and euthanized many rodents. The 64-year-old pharmacologist and toxicologist now works to persuade chemical and pesticide companies to carry out effective experiments using computerized tests or other means that don't involve animals.
"I'm working off my bad karma," he said.
Mr. Sandusky's transformation came gradually as he reviewed studies involving rodents and other animals for the Environmental Protection Agency. He concluded animal studies were too expensive and time-consuming, and the results didn't merit the sacrifice.
"I used to see rats and think, 'Ew,' " Mr. Sandusky said. "Now I see rats and think, 'Those rats have probably got a family somewhere.' "
Mr. Sandusky and other activists have succeeded in getting companies to listen to their concerns about using rodents in experiments. But rarely does anyone actually stop using rats and mice altogether. So activists are left to seek a better quality of life for the rats and mice in the lab.
"These animals are in full view 24-7, and they don't have any ability to do anything other than drink water and eat pellets and, well, you can imagine," says Mr. Sandusky.
Activists at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who say they want "empty cages not bigger cages," nevertheless have come up with a list of guidelines they shop to private companies in hopes of changing their treatment of caged mice and rats.
The 15-page "environmental enrichment" document calls for nesting materials that rodents can shred for stress relief. It also advocates fresh bedding (but not too fresh because some male rodents like the familiar smell of home), and elevated wire lids, a sort of cathedral ceiling, for cages.
Some activists point to research detailing how toys such as the Translucent Small Animal Shoe, the Toob-a-Loop and the Mouse Igloo can keep the animals happy. Opaque plastic structures provide "a modicum of privacy," for the rodents, as described in the PETA document.
When Jessica Sandler, director of PETA's regulatory testing division, engages companies to push for better treatment of laboratory rodents, she talks about "animals" instead of "rodents."
"I certainly don't emphasize the fact that they are mice and rats," Ms. Sandler says. "A lot of these tests are also done on rabbits and guinea pigs, so I lump them in. I know a lot of people will empathize more with a cute rabbit."
At a meeting a couple of years ago with representatives at General Electric Co., which contracted with companies that use rodents for safety tests in GE's plastics division, activists laid out their simple request: a solid surface for rodent cages.
"To a layperson like me and you, you may think, 'Well, do we really need to do something like that for these animals?' But our scientists certainly thought it was important and relatively easily done," said Gary Sheffer, a GE spokesman. "It wasn't something we dismissed as being ridiculous."
GE complied with the request. It has since sold off its plastics division.
Amber Alliger is writing her dissertation for a doctorate in psychology at Hunter College in New York on the benefits to science from improving animal welfare in laboratories.
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"Inside my shirt they feel secure... That's how they get really used to their human." --Karen Borga
Once they get to know their handlers, rats are so gentle that some people let them lick their eyelashes clean -- and even their teeth, Ms. Alliger says.
"It's amazing how gentle they are," she says. "You get nipped a few times and if you say 'Ow' loud enough, they're like, 'Oh, that hurts' and will stop biting."
Mr. Alliger has found homes for dozens of rodents she has used in her experiments.
A friend, Karen Borga, adopted seven of them -- black "hooded" rats so named because they look like they're wearing black hooded coats on their white bodies. Ms. Borga totes them in a blue portable cat carrier she has outfitted with a rat hammock and a Schweppes Ginger Ale box to create an extra bedroom.
As she explained the accommodations, three of the rats, named Seven, Eight and Eleven (Ms. Borga kept their laboratory names) scuttled across a couch. Seven hopped over a hurdle created out of plastic tubing, then crawled up Ms. Borga's sleeve.
"Inside my shirt they feel secure... That's how they get really used to their human," she says. "They love it."
Write to Dionne Searcey at email@example.com