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Lab Rats

The mouse that got away

An experiment which refused to cooperate

Stella Hill 5 December 2010

Ephemera: blink and you miss it

That’s when I realized that something was running up inside my trouser leg

I was a young girl when I first read the classic novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brian. It’s about a little widowed field mouse and what happens one day when she realizes that the farmer plans to plow his field, which will demolish her home. She can’t move easily, since her son is very sick. So she gets help from “the rats”, renowned in the area for having a high standard of living and intelligence – while at the same time being a bit unfriendly and distrustful, have escaped from a laboratory where they were subjected to experimentation. (“NIMH” actually stands for the National Institute of Medical Health, a real-life institute in Bethesda, Maryland.) So the rats help poor little Mrs Frisby, with their technology and enhanced brains, and Mrs. Frisby finds out that her late husband was also in the lab with the rats (although he was a mouse).

The story was one of my favourites as young child. It made me interested in science and theory testing, despite the bleak description of the scientists it painted. Together with some Swedish stories (Pippi Longstocking and Mio, Min Mio by Astrid Lindgren, for example) and works by Kipling and Roald Dahl, the tale about Mrs. Frisby is one of the top five books that shaped me.

One day last summer, O’Brian’s novel about rats and experiments was very much on my mind when I was down in the animal facility preparing to do one of my lab experiments. Little did I know that one of the cute little mice would decide to choose that moment to escape from the anesthesia chamber. She took a huge leap, flew against the wall and dropped down to the floor. I put out my foot to try to stop block her flight – but they are very quick with their movements, and I only looked away for a second. And she was gone.

At first I was confused, since I thought I’d blocked off her only route of escape. But that’s when I realized that something was running up inside my trouser leg.

I started patting myself down, from thigh to calf, until I realized that she might bite me if she got too scared. Well, what to do? I ended up shaking myself and doing a little dance, desperately hoping that the mouse would not crawl up instead of down. From various sensations, I guessed that she was clutching onto the fabric of my trousers with her paws – probably as scared as I was, if not more.

Finally she slithered down my trousers and back onto the floor. She immediately played dead: a good tactic. As for me, I was picturing exactly what I would look like if someone entered the room: half-zipped trousers, sweaty forehead, crazed look on my face. So to try to calm myself, I closed my eyes (yes, I know that was stupid) and breathed out – and when I opened my eyes, she was gone…again.

This time, she was truly gone. I looked for her everywhere: inside the door frame, behind the cabinets, behind the hood, underneath the broom, out in the corridor. But the amazing thing about mice is that they can go through any space where their heads fit. All of their other bones can be rearranged and temporarily squished for easy access, so really, she could have gone almost anywhere.

I was very tempted to just walk as if nothing had happened, but all of our mice are marked with identification, so I really had to come clean, embarrassing as it was. So I duly wrote a note and posted it up in the lab: “Missing clean white mouse escaped Tuesday morning at 9 am. If found, please let me know!” (No one ever did, as it turned out, and I never saw the mouse again.)

As I left the animal house that day, I entertained a dream that the lost mouse would escape into the real world, build a little house in a field and have pups and family. Of course, the likelihood of that was slim to none, but it seemed a more palatable outcome than her eating some poison and dying in a dark corner because I had failed to recapture her. After all, wouldn’t it be rather poetic, and much happier, if she managed to run away from the evil scientist and ended up living in a cornfield like Mrs. Frisby?