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Mouse mausoleum

From the LabLit short story series

Andrea Rothman 10 February 2013

Could I one day sacrifice a mouse – not to mention hundreds? If so, it would be for a noble purpose, or would it not?

Room 302 was pitch-black. At half past seven the lights had just gone off. A rattling of metal could be heard throughout the narrow space, rising in unison from all three hundred cages.

I couldn’t see, and nearly tripped against a rolling ladder on my way to the fume hood. Once there I ran my latex-gloved hand along the outer wall in search of a switch, until a sharp light hit my eyes, accompanied by the sound of roaring air. In a corner of the hood was a flask of 70% ethanol and thick stack of folded paper towels. I peeled a paper off the stack, dabbed it with the ethanol and disinfected the tools that Patrick, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab, had lent me for the occasion: an ear puncher, similar in size and shape to a nail clipper, and thin surgical scissors. I’d never used either of these on my own – not without the mouse immobilized in Patrick’s hand.

It was my second time in the Animal Research building: a sad, five-story structure looking onto the Hudson River through opaque windowpanes. The linoleum in the hallways was polished to a naked tint, like the floors of some fancy clinic. The air smelled faintly of floral freshener, and subtly of urine. Inside the rooms it smelled of ammonia. Our lab had five rooms filled with mice. Other labs had rooms too, but our colony was the largest on campus, and it was entirely devoted to understanding the sense of smell – a field I unfortunately never got to know much about.

After disinfecting the puncher and scissors I remained standing by the hood, allowing my eyes to adjust to the racks towering over me. The mouse cages were staggered on metal shelves reaching up to the ceiling, like produce in a supermarket.

In a rack nearby, on a bottom shelf, I spotted a cage with my name written in black thick letters across the cardboard label. It was the cage Patrick had set aside for me so that I might practice ear clipping and tail punching on some mice he no longer needed. I slid the cage out of the rack and carried it over to the hood, removed the outer lid and inner grid with trepidation and stood there motionless, staring down at the three aging and unwanted males inside the cage. Their faded brown coats glowed like cracked tree bark against the orange glow of the hood

One of them stood on his hind legs, running a bony hand across his twitching whiskers. His head was raised towards me and his eyes seemed to be looking straight into mine. But they weren’t, of course. Mice don’t make eye contact. Unlike rats, they see poorly, relying heavily on their sense of smell. This much I’d learned during my three-day stint in that lab.

The other two mice were crawling furiously about the cage chasing each other. But in a cage so small there isn’t a lot of space to crawl, much less play. They soon grew bored and a tug of war began, with the more aggressive of the two snapping his yellowed front teeth at the other’s scabbed, blood-matted neck. The third mouse, the one that had stood on its hind legs, was no longer looking at me, or even standing. He was running in circles, chasing his own tail.

Could I lift these animals from their cage, immobilize them in one hand while with the other punching a hole through their ears and cutting off the end of their tail for genotyping? Could I one day sacrifice a mouse – not to mention hundreds? Dislocate its cervical vertebra and dissect his (or her) snout and brain so as to draw some conclusion about Smell? If so, it would be for a noble purpose, or would it not?

I took a red marker from my lab coat pocket and wrote across the card label, right over my name: wounded animal. Then I covered the cage with the metal grid and lid and returned it to its slot. In the bright-lit hallway I peeled off the latex gloves from my hands, removed the scrubs from my feet and the breathing mask from my face and dumped it all inside the biological-waste trash on my way to the elevator.

Outside the autumn air felt good on my perspiring face. It smelled faintly of rust from the many leaves scattered on the ground, and of seawater. The night was windless and the river edging the Animal Research building mysteriously settled. The dark water glittered unperturbed, like some profound well. When I snapped my cell phone open to call my boss and tell him I would no longer be doing graduate work in his lab, I was surprised to discover it wasn’t yet eight o’clock. A mere half-hour or less had passed during the course of which, as I would later come to view it, I’d made a life-changing decision.