Timothy DeLizza is a Baltimore-based author whose essay on rats won the 2020 Barry Lopez Nonfiction Prize.
Early in my third trimester, Penelope the rat disappeared and was presumed dead somewhere in my home’s walls.
Penelope was not a particularly notable rat before her disappearance. She was about a year and a half old. Like all Algernon Project rats, her coat was the slate blue that I’d dyed my hair to match (though since pregnancy I’d gotten a little lazy and my roots were showing). She had a splash of pure white around the eyes and nose that gave the appearance of a mask. She’d not done exceptionally poorly or well in the vocabulary or aptitude tests. Unlike my favorites, she didn’t seek out human companionship. She wasn’t shy or human-adverse so much as independent, checking in and then going about her daily rat business (mostly horsing around with her favorite cagemate, Jasmine).
Still, I cared for her and mourned. The loss was also an embarrassment for the Algernon Project. BabbleLinks are an exorbitantly costly A.I. cross-species communication system.
In my defense, I was housing fourteen rats across three large cages when Penelope disappeared. I’d never lost a rat despite having been a part of the program for years, and I’d long since stopped conducting rigorous headcounts. After free-roam, everybody mostly was eager to return to their preferred hammocks for mid-morning naps. At most, I’d note whether the younger rats — the ones who still explored with vigor — were all in their cages. But Penelope didn’t have the demeanor of a runner.
My husband Peter scolded the Algernon Project for not having included basic trackers in the implants. In truth, more surveillance had hardly seemed necessary. Video cameras were everywhere (I’d watched Penelope’s moment of escape many times). So long as the rats remained in close range, an LCD screen on the wall displayed their brain activity, vitals and transcribed everything they said.
And so, I was relieved a week later when I found Penelope sleeping in the curve of a running-wheel stored beneath her preferred cage.
I gently petted her awake. She yawned and stretched her paws forward — as though she’d only been away for a minute.
“Where have you been, Penny?” I asked through the BabbleLink. The human end of the BabbleLink was a bone conduction headset that translated their chitters and ultrasonic frequency tones. When humans spoke, their headset communicated with the BabbleLink implants in the project’s specimens and created bone conduction sounds for the rat designed to appear to emanate from the human wearing the headset.
She crawled into my palm lazily, anticipating that I’d transfer her to the cage. I had bandages on the back of my hand covering a new tattoo of a neuron. The rats all loved worrying it and Penelope was no different. She busied herself tearing at the gauze while I inspected her coat for injuries and fleas. My tattoo was mostly healed and, rather than pain, her nips created a physical tingle in me that mirrored my excitement over her miraculous return from the dead. I combed out the few fleas I found on Penelope, but otherwise, she was in remarkably good shape.
“Where have you been?” I asked again. “Why did you leave? How did you survive?” This was bad form. Multiple questions with less familiar words like “survive” often led to muddy answers.
I placed her next to the communal food dish and watched her wolf down lab blocks — ignoring me. Then I listened to the familiar click-clank-click of her drinking from the water bottle.
I worried that her BabbleLink implant had been damaged, but eventually, her answers flowed in through my headset. “Mango?” she asked with urgency — an emotion signified by her faster, higher-volume speech.
In some ways, this was unremarkable. A good chunk of our newfound ability to communicate with animals involved relating culinary desires. Every rat I had ever known requested the same four foods: peas, corn, nut butters and avocado. Beyond that came individual preference. Long ago, I’d laid down ground rules that my rats could state food preferences only after I said “Requests?” Otherwise, the BabbleLink became overwhelmed. My rules were not always honored by the rats, but ignoring their unsolicited demands helped hold the line.
In other ways, Penelope’s request was peculiar. While she was a fan of fruit, she’d never requested mango by name before. She also was not particularly food-motivated and rarely made unprompted requests. She was polite. But she’d just returned from an adventure and so I indulged her.
“It’s frozen. Give it some time to warm in the water or you’ll hurt your tongue.”
Penelope’s requests for mango continued in the days that followed, as did her heavy appetite. I rationed lab blocks for the first time ever. Typically, animals didn’t overeat lab blocks because they weren’t very appetizing. This restriction, however, worsened her behavior. I caught her stealing food from friends. She stopped coming out for free-range time and slept more. She was curt and sometimes downright touchy when questioned about why she ran away, where she’d gone and why she returned.
I didn’t panic. Prey animals are hesitant to reveal what bothers them and the BabbleLink doesn’t change this instinct. Yet at the same time, traumatic events could change a rat’s personality. I’d witnessed this when a friend of theirs died after hind-leg degeneration injuries or even just as they adjusted to the indignities of rodent aging. I’d had an energetic rat pup suffer an electric wire shock that left him afraid to leave the cage. From the outside, he’d just seemed to spiral into a spontaneous existential funk. After a week of playing rattie-therapist, he confessed what had happened. I showed him how to avoid shocks, double-checked for other wires and promised he’d be safe. He recovered.
I held out hope that Penelope could similarly be coaxed to talk with patience, even as she denied being lethargic or that anything hurt. Vitals revealed nothing amiss. I chalked the changes up to overexcitement, suspecting that they might subside.
After another week, the lethargy broke. A flurry of activity followed where she requested paper towels, tissues and cotton balls. She built a fort of sorts. This new interest in engineering led to a fresh conflict on cage-cleaning day. Cage-cleaning day was always unpopular, and so I typically waited for everyone to be out playing. But now Penny no longer left the cage; instead, she sat territorially in her little fort and refused to come out — even giving a warning nip at my finger.
“Please, Penny,” I said.
“Sharon,” she said back, in a manner that I swear sounded like sarcasm.
“You can rebuild your fort. The cage is dirty.”
She stared back stubbornly. I sighed, and pet behind her ear then down to her rump. She didn’t relax, but also didn’t protest with another nip.
“Your belly has gotten so big,” I said. “My God.” My hand shot away, sending Penelope’s hair up in high alert. “Penny, you’re pregnant.”
Her body went slack and she chittered. The AI translated this as laughter — perhaps in response to my obliviousness.
“I didn’t realize,” I said. “I won’t clean. Hold on.” I got her a fresh mango meant for me. She ate the messy fruit straight from my hand and everything seemed forgiven.
Her head tilted. “You can’t smell my babies?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “You can smell babies?”
“I smell your babies.”
My baby. Six months along. I hadn’t mentioned him to the rats, but suspected they were aware. They were newly curious about my swollen belly.
Penelope’s comment was a breakthrough. Plenty of evidence existed that animals anticipate the future (something unsurprising to anyone who’s seen a dog excited for a walk), but expressing awareness of a future childbirth was sophisticated anticipation.
“I can’t smell your babies. Your nose is stronger than mine. Do you know how you became pregnant?”
“Yes, babies. But do you know how they got in your belly?”
Penelope was silent. The data on the LCD screen attached to the wall showed that her brain was trying to process, then abruptly the attempt stopped and she grew distracted.
“You met someone out there,” I said, guiding her toward an idea.
“Fernando,” she said. Fernando was Penelope’s former favorite elder cagemate. He had passed away a year before. For a mad moment I imagined he’d actually escaped and was living in my walls, but I’d seen him peacefully gassed after his cancer spread.
“Fernando who used to live with us?”
“No. Fernando. Fernando.” she repeated insistently.
“Okay. This new Fernando, he was nice? You got along with him?”
“Fernando smelled good.” This was her way of expressing affection, rather than concept words like love — the cagemates she cared for smelled good. Disfavored cagemates smelled bad.
“Could he speak?” I asked.
“Mute.” Mute was their word for a rodent without an implant. Rats didn’t use BabbleLinks with each other directly, but they knew who had implants. The project hadn’t figured out how the rats could tell — but I suspected it was listening to their cagemates’ vocabulary usage and observing how their companions interacted with humans.
“Do you think this is why you got pregnant? From meeting Fernando?”
The brain activity scanner didn’t tick up this time. “Sleepy,” she said. Some rats would say I don’t understand. Penelope’s habit was that — rather than admitting confusion — she claimed to be tired. Pride, perhaps. Or she was tired. Already, this was the longest conversation Penelope had ever had with me.
I nodded. “Was life difficult while you were gone?”
Her brain activity flared up again. “Fernando hungry. Thin. Penelope hungry. Poison food. Poison.”
This was a stunner. Had I mentioned poison? Never. I’d once inadvertently offered them spoilt peas, but probably called them moldy. But then again, poison would be central to a wild rat’s life, so of course some word would exist.
I pet her firmly, resisting the urge to squeeze her in apology for rationing her food when she’d first come home, and for all the poisoning that humans had done across history.
My gestating baby was most active at night. The evening Penelope returned, I felt him kicking while considering this cross-species conversation. I internally debated whether my baby triggered Penelope’s elevated maternal drive.
The Project had set up the experiment with neutered bucks (male rats) and “intact” does (female rats). The bucks’ surgery was done simultaneously with BabbleLink implanting. This had been a compromise result so that lab leaders could commingle the sexes without propagating a million rats, while also preserving the ability to continue the biological strains the Algernon Project had carefully bred.
Neutering is less invasive than spaying and lowers buck aggression. Although leaving the does intact raised tumor risk slightly, that seemed worth avoiding surgery risk and preserving some gene lines. But it did mean the does had weekly cycles where they grew hyperactive and harassed the bucks with futile mating rituals, sometimes mounting them as if demonstrating what they should be doing — teaching steps to a dance these bucks would never learn.
Generally, I tried not to think about my rats as sexual beings. Normal things easily got weird when I did. For example, some rats enjoyed being tickled during playtime. Yet some female rats only requested tickling while in heat. What to do with that data? It was best to ignore the ramifications. Usually, I just ended up tickling them and moving on with my day.
But having a pregnant rat who had confided in me the details of a forbidden coupling was something else. The incident made me suspect that Penelope was far more intellectually capable and resourceful than I’d realized, to the point that she’d even kept her cleverness secret. What if she’d seen me pregnant, conspired to escape, and go on a hero’s journey to create her own parallel pregnancy and children?
I woke Peter even though I knew this would annoy him, and recounted the day’s events. As I spoke, he traced my linea nigra — that mysterious line that appears during the second trimester. Mine was thick and rich and ran all the way from my belly button down to my pubic hair.
When I finished the recounting, he sighed. “That’s everything?”
“That’s not remarkable enough for you?”
“A tale as old as time. A small-town lass has no viable men around, so she sets out to the next town over. In the human version, six months later she’d show up at her parents’ door crying that Fernando had jilted her. For rats, I’m sure you can find many Reddit pages asking what to do if your pet rat escapes and then returns pregnant.” He sighed again, then asked, “Well grandma, are you going to let Penelope keep the litter?”
“What do you mean?” I was half-horrified he’d considered any other option, but he was correct that the Project might request this.
“They’ll be half wild. They might harass their tame cage-mates. They might bite them or you. Imagine having a half-wolf in a dog pack. And the expense of maybe a dozen more unplanned Babble chips might concern the Algernon Board.”
“I can’t believe I rationed her food. So stupid, the pregnancy was so obvious. You’d think I was a hobbyist.”
“Obvious once you saw it.” He rubbed my back. “She’s eating plenty now. Much more overall than if she’d stayed away.”
“She was on calorie restriction for nearly half of her pregnancy.”
He scratched the surface of my bump. Our boy was doing bicycle wheels in there. “An understandable blind spot. You were thinking your rats were a new thing, separated from the wild world — which they are in many ways. But they are still also that old thing.”
My friends sometimes suggested that Peter was the rational one and I was more emotional. He was ex-military, and many read rationality into his good posture and understated delivery. But I knew him well enough to see past this. He had wept uncontrollably for almost 20 minutes after I told him he was going to be a father. It was so unexpected, so raw, that it took some time to realize he was happy and merely overcome with emotion. The child had been planned and conceiving hadn’t been difficult compared to many couples in their 30s. This outburst had made me love him more, which annoyed me. Crying over something like that shouldn’t make him more worthy of love — but some primal place in me was stirred and reassured by his display.
I spent several days drafting an explanatory email to the Project’s program director. In the meantime, Penelope consented to having her makeshift nest moved to the maternity cage where only Jasmine, her best friend, was allowed to join. I showed Penelope our baby room from the perch on my shoulder. Rat eyesight is weak, so I had to take her up close to see the cradle, the glider where I’d nurse and the little stuffed rat toys everyone had sent as gifts. I explained this was my nest, feeling a little silly given that Penelope’s overwhelming experience of it, for now, was likely the unpleasant smell of off-gassing. Still, she was chatty and curious, asking why the baby wouldn’t sleep with Peter and me. Contrary to her pre-adventure behavior, she wanted to talk all the time.
I watched Penelope labor in real time from the next room via video screen, as she moved every which way, trying to find a comfortable spot. Something in her breathing suggested birth was imminent. This squirming stage lasted for about half an hour. Then, slowly, eight pink pups came out and immediately squealed. She licked the squirming pink mass of babies clean, chewed through the tiny umbilical cords and consumed their still-throbbing placentas. And like that, it was done. No epidural, no forceps, no c-section, no doctor or midwife shouting “push!”
After she woke from a long nap, I approached the maternity cage with mango. Penelope ignored it and instead dragged me by the finger where the blind, hairless pink pups were stacked. I dutifully pet them. Her BabbleLink transmission was an endless loop of their names, all of which were old cagemate names plus Peter and Sharon. (Perhaps rats simply don’t have many name sounds?) Penelope kept noting how good the babies smelled.
I sent my email to the Board only once the birth was complete, ensuring that aborting wasn’t an option.
I was invited to present my case at the next online meeting of the Project’s Board.
STEVEN (SECRETARY): This is the time and the place designated for our April 10, 2030, meeting of the Board. We have present five Board members. One non-present voting member has delegated her right to the Chair, Emily Spiro. The sole item on our agenda is whether to grant a one-time expenditure for BabbleLinks for an additional litter of unexpected half-wild rats.
EMILY (CHAIR/ BOARD SEAT #1): I think we are going to hear briefly from Sharon Esposito, the leader of Lab Number 26. Right, Sharon? Are you in the meeting?
SHARON (LAB LEADER # 26): Here.
EMILY (CHAIR/ BOARD SEAT #1): Oh, I love the tattoo on the back of your hand. Is that a neuron?
SHARON (LAB LEADER # 26): A rat brain neuron. I did my graduate research on rat consciousness as well.
EMILY (CHAIR/ BOARD SEAT #1): Fitting. Plus, your hair is the same color as the rat coats. Classic. So, what would you like the Board to consider?
SHARON (LAB LEADER # 26): Yes. So, Penelope the rat escaped for one week and was impregnated by a wild rat. She successfully gave birth to eight pups earlier this week: three girls, five boys. The mom and babies all survived and appear healthy. As a result of her sojourn, Penny has become more expressive and is providing insights into maternal behavior. I’d love to see where this takes us and I believe having implants for the babies will continue us on that path, and provide insights into wild rat minds. Letting me raise half-wilds would be a good half-step.
EMILY (CHAIR/ BOARD SEAT #1): Thank you for that. I’ve spoken informally with the rest of the Board and I can say approving money for the half-wild litter won’t be an issue.
SHARON (LAB LEADER # 26): Great! You don’t know what a relief that is.
EMILY (CHAIR/ BOARD SEAT #1): Of course! Your experience already shows that there’s much we can learn from expanding our data set. The revelation that wild rats seem to have a pre-existing word for “poison” is fascinating.
SHARON (LAB LEADER # 26): Surprising yet intuitive. We know wild rats communicated poison risk. They’ve been observed designating a “taster” when encountering new foods and smelling each other’s breath to memorize the scent, then avoiding similar foods when the taster got sick.
EMILY (CHAIR/ BOARD SEAT #1): Fascinating. For the benefit of the group, do we have an idea of how much transfer of knowledge there is among your rats, say intergenerationally?
SHARON (LAB LEADER # 26): We know they use the sounds we teach them through the BabbleLink with each other. This builds a vocabulary that outpaces their non-linked peers. Each successive generation is more sophisticated. For example, we see little things like the older rats teach the younger ones where the designated toilet areas are and we don’t need to potty train each new generation.
EMILY (CHAIR/ BOARD SEAT #1): Very helpful. Now, the reason I ask all this is because we got a call from a key funder with anxiety around the accidental release of super rats who understand how bait works and who is setting it. The information we give these augmented lab rats will spread to the wild population. We want to implement some additional mitigation measures, and we’d very much like to say in the press release that you and the other Lab Leaders support them — plus mention your rat’s outside adventure.
SHARON (LAB LEADER # 26): What kind of measures?
EMILY (CHAIR/ BOARD SEAT #1): First measure, we’ll ask that you spay the half-wild does when the bucks are neutered. This is because the half-wilds are seen as a greater flight risk because they aren’t bred for docility and their mom has already shown that capability. We don’t want them to continue their line in the wild if that happens.
SHARON (LAB LEADER # 26): Okay.
EMILY (CHAIR/ BOARD SEAT #1): Second, we’ll put in guardrails to make sure that escapees won’t be able to interfere with pest control. He compared the risk of rats escaping to gain-of-function lab leak risks, because your labs contain enhanced species that if introduced to wild environments could quickly spread and dominate standard species due to their communication advantages. And I agree that we need to think through what happens if an evolution we engineer spreads in the general community. So until further notice, we are asking that you not share anything with your rats about the history of lab work or engage in any data sharing about how poisons work or how to spot them. Current subjects with this knowledge must be isolated from younger generations until natural death.
SHARON (LAB LEADER # 26): Is this necessary? We’re not talking Planet of the Apes. Their communication is still mostly monosyllabic.
EMILY (CHAIR/ BOARD SEAT #1): So long as the BabbleLink is mechanical and non-hereditable, I agree that sophisticated language evolution risk is low. But as your own experience suggests, these are social creatures that teach each other, and we are only now getting a loose grasp on their language capabilities. Any trait that improves survival chances could quickly dominate and frustrate rodent control.
SHARON (LAB LEADER # 26): Still, you’re talking about isolating twilight rats, which can be stressful.
EMILY (CHAIR/ BOARD SEAT #1): As to your colony, this concern is purely theoretical as our database records show that your Penelope was the first in your colony to use the term “poison,” and that word was introduced to her by a wild rat, rather than vice versa.
SHARON (LAB LEADER # 26): So you’re saying Penelope would not need to be separated under these new guardrails?
EMILY (CHAIR/ BOARD SEAT #1): Correct.
SHARON (LAB LEADER # 26): That’s fine then. I wasn’t planning to teach my rats molecular biology. I don’t want to hold this up.
EMILY (CHAIR/ BOARD SEAT #1): Great. I think that’s it. We are ready to vote on our agenda.
ANAMARIA (BOARD SEAT #4): Hold on. Hold on one second. I have a right to enter my dissent into the record. As the saying goes, great causes have a habit of becoming businesses and then degenerating into rackets. Our vote today completes a shift from the Nomadic Labs, the movement, to Algernon, LLC the business. While I can see everyone currently on our Board still believes deeply in animal welfare, unless we hew back to our initial purpose, I fear the racket is imminent.
ASHIM (PROJECT DIRECTOR): Missions change and—
ANAMARIA (BOARD SEAT #4): I didn’t interrupt you, please let me make my record. I feel I need to remind everyone, as the last remaining member of the old guard and the only Board member with gray hair, of our initial mission. Though we do business as the Algernon Project, our legal name remains NRNL. As in Natural Research Nomadic Labs.
Our original purpose was to design an ethical way to conduct rodent experiments by raising them as quasi-pets. To give them good lives, love them and gather data as injuries and illnesses naturally arose. With enough volume, our hope was that this “natural research” would provide more scientifically accurate results because during prior rat research the animals’ anxiety, poor health and depression confounded results. The variation of domestic environments would help because humans, after all, do not live with standardized diets or habits.
But now, money has warped this simple idea into one involving expensive AI equipment. The project’s namesake, Algernon, typifies this. Only one Algernon was ever introduced to the public, a charismatic rat with a slate blue tint to his coat. The dirty secret was that hundreds of Algernons lived unpleasant lives to develop the technology, and more are suffering in labs now to upgrade it. Even the implantation procedure has a mortality rate we’d never accept in human babies. So, in effect, we’ve moved from protesting cruel research to funding it.
EMILY (CHAIR/ BOARD SEAT #1): We’ve all read your book, AnaMaria. Is this really necessary to repeat here?
ANAMARIA (BOARD SEAT #4): Absolutely it is. If we want to eliminate animal testing, the best way to do that is to not test on animals. These new protocols are going to put us back in the place of lab worker/lab rat dynamics. For the first time, Sharon is being asked to limit what she can communicate to them for the purpose of, what, helping pest control agencies maintain their jobs and out of a fear that rodents will become too conscious of what is being done to them? This is not how we treat pets. And why are we expanding our mandate to include studying wild rats? Why are we monitoring their intergenerational communications about poison? What use is that data except for rodent control. Let poison manufacturers do their own studies.
EMILY (CHAIR/ BOARD SEAT #1): Is that all?
ANAMARIA (BOARD SEAT #4): That’s all.
EMILY (CHAIR/ BOARD SEAT #1): Well, I didn’t expect to have debate club today, so I didn’t prepare a formal rebuttal and don’t speak for the full Board but let me just say a few things for the record. First, I’ll just note that AnaMaria and her late husband had years to create a sustainable model without an AI component. As we know, enough rats with naturally occurring conditions must be presented to research anything meaningfully. But the pure natural model never got enough participants to hit those statistically significant thresholds. Outside the welfare community, researchers’ habits are sticky. They were trained torturing rats, their teachers were trained torturing rats and they’ll instruct their students to torture rates unless there are quantifiable benefits to transition to a different system.
Using AI as a carrot, we have enough participation to create usable results for behavior studies, common illnesses and nearly all major cancer research. So, while my esteemed colleague AnaMaria remains an inspiration to me and a friend — and I do envy her ideological purity — she is, unfortunately, comparing a theoretical nonprofit of unproven viability with an actual operating one that needs to make complex ethical choices. We have good data demonstrating that giving animals the ability to say “that hurts, please stop” changes researcher behavior — including the behavior of researchers not directly working with our chipped subjects.
Finally, contrary to what AnaMaria implies, we are not a for-profit corporation and nobody affiliated with us stands to make money from today’s decisions. We are accommodating donors not because we have lost the faith or are “selling out” but rather because they are correct. Ideologically, we don’t want to make rodent control harder when we all know excess wild rats disproportionally impact poor urban areas. Okay, that was a lot. Secretary, are we ready to vote in today’s measures and unplanned expenditures?
STEVEN (SECRETARY): I’m ready. On today’s agenda items A-1 and A-2 and A-3, Board seat two, how do you vote.
ANATOLY (BOARD SEAT #2): I vote aye to all measures.
STEVEN (SECRETARY): Board seat three?
STACY (BOARD SEAT #3): Aye to all measures. Thank you for that discourse, both of you. I thought it was helpful.
STEVEN (SECRETARY): Seat four?
ANAMARIA (BOARD SEAT #4): Nay.
STEVEN (SECRETARY): Seat five?
JOHNNY (BOARD SEAT #5): Aye.
STEVEN (SECRETARY): And the chair?
EMILY (CHAIR/ BOARD SEAT #1): I vote aye.
STEVEN (SECRETARY): The resolutions pass 4-1. This meeting is adjourned.
EMILY (CHAIR/ BOARD SEAT #1): Okay everyone, thank you for your time. Sharon thank you for your patience, don’t be surprised to see your name on the press release for the new protocols. We’ll get you a draft before the notice goes out so you’re comfortable.
SHARON (LAB LEADER # 26): Sounds good.
EMILY (CHAIR/ BOARD SEAT #1): Great. See the rest of you at the annual benefit.
I shut my laptop screen and turned to Peter, who had listened off-screen.
“What do you think?” my husband asked.
“We’ll see what the press release says. It might be fine. I’ll probably sign off.”
“I mostly found myself agreeing with whoever was speaking. I hadn’t really intellectually separated the AI piece of it from the distributed labs piece beforehand. And I guess I dissected rat brains for my PhD research, so I don’t have the high ground. Maybe I’m exhibit A of the person Emily imagined when she said the AI gets people in the door through curiosity or whatever. Ultimately, I suppose I’m more concerned for Penny and my colony. This outcome seems to work okay for them.”
He nodded slowly, not exactly agreeing — more contemplating.
“I guess I’m sad that the half-wild ones aren’t going to have their own pups someday,” I said. “But a small price, all told, for the life we give them. An abstract thing to steal from a small creature who may not know what they’ve lost — having children or grandchildren. Wild rats rarely live to meet their grandchildren.”
He kept up that slow, unconvinced nod.
“The thing I hadn’t thought about is really all that surveillance. The fact that they could look and see I hadn’t already discussed poison with the rats. That’s strange and drives home that this is a massive research project, not a hobby. I know that privacy isn’t a fair expectation and caring for the rats is in some sense a job. But I don’t think of it like that when I’m interacting. What do you think?”
“What I’ve always thought. Very little that’s useful can be learned about humans from studying rats and that we shouldn’t do it.” He stood to leave the room. “That said, studying you looking after your rats lets me know our son will have a loving, caring mother.”
“Then the experiment was a success,” I said, and half smiled.
He winked at me, rubbed my shin, kissed my belly and headed out.
I resented that his beliefs were so pure and simple — like AnaMaria, his absolutism freed him from complex, messy moral choices. Instead, his solution of banning all animal testing was clean; and it would never be implemented.
And so, I signed off on the press release.
Penelope’s pups grew. Their pink skin gained dark brown fur that easily distinguished them from the classy blue tint that marked the main Algernon line. As Peter predicted, they behaved half-wild. They ran around saying, “Hey!” “Hey!” “Hey!” as they bumped into each other and play-fought (before the operation, we could roughly translate words, but the pups couldn’t understand us).
When the day came, and they were both fixed and received their implants, a pup did die — little Peter, sadly. As was my practice, I left Peter’s body in the cage so the others would know he had passed away. Penelope licked at Peter, as if trying to wake him. After a few minutes, she gave up and thereafter ignored the corpse. She never mentioned the loss to me.
Another of the bucks was too aggressive — raising his fur and hissing if I got close to him, chasing, shoving and pinning his brothers, and generally making life miserable for everybody— and needed to be separated. He finally was put down after he nipped Peter (the human) hard enough to draw blood. The rest grew to be physically and emotionally healthy, if otherwise unremarkable, adults.
While they were pups and it was unclear whether their wild side would make them too aggressive to be near, I kept Penelope’s brood with just Penelope and her best friend Jasmine, who also started lactating and helped with the caretaking, but once they were neutered and past the asshole-teenage stage, I decided it was safe to reunite the colony. This was just around the time I gave birth to my son Jackie. Penelope loved licking him.
Another few months passed and Penelope acquired stately greys to go with her blue coat. They came in a slightly different color from the vibrant white splash around her nose and eyes. She grew even chattier than before. The rats I was closest with often grew extra chatty toward the end. This began around the two-year mark when their bodies started winding down, entering into their twilight age. During this period, Penelope who rarely sat still when younger, would sit on my shoulder and listen to the younger ones play, peering down in their direction. We talked and talked but in simple sentences. Age made Penelope’s thoughts lose sharpness.
I’d given up drinking for the pregnancy but had resumed after Jackie arrived. I learned from the internet that the safest time for a nursing mom to drink was actually while nursing so that the alcohol would be out of my breastmilk before the next session. One night, while feeding Jackie, I had a little more wine than usual and I got chatty with Penelope.
I brought up Penelope’s escape into the walls.
“Me?” she said, surprised.
“You don’t remember?”
“No,” she said when I asked if she remembered anything, then chittered, seemingly amused by her younger self’s brashness.
“No memory of Fernando in the walls?”
She fell asleep, and so did Jackie, and I put him down in the cradle, returned to the rat room with a fresh glass of wine and watched the young ones play.
They slept so many hours in the day, these pet rats, with their three-year lifespans — that’s just when human kids started to know anything of the world around them, and they had more waking hours in that time. Life extension was the key to learning what rats could fully evolve into. But what scientific use was there in breeding long-lived rats? The project was probably something you could sell to some Silicon Valley guy who didn’t give a damn about rats but would pay a million dollars to stay young or simply live, for one more day.
They were taken too soon. Little lives in fast forward. Penelope was in her twilight period and firmly content, like a human retiree watching the manatees in the canal out the back porch, nowhere to go, no plans to be made, naps pleasantly sneaking up and weighing down their eyelids, as they slowly left this earth, a little less present each day while the young tried to squeeze out more moments, more memories, shaking them and startling them awake to announce dinner, startling them awake to say I love you. One last time.
Penelope yawned back awake, and I moved her to my lap and gave her a nut to puzzle open.
I wanted to tell her about the poison out there in the wild world and everything humans had done, mostly because I had been told I couldn’t tell her that. But I knew all this was recorded, surveilled, tabulated and that I could lose my place as a lab leader.
What came out was something else:
“I know you’re not going to understand this Penny, but when I was in grad school. When I was learning how to be a scientist, I was doing research. I didn’t feel comfortable turning projects down — despite the way they had us treat the rats. I didn’t have the power or the awareness that rats were like you. I did things that were unkind.” As I spoke, I spilled a little of my wine on the baby’s swaddle, triggering another wave of guilt.
Penelope’s brain scan was going up and down, I think more in response to the anxiety and seriousness she heard in my voice. Then, as I kept talking on, her brain scan didn’t beep at all, as though the effort had exhausted her. Penelope was just letting my words flow over her now.
I teared up.
Then Penelope said, “You smell good, you smell good, you smell good,” as if to soothe me.