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Animal Lab

Liz Stillwaggon Swan hears the mice and cats run for the hills, quietly.

“My stomach won’t quit. It won’t quit!”

“Shush, Pink. We all know it hurts, but complaining about it won’t do any good. You’re just keeping everyone awake, and we all need the peace of sleep, at least.”

Pink quietened down to a whimper. Although sleep didn’t come to him, the other mice finally got some rest. The few hours of darkness and peace, freedom from being pestered by The Large Ones, were cherished by all who had spent their lives in the cages at the lab.

The cats were always the first ones awake in the morning. This was symptomatic of their belief that because they were the most intelligent occupants of the lab, it only made sense that the burden of solving the mystery of the animals’ existence there should fall on them.

This morning the cats were already deep into it. Toujimska was frustrated, trying to explain the dreams he’d been having about hunting small animals in the woods, although of course he didn’t have the vocabulary to describe any of it. Anyway, his friend was incredulous: “That’s completely absurd. Just because you imagine something doesn’t mean it’s real.”

“But my friend, I’m not merely imagining these things. They come to me, in dreams.”

“And why should I believe that what you dream is more real that what you can imagine?”

“You just have to believe me. There is another possible existence for us.”

Their conversation was interrupted by the lab tech who came to fetch Toujimska the dreamer. A few hours later he returned blind and witless. Another product was deemed too toxic to be placed on the supermarket shelves, and needless to say, Toujimska had a completely different take on imagining and dreaming now. Over time his friend found other things to talk about, until he too was fetched away. But unlike Toujimska, he never returned.

Mornings were the most peaceful times at the lab, one could say. Sometimes the mice and cats awoke well-rested, and would focus their attention on who was still around rather than on who died during the night, and the lab techs would arrive and discuss this or that procedure or an upcoming visit from a prominent scientist. But this morning was different.

The head scientist was nowhere to be found, presumably tending to important matters elsewhere. This only fueled the atmosphere of mounting anxiety and rumors flying around the lab. Tom, the student summer intern, also had a lot to say: “I mean, I can kind-of see what they’re getting at, you know? It’s like when my Grandma was in intensive care and I’d have to go visit her, and my mom would say ‘Just act natural’. But I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable there, you know, seeing her like that. I started wondering how she felt. She’d be all drugged up, eating hospital food, living under fluorescent lights, being woken up at all hours by the nurse – why should we expect her to act normal, you know? So then I started thinking, isn’t the situation kind of the same with our animals here? I mean, we give them just enough food to survive, they get no real exercise – only those damn exercise wheels – and we’re not really considerate of their sleep needs, if you know what I mean. So why should we expect them to be good test subjects for drugs for insomnia, anxiety, and depression? Do you know what I’m saying?”

“Sure, sure,” replied Sara, one of the researchers, “the poor animals are sleep-deprived and bored. Poor things. But let me ask you this: why are you interning in a research laboratory when you clearly don’t understand the first thing about the purpose of or need for our research?”

“It was either this or working on my brother’s fishing boat, and I wasn’t up for that. Anyway, fishermen got the same problem: ‘dolphin-friendly tuna’! What about the tuna?”

“You’re hopeless,” replied Sara and walked out, leaving Tom alone with his thoughts.


Late that evening, the mice were discussing what they had learned from their last night-time jaunt to the university library in the adjoining building, before the locks on their cages had been reinforced after the lab techs found droppings on the floor. and deduced that some mice must have escaped during the night. “Now think of Pink’s stomach-ache the other night, for example. He was in pain. As a result we were all unhappy – more from our inability to sleep than from sympathy – but nevertheless there was a lot of unhappiness.”

“Is there a distinction between pain and unhappiness?” asked an older mouse.

“Well if so, it’s a subtle one. Jeremy Bentham says that so long as a creature has sentience, the ability to feel, one ought not to inflict pain on it. We don’t inflict any pain on the Large Ones, yet they cause us great pain and suffering. So, assuming we want to grant that they’re rational beings, we are forced to conclude that they do not know that they cause us pain.”

“Or,” said another, “they know, but don’t care.”

Toujimska had been replaced by another cat who was less of a dreamer and much more intent on solving the Great Mystery of why they were at the lab. He mewed across the room, “Are you mice familiar with John Stuart Mill’s principle? To paraphrase, create the greatest good for the greatest number. If this greatest number includes us and the Large Ones, then here at the lab there clearly is the grossest disregard for Mill’s principle. It’s possible, however, that the Large Ones believe this principle applies only to them, and not other animals. This doesn’t solve the Mystery, but on the contrary invites a new one: why would they believe that?”

“Take Kant.” The older mouse interrupted, “Now Kant’s got an interesting argument. It’s more or less a fancy version of the Golden Rule: Kant’s principle is, always act as if your will were to become universal law. So don’t use others, treat them with respect, if you would wish them to do the same. Well, that’s obviously not taking place here at the lab – unless the Large Ones have a very strange notion of respect.”

“Or unless they feel secure that although they can subject us to pain, we cannot do the same to them.”

“Which, given that we’re in cages, is rather impossible.”

“So to sum up, the Large Ones seem ignorant of Bentham’s concept of sentience, Mill’s principle of the greatest good for the greatest number, and Kant’s version of the Golden Rule. So the question is, do the Large Ones even read what’s in their library? What is it there for? Who thought up these principles? Clearly they were either mice or cats – but then how did they get into the hands of the Large Ones?” asked the older mouse.

The discussion was interrupted by shouting. The head scientist had returned and he was angry: “That damned press! Where do they get their information? And lunatics threatening lawsuits. What is it with these people? Rather than admit they’re defective specimens, they say our drugs are the problem. Everyone here will attest that they tested just fine on the animals! Can you believe this? Can you?” He waved newspapers at his bewildered colleagues. “Complete garbage! The complaints of a few stall the progress of all science. They’re threatening to choke our funding. This is an outrage!” He stormed out.

“What’s going on? What do the newspapers say?” Tom asked the other researchers once the head had left the room.

Sara replied, “Remember the Cylert trial, the medication we tested for ADHD? They’re saying it’s caused liver failure in a dozen children. We’ll wind up as unpopular as that lab that refused to release penicillin onto the market because it was killing all their guinea pigs. What a research debacle that was!”

Another added, “We’ve also just received word that a recent rash of heart valve abnormalities has been traced back to a diet drug tested in this lab. The head is frantically preparing for a meeting with the state medical research board.”

The intern asked timidly, “So... what do you think this means for us?”

“Better call up your brother,” Sara said, “and start stitching up your fishing nets.”


One night one of the cleaning crew showed up with a dog.

“Ish! Ish! Come here boy. Good boy. Stick by me, okay? And don’t torment the animals.”

“What is that?” one of the mice whispered to another.

“I don’t know, but for once I’m actually relieved we’re in this cage. Whatever it is, it looks too big to fit in here.”

“Is it a cat?”, asked Pink, “a big cat?” The two cats in the neighboring cage looked at each other and rolled their eyes.

Just then Deliah, Ish’s owner, got distracted looking for the mop, and for a few moments Ish was free to wander about. He was as intrigued by the animals as they were of him, and a little more intimidated. To have hundreds of pairs of eyes on him all at once was a little disconcerting. He sensed right away that he was the odd one out.

Finally the oldest mouse spoke up. “We’ve never seen one of your kind before, and we’re curious to know what you are.”

“My name is Ish… I’m a Black Labrador,” replied Ish.

“Dog, right?” asked the same mouse, who in his senior years had more confidence than caution.

“Not just a dog, mind you, but the most intelligent breed of dog, in fact,” replied Ish.

“Well then, tell us this,” the old mouse said, “In your travels or studies, you must have come across the ideas of Bentham, Mill and Kant?” Ish responded with a blank stare, so the old mouse continued, “Well, no matter. What we’re after is an explanation as to what is going on here, in the lab – an explanation of why we’re here.”

“Beats me”, replied Ish, scratching his ear with a paw and sniffing in the direction of the cats, until they gave him such a staredown he was forced to look away.

“Well, at least answer me this. Why are you not in a cage?”

“Oh, Deliah offered me one of those wretched things during my uh… upbringing, but I never took to it.”

“You mean you’re always free, out and about as you are now?”

“Yeah...” Ish seemed bored with the conversation.

“Does… Deliah… does she do things to you that hurt? And not let you sleep? And make you swallow horrible-tasting things?”

“God, no! What is wrong with you?!”

“But then why does she keep you around?”

“What? Because we’re friends. We run together. She feeds me. I keep the house safe.”

“Well listen Ish, we need to ask you to do a very important thing,” Big Alpha said. “We need you to help us escape. We’ve found out that the Large Ones don’t plan to be around here much longer, and we don’t trust them to consider our welfare once they’re gone. Do you know how to open these cages?”

Ish thought for a moment. Having announced himself as a member of the smartest breed of dog, he didn’t want to disappoint the little creatures. He had seen Deliah open his cage at home plenty of times, and thought he could probably figure it out. “Sure,” he finally announced, with bloated confidence.

“Good. We’ll need you to come back tonight, when the Large Ones are gone. Will you be able to come back here alone?”

“Yeah. Sure. But where will you go? Do you have a home somewhere, with someone like Deliah?” Ish was thinking back to those few days he’d been lost, wandering around the streets, not knowing if he’d ever find his way back to home.

“We haven’t quite worked that out yet, Ish. But we will. The most important thing is that we make it out of here first.”


Pink the baby mouse, wasn’t doing too well, and it was pretty clear he wouldn’t make it through the night. Everyone would miss Pink for sure, but there were others who were even more difficult to forget somehow, Joy for one.

Joy lived up to her name. She lived as if in a better reality, because this one, she used to say, was “substandard, to be quite honest.” There had to be something better. She believed, not in her dreams, like Toujimska, but in her imagination – which she felt more real than reality itself. She’d tell the other mice about things like the sky and fields, warmth and peace – as if they were real, and the only real things in the world. But Joy returned one day after a short absence with no wits about her, and a few days later she lost her fur and her will to live. She had died a day later.

Pink died too.

Ish was true to his word. Not only did he come back that night, but he exercised his intelligent Labrador brain to finagle the simple latches on the cages. The mice were slow to leave the cages, unsure of how to navigate their new freedom. The cats sauntered down the hallway to the exit doors as if they had done it a thousand times before.

The mice made it outside first, running as fast as their little legs would carry them. The babies were excited to be part of the adventure, wherever it would lead them, and the elders were excited for a different reason. They understood that they were doing something monumental. But none of them could have imagined the experience of running over the threshold into the night, and for the first time in their short lives, experiencing full sensory awareness: feeling the cold air, hearing the night life buzzing, breathing in the scent of all future experience.

© Liz stillwaggon swan 2009

Liz Stillwaggon Swan teaches Philosophy at the University of Colorado, where she lives with her husband, dog, and two cats.

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