At several points in the novel Rosemary refers to laboratory rats in an abstract sense, discussing their use in scientific experiments, and their symbolic importance then becomes more concrete when Lowell is allowed to keep some as pets. Rosemary observes how strange it is that by simply being moved from the laboratory into Lowell’s bedroom, the rats are instantly elevated in status from a mere “data point” to a cherished pet. This emphasizes the fact that human-animal relationships are highly context-specific. The same animal can have an entirely different social meaning depending on whether it is found in a laboratory, child’s bedroom, slaughterhouse, natural landscape, and so on.
Later on, Lowell’s first act of animal rights activism comes in the form of breaking into a laboratory in Bloomington and freeing all the lab rats kept inside. Although it gets Lowell into trouble, this ends up being a highly successful gesture; Rosemary notes that the freed lab rats are found around the city for years after the fact. Rats are highly adaptable animals, equally capable of living in a small domestic hutch or urban sewers. (In this sense, they are a stark contrast to Fern and other chimpanzees, who need much more specific living conditions and do not cope well with changes in context.) The books’ depiction of lab rats illustrates how humans seek domination over the animal kingdom, but are to a certain degree thwarted by animals’ own adaptability and will to survive.
Lab Rats Quotes in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Lowell’s room smelled of damp cedar from the cage where three rats, washouts from our father's lab, would chirp and creak in their spinning wheel all night long. In retrospect, there was something incomprehensibly strange about the way any of the laboratory rats could transform from data point to pet, with names and privileges and vet appointments, in a single afternoon. What a Cinderella story!
Was my father kind to animals? I thought so as a child, but I knew less about the lives of lab rats then. Let's just say that my father was kind to animals unless it was in the interest of science to be otherwise. He would never have run over a cat if there was nothing to be learned by doing so.
He was a great believer in our animal natures, far less likely to anthropomorphize Fern than to animalize me. Not just me, but you, too––all of us together, I'm afraid. He didn't believe animals could think, not in the way he defined the term, but he wasn't much impressed with human thinking, either. He referred to the human brain as a clown car parked between our ears. Open the doors and the clowns pile out.