Saturday, December 10, 2005

Toby's Trial (Prose by Jim)

Animal caretaker for the experimental psychology lab was my decades ago college work-study job. Sans a major during Vietnam draft days, a path to grad school and paying rent were jobs 1 and 1A. So, a farm boy flattered to be noticed by the learned, urban professor recruiting me, and intellectually smitten with Science, I was clay ready for shaping.

Except for one detail, that one main “caretaking” duty was liquidating the animals whose experiments were done, it might have worked out. But the lab produced a constant stream of “retirees” – with no budget to put them down humanely. The extant procedure was, yes, to put 10-20 rats in a bucket – pour in carbon tetrachloride (a cheap toxic dry cleaning fluid) and cover the bucket – until all sounds of frantic motion ceased. A painful, mass, panicked death indeed.

When my boss refused to, I bought more expensive chloroform. Using soaked cotton, I picked up each rat and covered its face. Little struggle or pain, just quick unconsciousness before the bucket. Executing pigeons was more difficult and upsetting as they took longer to die.

What was happening to me? I was now a killer for pay – not my own kind to be sure – but, hands on and personally. And when I began to “devise” ways to lessen the birds’ suffering, it was clear I’d become a scientist all right – if experiments in efficient mass killing are “science.” You may recall a surfeit of such research in Germany and Japan in the 1940's. I did.

Struggling to cope, I began to find homes for a few, as tame white lab rats any lack self-survival skills. Pigeons had a chance, but had to be transported miles (a few at time in my tiny sports car); otherwise they’d congregate on the lab’s roof – and the researchers were callous, not dumb.

Some animals had wires implanted in their brains through a socket attached with sloppily applied pink dental acrylic. One of my courses included placing these into rats’ pain and pleasure centers. They were anaesthetized, placed in a “head vise,” scalps retracted and skull tops sawed off. Hardly neurosurgeons and “unscrubbed,” we aimed our probes with a rat brain “atlas.”

After operating and stitching, we returned the unconscious to their reasonably clean cages. Recoverees were “culled” by being hooked to a shocking apparatus for testing, e.g., a rodent squealing and writhing meant we had a viable pain center subject.

School and work grew increasingly surreal. "Pay to play" had become "Kill to graduate." Late one night two friends and I got fairly wasted and went to the lab. Rod in particular was never averse to skirting the edge of the bizarre, but both were blown away watching rats pressing bars to receive pleasure shocks – you may have heard about rats in these experiments dying of thirst because they wouldn't stop to drink....

My buddies decided a mock trial for a rat might somehow assuage my dilemma. One acted as defense counsel for “Toby” (named on the spot), the other prosecutor for “pure research” and I the judge. Frankenstein-headed rats weren’t placeable, plus might garner unwanted attention (and while killing university property was my job, stealing it was a felony). Thus Toby, an innocent rat in a kangaroo court, was sentenced to die – by turning the pleasure machine’s power all the way up.

The guys thought this a great way to go... ...blazing out in an orgasmic explosion....... ....and in my slaughter-benumbed soul, I decided, think what you will, it couldn’t be much worse than inhaling chemical death in a dark, crowded, bucket. So hesitating only briefly, I set the controls to maximum.......

Hooked to his wired tether, well-trained Toby approached the bar.... ...and when he pressed it.... ....jumped half his height off the ground!!

Then lay quivering. But soon got up... ...went right back.... ...and pressed more vigorously than ever, acclimating to the new intensity of ecstasy. So Toby had the pleasurefest of a lab rat’s life before dying “normally” a few days later. And taught me a lesson.

No, I didn’t start a humane animal research movement – would that I had. But things change, and maybe I shouldn’t be cynical. Maybe standards are tighter now? Maybe that lab was an exception?? Maybe, maybe, maybe......

At the time, though, my only focus was leaving this charnel house. I soon quit my federally subsidized job and found an honest gig in a gas station. And set about becoming something – and someone – else.

–Jim Keller
September 6, 2005 Draft © 2005 by J. Keller.
All rights reserved. World Rights Reserved.
(Excerpted version published in "Readers Write" Sun Magazine No. 360, Dec. 2005)

1 comment:

Susan said...


This is a powerful piece of memoir writing. It is very moving. I used to read The Sun years ago, and was always trying to get published there because I thought the material was so authentic. I am sorry they cut "Toby's Trial". I think it works as is.