Well, it looks like we may not have to wonder much longer. ABCnews.com is reporting that brain researchers are closer than ever to determining what animals feel, via a process that involves … wait, let me check my notes … ah yes, tickling rats. And if you just got an image in your head of MIT doctoral candidates tickling rats and saying “Who’s a good rat? Who’s a good rat? You are!,” my work here is done.
So this study teaches us a few interesting things — one, that rats enjoy a good laugh just like the rest of us. And also, it turns out that when they’re scurrying underfoot they may not be looking to eat your food or chew your face off, but instead might just want a good tickle. You should really consider coming down off your kitchen chair and giving them a nice belly poke, just to see what happens.
But more importantly, studying the rats’ reactions helps show us what it’s like to feel, well, like an animal. For those of us who live with more than a few of those, it’s only a small leap from there to imagining a pet therapy session where we can finally understand our furry friends’ innermost thoughts. In my house, for instance:
Penny (yellow Lab): I know it sounds crazy, but I can’t shake this feeling that the dog in window is taunting me.
Autumn (multi-colored cat): That’s you, you idiot! Haven’t you noticed you’re both always barking at the same time?
Lilly (black Lab): I wonder if all these other dogs went away, would the people here let me eat their food?
Corona (golden retriever): I’m feeling remarkably well adjusted, but I’d feel even better if I crawled onto the head of that guy on the couch.
Bruce (black kitten): Those people keep watching and pointing as I play with these empty supermarket bags. … What’s their gimmick, anyway?
Sally (other golden retriever): I’m starting to feel anxious that there might be a squirrel somewhere. I better start barking incessantly just in case.
Squirrel (squirrel): Nuts, nuts, nuts — is this all there is?
Penny: I wonder if I went away, would the people here let the dog in the window eat my food?
Guy on the couch: Why are all these animals staring at me? And why is there a golden retriever on my head?
But the findings go way beyond pets. According to the ABC post, “the happily chirping lab rats might eventually lead the way to new notions of how consciousness itself … might be similar, if not exactly the same, in many species.”
In other words, animals might see the world exactly as you do, which ostensibly could complicate matters next time you go to eat one. I know I’ve always been able to justify it by convincing myself that they don’t really mind — “Oh good, my wings and thighs are being useful!” — whereas if they actually experience being eaten the same way we would, they might have some reservations about it.
As for the pets, it makes me wonder if we should be reconsidering certain things we put them through, such as making them sleep in crates, and walk on leashes, and evacuate into litter boxes. Well, that last one would be convenient for anybody, but the other things.
But as fascinating as the research is, it’s probably not wise to spend a lot of time laboring over what the findings mean for our overarching relationship with the animal kingdom. In the end, after all, we’re the ones with the bigger brains, so we get to make the rules. Besides, we have other, more important, concerns to worry about.
For instance, I can’t shake this feeling that the guy in window is taunting me.