Luckily for us, we can test consumer products on laboratory rats, and they really have no say in the matter.

by Jim Harris

A study published in August’s “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” stated that rats, like humans, may experience so-called “near-death experiences” (NDEs). These can include feelings of levitation, detachment from the body, serenity, warmth and the presence of light. (I am not making this up. It has been widely reported in online sources.)

In order to reach this conclusion, researchers from the University of Michigan placed monitoring devices in the rats’ brains, killed them and noted a brief spike in brain activity. They were unable to do any follow-up interviews with the dead rats, but they’re pretty sure they’re onto something that will require more wasteful spending of our increasingly scarce tax dollars.

Popular interest in NDEs was initially sparked by the founding of the International Association for Near-Death Studies in 1981.

Parapsychologists, religious believers and some scientists have pointed to NDEs as evidence of an afterlife. According to a Gallup poll, approximately eight million Americans claim to have had such an experience.

I know that some Local readers have said they’ve had near-death experiences when reading my column (you’re welcome), and I myself had the following NDE last Christmas, while standing in line at the Mt. Airy Post Office:

After waiting for about two hours, I found myself drifting into a dream state. I seemed to be walking down a long tunnel. There were lots of people ahead of me, all carrying voter ID cards. I was worried because I didn’t have one. There were also signs along the way: “Three lanes to Heaven,” “EZ pass, keep right” (I knew I should have gotten one of those things), “New Jersey, next two exits” and “No shirt no shoes, no salvation.” I felt relieved once I got past the “Road to Hell” (which was paved with good inventions). Then I saw a bright light up ahead and heard a booming voice saying “NEXT!”

I came to. It was the postal clerk speaking. Still dizzy, I answered slowly.

“I’d like to mail this fruitcake to New Zealand, please.”

“Where in New Zealand?” she barked.

“I don’t care, anywhere.”

“Well, you’re gonna need a form 1527-B. Get one in the lobby, fill it out and get back in line.”

I stumbled out to the lobby but was too shaken to fill out a form, so I took my fruitcake and went home. As unsettling as that experience was, I now feel relieved to know that rats undergo the same thing. In fact, whenever I partake of any dangerous behavior, whether it’s smoking, snorting cocaine or squirting hair spray into my eyes, I always say to myself, “Thank God they’ve tested this on rats. Now I can really push the envelope.”

You see, we humans have long believed that we are entitled — obliged even — to use the animal kingdom as our own laboratory for every reason imaginable. It all goes back to the Bible, Luke 6:31, which, in some translations, reads “Do unto others before they can do it unto you.” Then there’s the Hippocratic Oath, which states, “First, do lots of harm to ‘lower’ animals.” Anyway, of all the “animal models” that we use as tools, rats have become the favorite.

A little history: In 18th-century Europe, rat-baiting was a popular sport which involved filling a pit with rats and timing how long it took for a terrier to kill them all (a precursor of reality TV). Over time, breeding more interesting rats for these contests produced the “lab rat,” the first animal domesticated for purely scientific reasons.

Today, there are many strains of lab rats — fat ones, hairless ones, shaking ones, you name it. They are often named after their developers. One of the most popular is the Wistar Rat, invented right here at the University of Pennsylvania. In America, any children who study hard can grow up to have lab rats named after them.

So, while wild rats are out there running around willy-nilly, and pet rats are living lives of luxury, the lowly lab rat is busy every day, giving his or her all so that you and I can safely do whatever the heck it is that we do. I’m not sure if there actually is an afterlife (I’m getting an ID card just in case), but if there is, when I get there I’ll offer each and every lab rat a hearty “Thank You” and a big piece of fruitcake.

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