A Rat in Need ...

I've always kept a few small pets such as guinea pigs, hamsters and mice growing up but the best pet (besides horses and dogs) by far and without a doubt was Candy and Star, my two beautiful pet rats. I remember bringing them home for the first time and my folks being furious saying they were dirty and gross but within a few days my parents were hooked on them. I lost count of the amount of times I caught my dad sneaking in with biscuits and bits of ham for them! Spoilt is definitely an understatement! 

I was really interested when I heard that Chicago University scientists were doing rat behaviour tests and had some really interesting and fascinating results (which can be found here) I knew from my experience that rats form really strong bonds with their cage mates but to have real scientists confirm this was great. Slowly but surely we will change peoples perceptions about rats being gross and nasty! 

The scientists at Chicago University kept the rats in pairs so that they got to know each other and form strong relationships with each other. They then placed one rat in a transparent tube inside the cage, and found that the other rat was distressed until it worked out how to free the first rat from the transparent tube. 

The little ratties also surprised the scientists by not only helping their cage-mates when they were in distress but they also selflessly shared their treats and goodies with them. 

During the experiment, the scientists found that the free roaming rat became agitated and restless at the sight of its trapped friend, meaning it had picked up on trapped rats distress, and, according to the scientists, showing the simplest form of empathy.

But the free animal went even further, immediately trying to figure out and learn how to open the tube's door freeing its little rat friend, all without having been previously shown how to. This, according to the researchers, meant the animal was 'putting itself in the other's shoes' – a much more complex form of empathy. 
Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal stated "We are not training these rats in any way. These rats are learning because they are motivated by something internal". He went on to further say "We are not showing them how to open the door. It's hard to open the door. But they keep trying and trying and eventually it works". 

The researchers say this shows that the rats' motivation was to ease the distress of the trapped rat friend. In further experiments, the rats had little or no interest in releasing stuffed toys trapped in the tube but they would free real rats even when not allowed to play with them afterwards.

The final experiment placed focus on where a rat's sympathies would lie when given the choice of rescuing a friend or eating some chocolate, a favourite treat of every rat I've ever known! The animal frequently chose to rescue the friend before tucking in and sharing their chocolate stash with their companion. 

Looking for a way to free his cage mate 

Peggy Mason said "That was very compelling. It said to us that essentially helping their cage-mate is on par with chocolate. We were shocked". The research team said that acting out of empathy shows that empathy is clearly not an emotion unique to humans and it suggested we might be able to learn a thing or two from the humble and much hated rat. Previously, scientists thought that empathy and pro-social behaviour to help others was  unique to humans! Professor Mason went on to say "When we act without empathy, we are acting against our biological inheritance. If humans would listen and act on their biological inheritance more often, we'd be better off". 

If anything, this story has really made me realise how much I miss Candy and Star. They unfortunately are now in the big rat cage in the sky :( Hmmm ... maybe it really is time I thought about getting two more little critters to love and adore! If this isn't a sign then I don't know what is! :)

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