Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Rats of N.I.M.H.

A couple of my recent posts - on the value of storybooks and "uplift" of animals to sapience - got me thinking about one of the favorite books of my childhood, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

The stars of the book are the fantastic rats, who help save the widowed Mrs. Frisby and her children. Of course they aren't ordinary rats; they are escapees from a lab at the National Institute of Mental Health. Experimental treatments to boost their intelligence and life span were more successful than the scientists had planned. By the time the rats are clever enough to plan an escape, they are smart enough to realize they can't go back to their pre-laboratory lives.
We're something Dr. Schultz has made. Something new. Dr. Schultz says our intelligence has increased more than one thousand per cent. I suspect he's underestimated; I think we're probably as intelligent as he is - maybe more. We can read, and with a little practice, we'll be able to write, too. I mean to do both. I think we can learn to do anything we want. But where do we do it? Where does a group of civilized rats fit in?"
After their escape, the NIMH rats take up residence on the Fitzgibbon farm, stealing the farmer's electricity and supplies to build a home for themselves. Their ability to read and use technology is essential for the rescue of Mrs. Frisby's house from the farmer's plow.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is a great example of a book that can be used to teach biology to kids. The San Diego County Office of Education has an activity guide that uses the book as the starting point for lessons on natural habitats, owls, rodents, and the use of animals in medical research.

There is something for grown-ups to think about too. If we are going to "uplift" animals by boosting their intelligence and self-awareness would they have a place in our society? or would they form a not-quite-human class like Cordwainer Smith's underpeople? Something to consider before we travel too far down that path.

Tags:, . Image of lab rat from the National Cancer Institute.


  1. I never read that book - another lapse in my education! I do remember with fondness Andre Norton's Breed to Come about the intelligent cats. Sometimes I think I should find a copy and re-read it, but I'm hesitatnt that it won't stand up to my rosy memory.

    As for how we treat animals we might imbue with hightened intellect, I'm afraid, our technology will outpace our ethics - but one can hope only in the short term.

  2. that book sounds fascinating, although i presume the nice don't talk about having lesions on their brains and all the other nasty things we do in the name of science?

  3. My favorite sci-fi mice are the maniacal mice from Hitchhikers Guide tot he Galaxy, but I do remember those Rats of N.I.M.H. Although, I haven't thought about them a some years until this post, I'm going to go home and see if I still have the book.

  4. It sure does raise the question about what we'd do if we had to admit animals are intelligent.
    Where would that leave us?

  5. dawno: I understand your reluctance to re-read. Some of the books I enjoyed as a teenager have turned out to be not quite as great as I remembered.

    Talia: nope, the rats spent most of their time in the lab running mazes and learning to read. Definitely G-rated science.

    Doug: the HHGG mice are definitely the smartest rodents I know of, but they are so mean!

    Leah: I think it's something that should be discussed, even if it isn't likely to happen soon.

  6. I loved that book, my first pet rat was called NIMH. But I don't think giving animals human style (vs. amount) of intelligence is going to happen in my lifetime, probably a lot long than that.

    We also shouldn't assume every lab rat is being tortured. Mine never suffered more than over-availability of chocolate (they got rather fat).

  7. Anonymous12:19 AM

    You've taken me right back to a rather young age :). I loved the rates of NIMH when I was a kid.

    The question is, do I have the courage to re-read and see if I still love them?

  8. You're right Emily not all lab critters are tortured, and yours sound pretty lucky. I've done worked with (non-furry) lab animals and know lots of scientists who use mammals, from mice to cats, in their studies. Most do all they can to minimize pain and stress in their subjects and sincerely care about their welfare.

  9. Gee, I was stuck reading The Wednesday Witch. I think I'll go order that one for my son. We could use a new pet too!

  10. Anonymous5:32 AM

    An interesting thought to be certain. I too loved that book, but have a feeling we are a very long way off from finding a way to give animals that kind of intelligence. We'd have better luck doing so with computers, but even those we can't do now.

    And I do believe such rats would go off and form their own society. I just can't see humans accepting them.


  11. I loved that book! My oldest daughter brought it home and I read it to my kids.

  12. Anonymous2:34 PM

    Does Life mimic Art?


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