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emphaty

OK, so our Year of the Rat celebrations have engendered some reader pushback against the maligned rodents, and I can certainly understand that, considering some of the unhappy rat/human collaborative efforts from history (like, uhhhh, the bubonic plague or sundry deep famines).  And, likewise, I completely understand how unnerving it can be when a scabrous piece of the subway wall detaches itself from the general gloom and runs over your foot like a gray hell imp (this is particularly demoralizing after being pushed around by New York crowds all week while desperately trying to hold on to a semblance of sanity commuting to and from your meaningless dayjob).

Yet, despite (ten thousand years of) these bad rat moments, rats are worthy of our respect; not because of their enormous worldwide success, nor their astonishing resilience, nor their acute intelligence (although all of those things are indeed true and respectable), but because of something unexpected–their morality and compassion.

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A landmark University of Chicago laboratory experiment from 2011 presented lab rats with a dilemma. A subject rat was given a choice of  helping an unknown fellow rat trapped in a narrow, scary, and uncomfortable plastic tube (which could only be opened by the subject rat nudging a finicky and unpleasant latch), or eating chocolate.  It is worth noting that rats like chocolate as much as we do.  The NIH summarized the experiment results thusly:

To test how much value the rats placed on liberating a trapped cagemate, the scientists presented rats with 2 restrainers — one with a rat inside and another containing 5 chocolate chips, a favorite rat snack. A free rat could choose to eat all the treats himself by opening the chocolate restrainer first or blocking the entrance to the chocolate restrainer. But the researchers found that the free rats opened the restrainers in no consistent order and allowed their liberated cagemates an average of 1.5 chips. When an empty restrainer was paired with a chocolate-containing one, the free rats ate all 5 chocolates.

To summarize: the rats helped the other rats and then shared the chocolate! Here are some full descriptions of the study.  You should read them and run it through in your head.  Maybe imagine if you were caught in something like this with terrifying alien scientists, a rando human stranger, and a satchel with millions of dollars in it. Would you behave as well as the rats?  Would you try to help or would you try to escape the lunatic aliens with the money as fast as possible? Would you free the other human and then take 3.5 million dollars and give them 1.5 million? Really? Reallllly?

No study about the emotions or virtues of animals would be complete without a loud and peevish set of detractors coming forth to claim that the conclusions are misconstrued (or some form of anthropomorphism).  The “only humans have actual feelings and thoughts” crowd assessed the 2011 study and found it lacking because perhaps the subject rat wanted the companionship of the stranger rat trapped in the tube or something.  It seems to me the original study took such concerns into account by creating scenarios in the which the second rat, once freed, was still separated from the subject rat (this did not alter the experiment’s outcome). However, to placate the naysayers, the neural scientists sighed heavily and created an even more harrowing ordeal in which rats had to risk drowning (or so it seemed to them) in order to help a stranger rat who seemed to be drowning. Once again the rats performed with admirable integrity and heroism.  An additional wrinkle was that the rats who had been trapped in the water as the “victim rat” acted more quickly to save their distressed fellows when they were given the role of subject rat.

sn-ratpaws

To my ears, that sounds like a textbook definition of empathy.  All of this does! Rats have hearts. They are capable of compassion and nobility.  Guanyin also holds rats in her ineffable embrace. As she listens to the cries of the world she hears their horrified squeaks to their families as we trap and poison them.

I confess that such a thought is deeply disquieting to me. I have been guilty of treating rats like vermin.  Yet I have talked to people with pet rats and I am not really surprised.  It has long been obvious to people of good conscience and reasonable observational abilities that almost all mammals (and a distressing number of birds and fish) have rich and soulful emotional lives.  They are not machines made of meat (or, at least, not more so than we humans are too).  They have souls, whatever that means.  Probably a lot of religious people are cursing me to their made-up gods, but I bet most people with pets are biting their lips and thoughtfully nodding.

I don’t know what to do with this knowledge. Our world is a cruel world of savage competition and appetite.  I eat certain mammals and birds.  I live in rat-free dwellings! It’s how I live! It’s what I have always done… yet more and more I worry that I live thoughtlessly in the jeweled master bedroom of a vast palace of cruelty.

But we are not seeking facile and comfortable answers here. We are seeking the truth, and that can be a narrow path of daggers which cut your heart. If you want soothing lies which confirm all of your biased feelings, go become an evangelical [REDACTED]ian.

P0

uhhhh….

 

 

mt0274

Naturally I love my readers with all my heart and I wanted to present a spooky Halloween treat to you for today’s post. I started out by writing an essay about the nature of reality, but it was filled with cubicles, creditors, skin cancer, and dead oceans.  To be honest, the dystopian sci-fi novel which is waking life was way too scary to be any fun (since it turns out that reality is completely horrifying).  As a back-up plan, I have returned to my old stand-by: strange creepy mascots.  Because of capitalism, nationalism, and the savage tribalism at the heart of humanity, our world is filled with weirdos and sad actors who are paid to don rubber costumes and act like bears, pelicans, and sundry bobble-headed freaks. Or, alternately, mascots can be animated or digitally created characters which are deeply wrong on an existential level.  Here are some of these mascots and these are their stories:

makoolaidLet’s start with a punch from the past. I remember being appalled the first time I saw a Kool-Aid commercial.  I mean Kool-Aid man is a being who is a fragile glass pitcher who crashes through a brick wall.  He then pours himself out into delighted children who drink his very essence like the Eucharist and go into a sugar high.  What the hell? How did marketers come up with this and how is it a thing we all immediately understand?

masDSC01192The New Orleans Saints’ primary mascot is Gumbo, a McGruff-style weeping hound with a blood-red tongue who is actually fairly lovable (as such things go).  However, Gumbo has recently been teamed with Sir Saint, a gruff football villain with elephantitis of the chin.  Sir Saint was one of the original Saints mascots during their first seasons of loss and misery and, for some reason he has been brought out of retirement to cast a shadow over this halcyon era.

0cubs1908-03Long ago, a wandering mage/bar-owner cast a curse upon the Chicago Cubs when they ejected him from the stadium for bringing his beloved pet goat to a game. Yet even before the curse, the cubs walked in darkness–as demonstrated by this image from 1908 which shows them with a nightmare bear.  Bears are scary enough, but this one looks like a rabid muskrat or a bear shaman who got trapped in a hell dimension.

malogosPast posts have touched on the subject of how bizarre Olympics mascots are.  Yet even Wenlock and Mandeville cannot compete with Shpitzik, a sentient fire-wielding cactus who was meant to represent the Israeli Olympics team.  Not only was Shpitzik a walking atrocity which should not exist, he was also a blatant rip-off of a character from a children’s show popular in Israel in the 1970s.  The cactus mascot was soon at the center of a giant expensive law suit.  The website theclassical.org told the harrowing story here and described the lawsuit’s conclusion (which also was the end of Shpitzik). In the final judgment, the presiding magistrate determined that Shpitzik was “’far more than a ‘humanization of a cactus” but was also a copyright infringement. He then ordered Shpitzik’s “permanent destruction and erasure from memory.”

mas4fff29d1a273eBoltman of the San Diego chargers does nothing to help alleviate the rumors that steroids are rampant in professional football.

old miss chiquitaThe Chiquita Banana was created by a famous cartoonist,  Dik Browne, who also created “Hagar the Horrible”.   The talking over-sexed banana was introduced to America as an animated character in 1944 (because apparently that year was not traumatic enough).

mas5350655833_86c067aa2d_oYou don’t have to be a sports mascot created by committee to be completely horrible, as demonstrated by these two mascots for a drug store in Kyoto.  Apparently they are renowned for making generations of children cry.

mastumblr_lci9rpn5xL1qe0wclo1_500This is “Boomer”, a (possibly retired) mascot of the Columbus Blue Jackets.  I think he is supposed to be a geriatric cannon pointed directly up, but he looks like a reject from a movie about steampunk sorcerers.

pierre-the-pelicanI don’t want to seem like I’m picking on new Orleans but the newly renamed basketball team “the pelicans” just unveiled their new pelican mascot and it is widely being heralded as a creature of nightmares.  This mascot is so atrocious it made the front page of CNN and has already inspired the internet’s underemployed digital artists to create an entire history for it.

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