Written By : Sumiko Saulson
When I was a young newlywed, in need stable part time employment in my field of internet technology in order to support my family, I got a job working in a genetic research facility. The place had a creepy, Resident Evil vibe to it with its long, poorly lit, frequently empty hallways, and the elaborate series of card keys we had to use to get into the various laboratories. Every lab was equipped with emergency washing stations for washing your eyes in case you should some caustic substance in them, special foams to spray down in case of chemical spills and instructions on what to do if you should accidentally release any airborne pathogens and how to call in Hazmat so that their team covered from head to toe in protective gear that looked something like a space suit could clean up the mess if things should go terribly awry.
There were laboratories for the experiments on live rats, and I would find myself being alone in rooms with nothing cages full of laboratory rats.
When I was hired, I was told that they did animal research, and they asked me during the interview process before I was hired if I would be comfortable with the fact they were experimenting on rats and mice. They were particularly concerned since I admitted that I had pet rats at home, but I told them that if a rat’s life had to be sacrificed for something like developing a cure cancer, I was okay with that, and didn’t think it was any worse than my eating dead cows… actually, maybe not as bad, since my eating hamburger definitely won’t help anyone develop a cure for Alzheimer’s.
The facility was researching cures for genealogical conditions and disease, but I was not a scientist. I was a computer repair technician. In fact, I was one of only two repair techs and the company was on a large, old campus composed of aging brownstones. Despite the efforts to modernize the interior with long, identical-looking mazes of sterile corridors such as you might see in a hospital, the main halls suffered from a dank, musty aroma and the ancient overhead fluorescent lights hissed and buzzed and flickered. You had to use special key cards and key chain dongles to access every new area, and I had a massive keychain for these passkeys and for thumbprint reads for special areas and equipment. The overall effect made me feel like I was walking through a live version of the laboratory areas in the first-person shooter game series “Doom”.
I also had to repair computers in the clean rooms, which are laboratories where cannot enter without a mask over your face, dust covers over your shoes, rubber gloves, and a knee-length labcoat that seals on the front and the back, like a hospital gown. A double-door system where you entered one door, put on your gear, and then entered another kept out dust and unauthorized personnel. Because I am nearsighted, and the rooms were often hot and muggy, I did my best to do my job from behind glasses that were frequently fogging up from my body heat.
Most of the time, I was completely alone in the room, or worse… it was just me, and rows of cages of genetically altered rats.
In one of the labs, there were rats that had been genetically altered to be perpetually overweight so that the scientists could study obesity; in another were rats that were bred with the genetic tendency for Alzheimer’s. In still other laboratories, the rats were altered in ways that I could not understand, or imagine.
Not knowing what diseases the rats had, or what contagions were in the laboratory was part of what was so nerve wracking about working in the research facility, and the many signs reminding you that there were dangerous disease all around you and that you had to be extra careful not to trip and break anything of the test tubes people had sitting at their workstations produced a certain amount of anxiety. Sometimes people had computers on workbenches in laboratories, connected to electronic microscopes and other specialized equipment, and I had no idea what kinds of things might be in those test tubes and beakers.
Sometimes, I would walk into a lab when the research assistants were handling rats who had reached the end of the line in terms of their usefulness as live animals. They were put down, with a shot of some sort, and although I knew that they were using the least cruel method possible, I still felt a little sad. Sometimes the rats were baby ones, or very young. In spite of my cavalier speech when they hired me, I loved my pet rats the way people love their cats and dogs, and that made it hard for me.
Later in my job, I was involved in creating a database system for bar coding the rats. The system used little UPC codes such as you find on packages of groceries at the market. I was very disturbed by this, as I imagined all of the horrible Frankenstein-like ways they could adhere barcodes to living rats, through some sort of tattoo or branding process, as if they were miniature cattle – cattle, like the future hamburgers I callously described during my interview. I cringed to think about metal objects injected under the skin, or tagged to their ears.
I guess I really let my imagination get the better of me.
As it turned out, the barcodes actually weren’t being attached to the rats, but to the outside of their cages.
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