Gutful Wonders

Written by John Fenderson

Popular Science recently published an article naming the ten worst jobs in science. The ones they list are bad, but they missed one I had the misfortune to have.

I used to work in a biological research lab. My job was to program the computers, a disgusting enough task, but probably not one of the ten worst. Being the swell guy I am, I habitually helped out the other folks in the lab from time to time. This is the story of one of those times. The woman who took care of the animals was going on vacation, and wanted me to feed the owls while she was gone. Sure, I said. I liked the owls.

You see, the lab raised barn owls. Barn owls, as you probably know, eat mice. These particular ones will eat dead mice, since they were born and raised in captivity. They prefer them alive but hey, a meal's a meal.

Now, as it happens, the lab got an extra-good deal (free) on fairly steady supply of dead mice. Well, rats, actually. Big ones. These particular rats also had their brains surgically removed. Each and every one of them had a rat-brain-sized hole in the top of their heads that led to an ominously empty chamber.

Since feeding the owls cost a fortune, this deal was eagerly accepted despite a little glitch: the rats were far too large for the owls to eat. So someone had to cut the rats up into owl-bite-sized portions. When I agreed to cover for the regular gal, she assured me that the rat corpses were frozen to zero degrees, and were hard as rocks. The bandsaw will cut them into slices easily, I was told. It's not bad at all.

This woman lied.

Oh, sure, it was literally true. The rats were frozen solid and the process stayed neat and clean for roughly long enough for her to show me how to do it. After a while, you even get used to the Dr. Frankenstein-gone-wrong look of empty rat skulls.

It was fascinating, in fact, since when the bodies were cut, you got to see the cross-sections of the inside of a rat. Being frozen stiff, they looked like cool rock specimens or something. Anatomy had never really interested me particularly, but this was fascinating. Look, there's the lungs, there's the liver, there's the ugly grey/black mass that I assume is the stomach or lower intestines or something.

The thing is that every time you cut, a little bit of the rat fat melts onto the blade. The more of them you cut, the greasier the blade gets. The greasier the blade, the slower it runs. This is a Very Bad Thing, as it means that the friction from the blade will melt the flesh faster than you can cut it. Every dozen or so rats, I also experienced the joy of cleaning all the fur out of the saw.

It quickly got a bit disgusting. Rat fat makes a very good lubricant, I learned. For those of you who have ever taken a power saw to a piece of wood, you know that if you get the pace wrong, the blade's friction will actually burn the wood. It's no different with rats. This taught me the useful bit of knowledge that cooked rat stinks. But it doesn't reek nearly as bad as the smell of thawed rat intestines when you slice them open.

The stench became mind-bogglingly bad. I've talked to war veterans who saw savage battles, and one of the things they all told me was that the worst part of their experiences was the unbelievable stench of the battlefield. I think I now have a clue what they were talking about.

Here's a free tip for all of you: if you ever find yourself in a situation where you must eat rats to survive, cook them whole before you cut them up. If you have to eat raw rats, then just kill yourself instead. You'll thank me. If you're too gutless to off yourself, here's what you should know. Do not, under any circumstances, cut through the rat's belly. Trust me on this one. The rat is definitely not gutless.

By the end of the first day, I was seriously wondering if I could actually go through with the entire week's worth of work I'd promised. Every rat's face started to look a lot like the face of the woman who duped me into this. As I worked, I reflected on the fact that nobody else in the place had jumped to volunteer when she asked for help. All the bastards knew. Nobody warned me. It's little things like that that made me wish the bandsaw was portable.

The job didn't go away at the end of the day, though. That stench became a part of my body. No amount of scrubbing, showering, soaking, disinfecting, or perfume could mask it. It was the strongest on my hands, which made eating, drinking, and smoking a real joy. It lasted for a full week after I was done doing the deed. Let me tell you, chicks don't dig that particular cologne.

The other people in the place did start to treat me with an odd mix of fear and disgust, though, which almost made it all worthwhile.