The Risks of Empathy, a Novella
Karen had called in sick on Monday. It was the first time she had missed a day at the Enzyme Interaction Institute since getting her dream job. She was sitting on the floor leaning against the wall of her small apartment. The room was dark. Harlow, a large orange cat was curled on the pillow that Karen had in her lap. His fur was damp and salty.
Except for trips to the bathroom and filling Harlow’s bowls with fresh water and dried kibble, Karen had been sitting in the same spot for two days. Her TE was lying next to her, the net was on her head. She pressed play, and for the one hundred and fourteenth time since her first experience Saturday evening, Karen became a rat.
She knew the two rats next to her, but the other rat was a stranger and everyone was on edge. He smelled friendly, and his nervousness was obvious. One of the rats with her had a litter of babies hidden away and she was very concerned about the stranger. Whiskers were twitching and everyone was sizing up the situation carefully and keeping all the escape routes in mind. It was pitch dark and Karen couldn’t see a thing. The experience was entirely olfactory, tactile, and auditory.
Karen inched carefully toward the stranger until their whiskers were touching. She could smell other strange rats on him but knew that he had not been around them for many days. She sensed that he had been separated from his colony in some way and was seeking the company of other rats now. His squeaks and slow movement told her that he was intending no harm.
The other two rats slowly came forward and began smelling the stranger more carefully. Karen could sense a slight relaxation in the female’s wariness. Suddenly the other rat jumped on the stranger and they tussled briefly, but the stranger endured the nips and kicks with little resistance.
They crowed around him and nibbled the fur on his back and licked his anus. He remained still and did not struggle.
They all remained quiet for a time, then went together to look for something to eat.
The first few times Karen had experienced the rat TE, she had been very confused. There was nothing at all to see. As she ran the TE over again, she began to be aware of the meaning of the scents and sounds. She learned that there were things on the TE that were not so apparent the first few times she experienced it.
She could now recognize that the rat knew things about the other rats and his environment that seemed almost subconscious. The rat had a mental map of the tunnels he was in that Karen recognized as a system of drainpipes. He knew which ones led to the streets and where the dumpsters were in relation to the storm drain exits. He knew where there was water and where he had to be especially wary due to other rats’ territories. He knew safe places to hide and soft warm places to sleep. He knew where he had hidden little morsels for latter snacking.
Though she never could tell for certain, she didn’t think that he had names for the other rats, but it was clear that he knew them and knew things about them. He seemed to trust some and to be nervous about others. He knew that the rat with the litter of babies was his sister.
The most startling thing to Karen had been her eventual recognition of the sympathy and empathy that the rat felt for the stranger. The rat, and the other two rats with him, recognized that the stranger had been alone for a while and that he had been lonely and frightened.
None of these things had been apparent to Karen the first time she had experienced the rat TE, and each time she ran it again, she picked up more subtlety and information.
After Karen’s third experience a wave of fearful understanding washed over her as she thought of the hundreds of thousands of hamsters and guinea pigs stored in their plastic boxes at the Enzyme Interaction Institute. Their stark plastic cells, their confinement, the many painful procedures they were being subjected to, it all added up to a horror that Karen realized she was contributing to. Her growing self-loathing led her to experience the rat TE again, and then again and again. Her eventual tears had soaked the pillow on her lap as she buried her head and sought to muffle her sobs from the neighbors on the other side of the thin cheap walls of her apartment. Harlow sensed her hurt and had been on her lap for most of the weekend, his back catching many of Karen’s salty tears.