Surreal and All Too Real: A Book Review of Dr. Rat by William Kotzwinkle

Catherine Graf
From the RMCA web site, May 2003

This book gives you the surreal and the real, the fantasy with the really gruesome facts. If I were in charge of PETA or a similar organization, I would run a mass membership drive and give everyone a free copy of this book for joining. I didn't share this book with Remy, Rafey and Bijou, my pets, and I'm glad none of these things will ever happen to them.

Dr. Rat is a veteran laboratory rat who was castrated at birth (actually, I think they'd need to wait a few weeks) and has gone insane, so he's earned the title of Mad Doctor. He tells the story of all the experiments going on in the laboratory of a university on rats, mice, dogs, cats, monkeys and a few other animals. He points out the necessity of getting those grants. Ridiculous experiments are performed for this purpose that result in horrific tortures on the animals (and somehow I don't think this is all fiction). As Doc puts it, "We've got to continue verifying facts that were established a hundred years ago. Such verification is essential to our national defense." At risk of sounding like Dr. Rat, who is always quoting his past published articles, see my review of The Story of Rats, by S. Anthony Barnett, who did a good job documenting abuses in "scientific" experiments on animals.

The book does more than just lambaste laboratory testing on animals. The underlying theme is humanity's inhumanity to all other species and its headlong rush toward destruction. Within the laboratory environment, Doc makes frequent not-too-subtle references to the Nazi period, portraying the "Learned Professor" as a Dr. Mengele who decides with a flick of the hand which rats go into the death chamber.

Dr. Rat, however, doesn't support his fellow lab animals when the revolution begins and the rats start taking over the place. He's the last one defending the Tsar against the Bolshevik hordes. Soon animals all over the world are rebelling, beginning with dogs and spreading around the globe. We get to see factory farms, slaughterhouses, meat packing plants, zoos, and animals being hunted in the wild. While Dr. Rat battles to save the lab and restore order (and has a lot of bizarre experiences on the way), animals are uniting for a meeting. The only animal absent is, of course, man. I won't give away the ending.

To some extent, I think the story should have been focused on the laboratory events to make the author's message more effective. However, I think this book does raise awareness of the horrors of animal testing (much of it unnecessary) and points up the nontriviality of animal rights. If anything, things have gotten worse since the book was written in the 1970s.