The Animal House

One of my fondest memories from childhood are the visits to the “Animal House”. We lived in a medical college campus and I used to often visit my mom’s department in the medical college during school holidays. Spent most of my time there either plucking roses from the rose trellis in front of the building, or gazing at the numerous rodents and rabbits in the Animal House, or watching my mom’s experiments.

She was a “doctor” who did research and teaching rather than treat patients. Heard her tell her friends and colleagues several times that she chose the “teaching” side so that she could spend more time with her family and kids. A few times, also heard her remark to some friends that she regretted not having picked the “clinical” side, because it might have been more fulfilling.

Most of her research involved working with mice or rabbits, and it used to be very exciting to watch her do things to them like giving injections, or making them run around in a maze, and sometimes even operate or cut them open. This was a difficult job that required a lot of skill and patience.

Most mice were generally not co-operative and seemed to hate injections, and she was once badly bitten by a mouse that was desperately trying to avoid the needle. She then walked around with a huge bandage around her index finger for a few days, inviting a lot of sympathy from many people. I was very much affected by that incident and remember telling all my friends about how an angry mouse had bitten her, and bringing them home to show the finger 🙁 🙁

Despite being familiar with all the shenanigans of the mice, I still loved visiting the Animal House that was in the basement of the college. Could spend hours and hours there and had to be dragged home unwillingly. It was an amazingly long dingy room with a very high ceiling. When you first entered it, you could immediately see rows and rows of cages, with scores and scores of white mice in them. When you looked more closely into the cage, you’d notice that almost each cage had several generations of mice – of all different shapes and sizes. There would be some really old fat and sluggish ones, younger frisky ones and tiny pink babies as well. One would never get bored watching them because there was always some interesting activity or other going on, or a few cute newborn mice to gape at.

The room also had a very distinct stench of soaked Channa (whole Bengal gram), and that was the primary food given to all these animals. The mice loved them and would continuously munch on them, and never seemed to desire any other variety in their menu.

When you walked past these rows and rows of mice, you could finally see the rows and rows of Guinea Pigs. They were also kept in similar cages, ate the same food and had similar families. But they were prettier, larger in size and also much cuter. Once you tired of watching them, you could proceed further and reach the rabbit cages.

The rabbits were my favorites and undoubtedly the best looking. They also came in many colors and combinations – white, black, brown and mixed. They seemed to be the darlings of the keepers as well, because in addition to Channa, they were also given carrots and cabbage. And like the mice and Guinea Pigs, they also spent most of their time eating.

Rarely beyond the rabbit cages, in the farthest corner, you could sometimes find monkeys. However caged monkeys were an unusual sight that I spotted only a couple of times. My mom told me that it was terribly difficult to handle a monkey during experiments since they were big and aggressive animals. I was glad that she didn’t have to handle them after I saw what a tiny mouse could do.

The composition of the Animal House never changed, yet I never tired of it and always looked forward to visiting it. Many times while exiting it, I’d ask my mother if I could keep a Guinea Pig or a rabbit as a pet and the answer would always be a “No” and I would grow quite glum. (I finally got to keep two Guinea Pigs, a kitten and a squirrel as pets and will write about them in another post)

As if to compensate for the disappointment regarding pets, she would next take me to the small tank in the college garden. This tank was veritably a mini water-zoo, full of frogs and tadpoles in various stages of development. We would spend a lot of time bending over it observing the tiny tadpoles, and I’d be amazed to learn that they would soon change their shapes and turn into huge frogs!

We would finally walk away from the tank towards home. The roughly ten minute walk through a grassy path was also very enchanting – ever since I discovered snails. One day as we were trudging along and I was stopping on and off to pluck some tiny flowers along the path, my mom pointed to a greyish brown shell on the path and told me that it was a “snail”. However it looked very ugly and uninteresting and I didn’t show much interest. But she poked the shell with a twig, and miraculously a tiny head peered out from it and went back in!! Then I looked closely again and found numerous such shells along the path, some with their heads out and others within. From then on, I’d walk on that path with a long enough stick to poke them and watch the magic 🙂 🙂

I have delightful memories of spending time with all these “animals” back then. Visited Bangalore again a few years ago and went down those same paths looking for those snails. But, was very disappointed. Thanks to many more buildings and concrete coming up, the snails seem to have totally disappeared from those paths 🙁 Couldn’t spot even a single snail on that path 🙁 Consider myself lucky to have spent my childhood in Bangalore when it was still a very green, lush and beautiful “Garden City”.

PS: Attached photo is that of the “Monument to the Laboratory Mouse” (sourced from the Internet), which is a sculpture in the city of Novosibirsk in Russia.

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