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The Mini-Whippet #8: Rats and rolemodels

McKinley Valentine — 5 min read

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aka The Italian Greyhound.

I'm in Indonesia and don't have time to make a full Whippet, but there's an article I've been saving: my very favourite article from 2016.

I never shared it on Facebook even though I loved it so much because I knew people probably wouldn't read it and the thought made me too sad.

(New subscribers, you're exempt.
Please berate yourself about an alternative topic of your choosing.)

It's not that it''ll blow your mind or anything, it's just that it's perfect in what it is, self-contained and full of small excellences. It's about "a band of animal lovers and firemen in the mountains of Arizona, led by a Buddhist girl scout, making a pink milkshake for rats that may eventually improve the lives of millions of people." It contains:


“A 2014 study from Columbia University found that the average New York City subway rat carries 18 viruses previously unknown to science.

"How is it that we can send robots to Mars, build the internet, keep alive infants born so early that their skin isn’t even fully made – and yet remain unable to keep rats from threatening our food supplies, biting our babies, and appearing in our toilet bowls?"

A late-in-life career change

(I find these 10,000x more inspiring than any stories of young entrepeneurs)

"Loretta Mayer came to science later than usual, in her mid-40s, after a career in real estate development and a stint as the international vice president of Soroptimist, a global volunteer organisation dedicated to improving the lives of women. The career change was unexpected, even to her.

After a close friend died suddenly of a heart attack, Mayer called up a biologist she knew and asked how something like this could have happened. The biologist had no satisfying answer; she explained that while heart disease in men had been thoroughly studied, little attention had been devoted to post-menopausal heart disease in women. “Well you’ve got to change it,” Mayer replied, outraged. The biologist was otherwise occupied, so Mayer decided to do it herself. At 46, she entered a PhD programme in biology at Northern Arizona University."

Scientific serendipity

Mayer was looking for a way to induce menopause in mice, so she could more easily study heart disease in post-menopausal mice. The result was a powerful, permanent contraceptive (she called it Mouseopause).

Being able to bring your ethics into your work

"In 2005, Mayer received a telephone call from a veterinarian in Gallup, New Mexico, who had read about her research. The Navajo reservation where he worked was overrun by wild dogs. There were too many to spay and neuter, so he was euthanising almost 500 a month. “If you could do for a dog what you can do for a mouse, I could stop killing dogs out here,” he told her.

"Mayer, a Buddhist, describes herself as “extremely connected to animals, dogs in particular”. When she arrived in Gallup and saw the piled corpses, she agreed to test Mouseopause on an initial group of 18 reservation dogs. “I held up that first puppy, who I called Patient Zero,” she told me, “and I said, ‘I don’t know what this is gonna do to you, but you will live on a satin pillow the rest of your days.” The injection made the dogs infertile, but left them otherwise happy and healthy. (Mayer brought home all 18 dogs and built a kennel in her yard to house them until she could find homes for them with families she knew personally. Patient Zero, renamed Cheetah, lived with her until she died of old age – though the pillow was fleece.)"

Loretta Mayer

Couples that collaborate and seem really good for each other.

Mayer's wife, Cheryl Dyer (omg, Mayer and Dyer), is also a biologist. Mayer's office is bare and zen, Dyer's is full of Hawaiian kitsch including a sign that says "Welcome to the Tiki Bar". Mayer makes the contraceptive, and Dyer finds ways to make it appealing to rats – "a tricky proposition because its active ingredient, 4-vinylcyclohexene diepoxide (VCD), is bitter and caustic. Rats have the same taste preferences as humans – they love fat and sugar – though Dyer’s experiments with various flavour profiles indicated that their appetite for both exceeds ours."

"Rats are neophobic – they avoid what they don’t know. What’s more, city rats are already well fed. In New York City, for example, they have fresh bagels, pizza, melted ice cream and fried chicken in unending supply. To succeed, Dyer and Mayer had to make the compound not just edible but delicious."

"After a series of tests, they quickly settled on a liquid, rather than solid, formulation. Rats have to drink 10% of their body weight every day to survive, and so are always looking out for something potable. “We compared the [two] and they peed on the solid and drank the liquid,” Dyer told me. “Rats are pretty straightforward.”

"ContraPest, the finished product, is viscous and sweet. Electric pink and opaque, it tastes like nine packets of saccharine blended into two tablespoons of kitchen oil. “Rats love it,” Dyer said. “Love it.” Mayer, who taste-tested every version during the development process, could not say the same for herself."

It might change the world in ways that are hard to fathom

We can't kill rats faster they can breed. We have lost the war. But this really seems to be a game-changer. "Rats are so longstanding a threat to humanity that contemplating an end to the rat problem – and one that does not require us to kill them – seems like a fantasy. They are, as Mayer herself put it, a more successful species than us. Long after we’re gone, they will still be here. But the possibility of a truce seems closer than ever before."

I left out a lot! But hopefully you see how great it is that these people exist in the world. Here's the full article.

Artist: Jeffrey Smith


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