Some scientists are up for giving a lecture in a sunny field – but only Guerilla Science has the gumption to build a maze in the middle of the Hell zone in Glastonbury’s Shangri La field and fill it with rat scientists. Our wonderful Jenny Jopson describes the idea, the science and the inspiration behind our bravest experiment yet…

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Photograph courtesy of James McCauley

Are you smarter than a rat? This was the question at the heart of Lab Rats, one of our most imaginative and challenging undertakings yet. Following the triumph of the Decontamination Chamber in 2011, we headed back to Somerset in June 2013 to once again mess with the heads of unsuspecting festival goers in Shangri La, the anarchic after-hours corner of Glastonbury Festival.

Shangri La: Glastonbury Festival 2013.

Photograph courtesy of James McCauley

Wedged up against the vast Hell stage – all black wooden spikes, jets of fire and throbbing drum’n’bass – was our experimental chamber, an immersive theatrical experience designed in collaboration with the very talented Ridley Buchanan Architects and constructed by champions of timber and power tools, designer Ben Kearns and carpenter Alister Mackie.

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As twilight fell on the first night of the festival  and a gentle rain began to fall (which thankfully did not last all weekend) we fired up our neon sign, opened the doors and beckoned in our first experimental specimens…

Once inside they were greeted by Zucker, Wistar, Lewis and Lister (played by our superstar troupe of actors wearing latex heads made by the incredible Georgi Shire), and categorised according to their sex, variety and level of intoxication, before being put through their cognitive paces via a battery of sensory tests devised by rockstar neuroscientist Dr Edward Bracey.

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Photograph courtesy of James McCauley

They were then challenged to navigate the radial arm maze – a giant 8 pointed star based on mazes used in scientific research today – before finally being brought back into the experimental chamber to have their performance graded and the verdict delivered: smarter or dumber than a rat.

Photograph courtesy of James McCauley.

Photograph courtesy of James McCauley.

The underlying concept was simple: we wanted to turn the tables on the audience to comic and surreal effect, creating a Kafke-esque, alternate reality in which the rats are the experimenters, and the audience the test subjects. In doing so we hoped to encourage festival goers to explore their relationship with animals and feelings about the use of animals in research, and gain an appreciation of how rats and other animal models have contributed to scientific understanding.

While wishing to remain fairly neutral in our position, we also wanted to tackle some of the misconceptions around laboratory animals. Valuable insights came via discussions with our funders the Wellcome Trust, and the organisations Understanding Animal Research and the NC3Rs, who helped us build a picture of the reality of animals in research. UAR even arranged a lab visit for our actors, an amazing experience that was invaluable in developing the characters of the rats and their interactions with the human test subjects. We visited an animal facility owned by Kings College London where rats, mice and zebra fish are bred for use in research into Parkinson’s and other cognitive disorders. The wonderful Joan Castle showed us around and introduced us to Danny the rat (a particularly friendly chap who was a big hit with our actor Zach). Many aspects of the eventual Glastonbury experience – including the rats’ names, taken from actual strains of rats used in research, and their predilection for hugs and tickling – stemmed from what we learned on this visit.

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Photograph courtesy of James McCauley

We were also impressed with the regard for animal welfare that we encountered, and the controls – Home Office guidelines, EU directives – in place to protect the animals.

So why rats? Well, we owe a lot to these little creatures – they are the original lab animal, having been the first species to have been bred specifically for scientific use back in the 1800s, and today they are the second most commonly used mammal after the mouse. Over the last century, the rat’s image has been transformed from plague carrier to indispensable tool in experimental medicine and drug development. They have contributed hugely to our understanding of cognition, memory and navigation. As Hugo Spiers, cognitive neuroscientist at UCL, told us “a lot of what we know about how brain cells use memory – maybe around 80% – comes from studies of rats in mazes”. And the idea of giant rats scurrying around the dark alleyways of Shangri La was just too good to resist.

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Photograph courtesy of Simon Westgate.

We’ve certainly developed a respect and admiration for rats through the project – they are cognitively superior to us in many ways, not least their olfactory sensitivity, whisker touch acuity and hearing. We humans are so used to being the dominant species and resting assured in our position at the top of the evolutionary tree – so where better than a music festival, outside of the constraints of normality and routine, to turn our smugly complacent anthropocentric world even further upside down?

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Photograph courtesy of James McCauley.

Through inviting our audience to enter a kind of rat heaven in the midst of Shangri La hell, we hope we have confounded the expectations of festival-goers and challenged their preconceptions of animal research – whilst obviously also showing them a damn good time.

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Jenny in front of the Lab Rats installation.