Ship’s Cook, Rat Control, Vancouver

Ship’s Cook, Rat Control, Vancouver

Rat Park was a study into drug addiction conducted in the late 1970s (and published in 1980), by Canadian psychologist Bruce K. Alexander and his colleagues at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada.

Alexander’s hypothesis was that drugs do not cause addiction, and that the apparent addiction to opiate drugs commonly observed in laboratory rats exposed to it is attributable to their living conditions, and not to any addictive property of the drug itself. He told the Canadian Senate in 2001 that prior experiments in which laboratory rats were kept isolated in cramped metal cages, tethered to a self-injection apparatus, show only that “severely distressed animals, like severely distressed people, will relieve their distress pharmacologically if they can.”

To test his hypothesis, Alexander built Rat Park, an 8.8 m2 (95 sq ft) housing colony, 200 times the square footage of a standard laboratory cage. There were 16–20 rats of both sexes in residence, an abundance of food, balls and wheels for play, and enough space for mating and raising litters. The results of the experiment appeared to support his hypothesis. Rats who had been forced to consume morphine hydrochloride for 57 consecutive days were brought to Rat Park and given a choice between plain tap water and water laced with morphine. For the most part, they chose the plain water. “Nothing that we tried,” Alexander wrote, “… produced anything that looked like addiction in rats that were housed in a reasonably normal environment.” Control groups of rats isolated in small cages consumed much more morphine in this and several subsequent experiments.

The two major science journals, Science and Nature, rejected Alexander, Coambs, and Hadaway’s first paper, which appeared instead in Psychopharmacology, a respectable but much smaller journal in 1978. The paper’s publication initially attracted no response. Within a few years, Simon Fraser University withdrew Rat Park’s funding.