Former lab rat teaches kids responsible stewardship
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY - Oct. 6 wasn't exactly her birthday, but no one, especially the birthday girl, really cared. Pinkanelli Rat Girl's cage sat on a table in the fourth grade classroom at Our Lady of the Angels School near a birthday cake, wrapped packages and cards. She wasn't paying much attention to the treats, however. The white rat scampered around on the bars of her cage, her pink nose and whiskers in constant motion as she sniffed the fingers of the students who reached into her cage to stroke her head and wish her a "Happy first birthday!"
Marty Denzer/Key photo
Our Lady of the Angels fourth grader Christoher Nguyen feeds Pinkanelli Rat Girl a piece of cheese.
Pinkanelli Rat Girl started life as a lab test rat, part of an experiment run by the 2003-2004 fourth grade class at Our Lady of the Angels. To learn about the effects of diet and nutrition, the class, with the assistance of school nurse Julia Kovak, obtained two rats to study. They were named "Pinky and the Brain," after two cartoon characters. "Brain," a male rat, was the control in the experiment, and was fed a standard nutritious rat diet, while "Pinky," the female, was fed junk food and sugar water. From January until the end of the school year, the class observed the effects of the rats' diets on their growth and weight, their eyes, coats and energy levels. "Brain" grew normally, while "Pinky" failed to grow or gain weight. Her coat was rough and yellowish, her eyes dull, and she was lethargic, Kovak said.
The students, who had grown fond of "Pinky," asked for Kovak's help to rehabilitate the rat.
She contacted the American Dairy Council to find out how the class could bring "Pinky" back to full health.
The cure: fruits, vegetables, a small amount of dairy products (cheese, of course) and high fiber grains and grasses for small animals.
Kovak, who also works in an Animal Assisted Wellness program for refugees and older people in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, asked the students if she could have "joint custody" of Pinky and take her home for the summer. By this time, the rat had been rechristened "Pinkanelli Rat Girl."
When the kids returned to school at the end of August and saw the change in Pinkanelli, they were amazed, Kovak said.
"Her coat was nice and silky, she'd gained weight and her eyes were a clear bright pink where they had been so cloudy," she said.
Pinkanelli Rat Girl has become more than just a pet companion in the classroom.
The fourth and fifth graders at Our Lady of the Angels School are beginning to understand the role of animals in their lives, Kovac said.
"They are watching the life cycle of the domestic rat unfold. Pinkanelli Rat Girl has a lifespan of three to five years. She is a year old now. They will be able to watch her mature, age and die. They will go through the grief process and we'll probably get Father James Shea to say a few words," she said. Redemptorist Father James Shea is pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church.
"It's been proven in numerous studies that children who own pets have more empathy to other humans and better social skills," said Kovak.
The birthday party for Pinkanelli Rat Girl was also a "thank you" party for the fourth and fifth grade students in appreciation of their responsibility and care for the animal. She is the "animalification" of this year's Catholic Schools Theme: "Stewards of God's Gifts."
The two classes presented Pinkanelli Rat Girl with an exercise toy, a "slumber pen" bed, cheese wedge rat treats and high fiber grass treats. Some of the children brought homemade cards and gifts for the animal. A school parent made a pink party dress and an Our Lady of the Angel's plaid uniform jumper. Pinkanelli wasn't thrilled with the idea of wearing the clothes, but playing with them was quite fun.
Pinkanelli Rat Girl closed down the party by scampering into her den, carefully washing her face and whiskers, and curling up for a nap.