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Rats have hoop dreams

ratsvert
2009-03-12

R-A-T-S, Rats! Rats! Rats!

Dr. Alliston Reid and his psychology class are training 12 rats to play basketball. It’s serious business, so serious that they have even set up a tournament with a Final Four (Furry Four?) and everything.

“Years ago I had students do projects called the Rat Olympics,” says Reid, who built the miniature basketball courts himself, replete with Wofford logos, free throw lanes and everything. “Pairs of students would teach their rats to do some unique event. It was sort of a freestyle Olympics and it was a lot of fun. But then I saw that someone else was doing non-competitive rat basketball, and I thought, ‘Well, we can do better than that.’”

The rats don’t dribble, pass or even shoot the ball. They just dunk it. First one to 11 wins. One rat was even named LeBronda by its trainers, after NBA legend LeBron James. Only female. All the rats are female. Male rats would fight each other or harass female rats. So it’s all female, all the time.

“We tease the guys sometimes because of that,” says Amanda Saca, freshman from Atlanta, Ga. “We’re like, ‘Go, girls!’”

Even the females can be tough to train, though.

“A lot of the rats get stuck in behavior patterns,” says Michael Roulhac, freshman from Spring, Texas. “They’re used to getting rewarded for certain responses and that becomes all they want to do. If they don’t get their reward they’ll even start to eat the ball.

“It was exciting to see the responses from the different rats early on. After continued success it became more exciting to work with them, but now it seems like we’ve kind of hit a wall. We’re trying all of these new techniques and changing the variables a little bit. Some of it’s successful. Some of it’s not. It’s trial and error.”

The rats, all of whom were born on the same day, are kept at 85 percent of their originally obese body weight so that they are hungry, but not starving. The balls come from many sources, including roll-on deodorant applicators. The reward is a food pellet, delivered in what looks like a miniature drinking fountain adjacent to the hoop.

The students, meanwhile, are learning along with their rathletes.

“Rats don’t work like dogs or other animals you’re used to training,” says Saca. “They don’t understand voice commands, for example. And you can’t just show them how to do anything, they have to figure each step out by themselves. That can be a little frustrating at times.”

No one said coaching is easy. It’s a high pressure gig, especially with a Final Four on the line.

“Once they get to the Final Four, it will be open to the public,” says Reid. “The Final Four will be held on April 25 in the McMillan Theater, probably around 2:45 p.m. or so. I am working with Ryn Lister in Admissions to include this tournament as part of Hospitality Day. That coincides with Terrier Play Day, and the game should start just after people finish with that.”