Early Animal Rights Poem Discovered: A Mouse Asks for Mercy : Krulwich Wonders... In the 1770s, a scientist named Dr. Joseph Priestley was studying mice to try to understand how animals breathe and how oxygen moved into the bloodstream. One day, he found a note, apparently penned by a mouse, wedged in the bars of the mouse's cage.
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Listen To A Mouse Demand Its Rights

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A Mouse Asks for Mercy

Listen To A Mouse Demand Its Rights

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And now, if you don't mind, please place your hand over your heart. Rise, if you can, to a standing position to salute a small and gallant creature and her fight for liberty.

Here's our science correspondent Robert Krulwich.

ROBERT KRULWICH: This is the story of a mouse who lived very briefly 237 years ago.

Dr. RICHARD HOLMES (Historian): Can I just set this up?

KRULWICH: And this is Richard Holmes, prize-winning historian. He's going to take us back to...

Dr. HOLMES: Mid-1770s.

KRULWICH: Mid-1770s to a science lab in England run by a great chemist.

Dr. HOLMES: And this is Joseph Priestley.

KRULWICH: And Joseph Priestley was one of the first to discover oxygen. And on this day, he's trying to figure out how a body breathes oxygen - how does that work?

Dr. HOLMES: And he sets up a series of experiments.

KRULWICH: So he will put an animal in an environment and then suck the air out?

Dr. HOLMES: He can pump the air out.


Dr. HOLMES: Okay.

KRULWICH: So this must not be too pleasant for the animal.

Dr. HOLMES: That's right.

KRULWICH: In fact, it's so unpleasant, a great many lab mice toppled over and died in Priestley's lab - so many that Richard Holmes believes...

Dr. HOLMES: At this period time, the question about whether you should experiment with animals is already there.

KRULWICH: This is the dawn of the animal rights movement, and maybe its first expression. He says because...

Dr. HOLMES: He has a young assistant who is a woman, Anna Barbauld, who is also a poet.

KRULWICH: And one evening, young Anna Barbauld was in the lab. It was time to close up.

Dr. HOLMES: And there's this extraordinary moment, and Priestley packs up for the day. And he leaves the next mouse in a cage on his desk for the next morning. He put it in the tank and removed the oxygen, and the mouse will almost certainly die.

And Anna Barbauld, who's clearing up - it would make a wonderful shot in the movies. She just looks at the mouse, and the mouse looks at her. And she thinks, wait a minute. Wait a minute. And she sits down, and she writes a poem. And the poem is in the voice of the mouse.

All right, it's such a wonderful, modern thing.

KRULWICH: And remember, it's 1773, two years before the start of the American Revolution, inalienable rights are in the air, and this poem has a revolutionary theme...

Dr. HOLMES: In which the free-born mouse, cruelly imprisoned in a laboratory cage, appeals for its right to life. And here it is.

(Soundbite of music)

Dr. HOLMES: (Reading) For here forlorn and sad I sit within the wiry grate, and tremble at the approaching morn...

Ms. ANNE BOBBY (Actress): (Reading) ...and tremble at the approaching morn, which brings impending fate.

Dr. HOLMES: Remember, the mouse is speaking.

Ms. BOBBY: (Reading) The cheerful light, the vital air, are blessings widely given. Let nature's commoners enjoy the common gifts of heaven.

Dr. HOLMES: (Reading) The well-taught, philosophic mind to all compassion gives...

Dr. HOLMES and Ms. BOBBY: (Reading) ...casts round the world an equal eye and feels for all that lives.

Ms. BOBBY: So sweet. Oh, sweet but sad, my God.

KRULWICH: Our mouse duet was performed by actress Anne Bobby, who's apparently something of a mouse lover.

Ms. BOBBY: Wow.

KRULWICH: And by historian Richard Holmes.

Dr. HOLMES: Okay. And I say that's the first animal rights poem, all right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: Oh, but if it is the (unintelligible) one, did it work? What happened? Did the mouse...

Dr. HOLMES: Yes, no. She folded it up and stuck in the vase in the mouse's cage. So he found it first thing the next morning. And what can't - terribly frustrating for a biographer - I can't tell what the history of the mouse was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. HOLMES: I don't know.

KRULWICH: Did that mouse (unintelligible), or did that mouse die?

Dr. HOLMES: Exactly. Did that mouse die or not?

KRULWICH: Well, some things we will never know.

Robert Krulwich, NPR News.

INSKEEP: But there are some things that you can see. We have a vivid image of Anna's little mouse in startling watercolor, ready for your inspection at npr.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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