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Secret of NIMH Was Inspired by Hideous Lab Experiments

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In The Secret of NIMH there are no musical interludes or tween heroines to lighten the mood—just the desperate struggle for survival of a mama mouse against her invariable predation. And it's based on a true story.

Don Bluth's The Secret of NIMH traces its roots back to the novel, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. And in both cases, NIMH stands for the National Institute of Mental Health. It's a division of the National Institutes of Health and is the single largest scientific organization dedicated to the study of mental health on Earth. And from the 1940s to 1960s, it was the site of some of the worst, most egregious atrocities against an animal population in the modern scientific era.


According to Edmund Ramsden of the WHO, author of The urban animal: population density and social pathology in rodents and humans:

In a 1962 edition of Scientific American, the ecologist John B Calhoun presented the results of a macabre series of experiments conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).1 He had placed several rats in a laboratory in a converted barn where – protected from disease and predation and supplied with food, water and bedding – they bred rapidly. The one thing they were lacking was space, a fact that became increasingly problematic as what he liked to describe as his "rat city" and "rodent utopia" teemed with animals. Unwanted social contact occurred with increasing frequency, leading to increased stress and aggression. Following the work of the physiologist, Hans Selye, it seemed that the adrenal system offered the standard binary solution: fight or flight.2 But in the sealed enclosure, flight was impossible. Violence quickly spiralled out of control. Cannibalism and infanticide followed. Males became hypersexual, pansexual and, an increasing proportion, homosexual. Calhoun called this vortex "a behavioural sink". Their numbers fell into terminal decline and the population tailed off to extinction. At the experiments' end, the only animals still alive had survived at an immense psychological cost: asexual and utterly withdrawn, they clustered in a vacant huddled mass. Even when reintroduced to normal rodent communities, these "socially autistic" animals remained isolated until death. In the words of one of Calhoun's collaborators, rodent "utopia" had descended into "hell".


Suddenly, finding your cinderblock house sinking into mud with your family still trapped inside doesn't seem like the worst part of your week. You can catch The Secret of NIMH on Hulu Plus.