Rat basketball at Heureka

I was at Helsinki the past few days. (At Helsinki? In Helsinki? Well, above Helsinki, as I approached it by plane…) There, I visited — as I always do, if I can — the science center funhouse Heureka. A lot of the place is geared at teens or younger people; but it’s always a fun visit nonetheless. (This time: Body Worlds — plastinated people and terrified children! And the hemisphere auditorium showing spacey movies from the sciencey space-atoriums of New York and Los Angeles!)

(“Space-atorium” sounds better than “planetarium”, doesn’t it? I should write to Neil deGrasse Tyson with this…)

Fun, that is, all is fun until you start to leave and get magnetically drawn into the souvenir store. Then you moan at the papercuts as your bills fly away and your bank card zips through every reader in sight. Then you stagger away, laden with knick-knacks and gewgaws and puzzle toys, moaning, “Why do I need a pseudo-holographic glossy postcard of the Pleiades? And the temperature-density water clock — I should turn back for it — No! I cannot be made to turn back —”

One of Heureka’s current attractions is rat basketball.

No, not with humans playing with rats as balls. That would be cruel, and doesn’t happen behind the ice cream shed, midday every day, tickets 10 euros if you know who to ask.

No, the rats play basketball among themselves. It’s set up in a glass box the size of an aquarium, behind a glass screen, three times a day. There are eight rats, big, glossy and lively. Those that want to come to play scamper over the sides of the glass box and play; there’s no forcing. The ball is a sphere from a roll-on deodorant bottle, drilled with holes; the rats use their paws and teeth. The hoops are maybe ten centimeters high on the walls of the box, easily stand-on-two-legs reachable.

Mono-colored rats are one team (there’s a total of four of them), and double-colored ones the other (also four of them, or as many as come to play). All are girl rats, because otherwise there would be unsports-rat-like shenanigans and then too many players.

The rats are trained (and rewarded) with rice (I think boiled? I’m a pasta-type student, not the rice-type) whenever they move the ball towards the right goal; during the game, with fully trained pro rats playing, only an actual goal (a hoop? I don’t know) gets them rice. They’re enthusiastic though goofy players; usually from two to five of them come out to play at once.

The more members of a team there are in play, the more lively the game becomes, because there’s no team play. If there’s just one player of each team playing the game tends to be one scoring, then scampering to an end of the center line for the reward, while the other takes the ball and does the same.

I’m not this observant; most of this comes from what I remember from the spiel of the judge and reward-giver, who was human.

A highlight was when one crafty rat sat down on her own hoop; no scoring for the other side! (A lesser highlight was when a rat scored an own goal, and then wandered around the field, as if half hoping for a reward nonetheless.)

Now.

I am not a fan of sport, but I would watch human basketball if it was played like rat basketball.

Those players of each team that feel like playing can come play; the others can stay in their cage. There are no rules except that when you make a goal (or whatever it is called), you get a personal reward from a great big hand that reaches over the sides of the arena. A grain of rice probably wouldn’t do, and not a hot dog, even; possibly money or drugs, then. I bet that after most players were hooked on something nasty, they would be pretty willing to come out to play for it.

It would be grossly unethical to do this with rats, but sportspeople are volunteers! Plus do you say you don’t want to see a field alive with bulky basketball players, high, mad, and all jockeying for the ball for a second go, gripping it with their claws and teeth?

That’s sport!

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