CERN Has an Actual, Literal ‘Animal Shelter’ for Computer Mice

This is the best thing I've ever seen, ever.

Victoria Turk

Victoria Turk

Image: CERN Computer Animal Shelter

Behold: The CERN Animal Shelter for Computer Mice. This is a real thing. A thing that actually exists. A thing that has an enduring physical presence at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, home to the world's most powerful particle accelerator and, apparently, quite an assortment of geriatric computer mice.

Just imagine the steps it took to bring this thing into being. Someone recognised the much-worn, dad-joke-style double entendre of "mouse" as a small mammal and a common computing device and didn't just make a lame quip to a colleague, didn't even stop at making some kind of photoshopped visual pun; they actually took a rabbit hutch and filled it with computer mice posed as real mice and placed it outside a building at the largest particle physics laboratory in the world.

It's still there. It's been there for five years.

I came across the CERN Animal Shelter for Computer Mice when casually googling "cute animals CERN" on a tea break and knew, as soon as I saw it, that I was about to summit the peak of my blogging career. It was my duty—my journalistic obligation—to investigate these images, find out their story, and answer the question that immediately sprung to mind: wtf?

Screenshot from CERN Animal Shelter's site

The man who could shed light on this mystery was Stefan Lueders, computer security officer at CERN. The shelter, you see, is actually all about raising awareness of computer attacks. It was originally unveiled as an April Fool's stunt and sent round in the staff bulletin as a creative way of warning people to beware of clicking on dodgy malware or phishing links, a threat that CERN deals with as much as any other enterprise.

"If you look at computer security, one of the most dangerous things is people clicking on random links," explained Lueders. "Everything that has a blue line, they click on it and you never know what you get."

(I just want to point out that this point is illustrated on the CERN Animal Shelter site by a picture of someone clicking on a literal wolf in sheep's clothing.)

"So the idea was to ask all our employees to send in their mice, to stop using the mouse and start using the keyboard," Lueders added, pointing out that typing a web address is more secure than clicking a link. (They didn't actually want people to relinquish their computer gear completely; that's the April Fool.)

Screenshot from CERN Animal Shelter's site

Lueders said the cage came from some pet guinea pigs; it's complete with straw, food, and water. Lueders posed the mice for pictures "cuddling," "drinking," and "panicking" (in response to his cat).

"They don't drink a lot; it's more evaporation," he helpfully clarified.

It hasn't all been fun and games for the computer mouse shelter, however. In 2012, disaster struck. High winds knocked over a tree and in the resultant kerfuffle, the hutch was tragically destroyed and the shelter closed, with the security team reassuring that "all surviving mice have been returned to their owners" in bright green Comic Sans.

The CERN Animal Shelter today. Image: Stefan Lueders

But Lueders said the hutch was replaced and is on the official tour. The mice, apparently, largely look after themselves. They're generally of an older generation—Lueders noted there weren't any wireless species—and they do sometimes gain new shelter-mates as devices are donated to the project.

Is the message getting through? Are CERN's mice in general being protected from clicking on dodgy links?

"So far we're doing well. I wouldn't say we're doing perfect, but we're doing very well," said Lueders.