A Cat-astrophic Ordering Mishap at Two U-Penn Labs

Image credit: @GaryBeck

April 17, 2021

In mid-March, formalin-preserved cat cadavers were unexpectedly delivered to two independent scientific laboratories at the University of have Pennsylvania. Both labs had anticipated orders of 50 mL conical tubes.

It was a late Friday afternoon when Julia Eberhard signed for a package in her lab. She and her laboratory at University of Pennsylvania had been expecting a delivery of 50 mL conical tubes from Fisher Scientific for months. The 50 mL conicals are standard research lab supplies used to mix solutions, and just one of many products backordered amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Eberhard cut open the cardboard box, expecting to see the typical blue, quarter-sized caps of the conicals arranged in their standard grid pattern. Instead, there were cat cadavers.

While Fisher also sells the cat cadavers, Carolina TM Formalin Cats, as, “ideal dissection specimens” for research and educational purposes, it is unclear how such a mistake occurred.

Soon after the box was opened, Eberhard tweeted, “Fischer, if you’re out of 50 ml conicals, you coulda just told us…” The tweet initiated a flurry of retweets, questions, and even commiseration.

Dr. Daniel Hammer, another scientist at University of Pennsylvania and head of a lab, replied, “I’m a little jealous. We only got one cat.”

Hammer’s lab had placed the order for 50 mL conical tubes from Fisher in November. Commiserate with Eberhard’s experience, Hammer “instead received a dead cat (albeit, very well preserved)”

After 24 hours, there were over 600 retweets, 2.7k likes, and a few jokes:

“Have you checked inside the cats for the tubes?” – @MercerLab)

“Worst packing peanuts ever” – @JoeFlowImmuno)

“Well, the cat’s out of the bag and in the bag” – @Weinbergerrrrr)

“Does ‘vcat’ on the label mean, ‘very cat’?”  

“Schrodinger’s cat?” -@Urso_bruto)

“Are you kitten me?” -@PhDistance

“Stop ordering from Schrodinger’s lab supply…” -@kkeilts

“Looks like there is a reason it is called a ‘cat’alog” -@tweet2Rbhadani

Other researchers shared their newfound suspicions of some unusually long boxes they received at the end of the workday on Friday, labeled “50 mL conical.” Most have stated their intentions to leave the boxes unopened throughout the weekend. Indeed, a box of dead cats is a Monday Problem if there ever was one.

Eberhard thanked the Twitterverse for “going on that journey” with her lab. The journey and associated humor were probably a welcome distraction from the fact that her lab still lacks the supplies it needs to conduct research experiments.

It is likely that the mishap is an absurd side-effect of the current national plastic shortage due to the U.S. Defense Production Act. This action was initiated by the U.S. government last April to allocate “health resources” (e.g., lab grade plastic used for the conical flasks) for COVID testing supplies.

In addition to the 50 mL conicals, other essential lab products have been backordered for months including plastic pipette tips. These tips are used to transfer small aliquots of liquid between various tubes and solutions during experiment. Both the conicals and pipette tips are as essential to an experiment as measuring cups and spoons are for a tricky recipe.

Hopefully the plastic shortage will end, research can resume its steady pace toward progress, and this cat-atrophic mixup will be a terribly strange memory of the Pandemic Years.

NPR Morning Edition recently discussed the plastic shortage. Click here to listen.