We hate them, but rats are determined, resourceful and adaptable - perhaps closer to humans than we would like to think
Rats are synonymous with people: they share our environments, they steal our food and, for some, they are the source of our greatest fears.
There is an almost universal loathing for these creatures, a kind of collective hate and fear that probably has more to do with myth than actual fact. As a consequence, humans have waged an almost continuous, and largely unsuccessful, war against the rodent using virtually everything at their disposal.
Humans’ ability for invention is matched only by their flair in creating new and gruesome ways of getting rid of rats. A quick look online reveals such contraptions as the ‘walk the plank’ rodent remover, a ‘glue-trap’ and an ‘electronic’ box that uses electric shocks; all these alongside the plethora of baits and poisons including anticoagulants which cause them literally to bleed to death.
But despite our unending campaign against them, rats continue to thrive, especially in our towns and cities and this is because we have virtually offered up our environment to these critters.
Our buildings and tunnels for pipe-work provide opportunities for both movement and nesting and our habit of discarding food just about everywhere provides rats with an easy supper. And the creatures themselves are ideally adapted for rapid expansion; their ability to breed early and continuously is partly a factor in their success but also is their unfussiness about what they can gain nourishment from, be it a bone or a slice of pizza.
Do rats really deserve their reputation, though? After all, are they not harbingers of bubonic plague and a host of other nasty diseases?
Well, yes and no.
Whilst it is certainly true that they can carry and transmit a range of bacteria and viruses such as Leptospirosis and Hantavirus, the long-held belief that they also carried plague-borne fleas may be incorrect.
A 2018 study showed only a weak correlation between medieval plague and fleas on rats, arguing instead that human parasites may have helped to spread the disease throughout Europe. Still others point to the European gerbil as having played a significant role.
Whatever the transmission medium of such devastating diseases, the presence of the rat around and within human habitations is just one factor in our love-hate relationship with these furry fiends.
But modern instances of wide-spread diseases from rats are uncommon – so why do we still spend so much on eradicating them? £400 million was spent on pest control in the UK alone in 2015 and $32 million in the city of New York in 2018.
“Of course, in parts of the world, rats are a menace, eating food humans grow for themselves, causing environmental damage and spreading disease. But none of that explains our paranoiac fear,” writes author Terence Blacker in The Spectator.
Yet that fear persists. In New York, the animals are hunted with dogs, trapped, shot, poisoned and even have gas pumped into their burrows, but paradoxically the New York rat is at the same time praised for its gritty determination and ability to survive everything that can thrown at it – much as New Yorkers see themselves.
The creatures themselves are predominantly Norway rats, Rattus norvegicus, commonly called the Brown rat and with a tail almost the same length as their body. It is perhaps this appendage that that creates some of the hype around them.
“It is the tail,” says Laurinda Williams, a US rat breeder, in a National Geographic article on the subject. “If it weren’t for the tail, everyone would have rats.”
Everyone? Perhaps not, but the business for pet rats is big, with an estimated 200,000 of them in the UK alone according to 2012 figures. A further 170,000 were used for experimental research in 2018.
In fact, rats have been a source of everything from creative fiction to films and from food to lovable pet. Despite their obvious utility as a source of characterisation or a source of food, our ratty friends will perhaps always have to contend with demonization.
And as long as people continue to live as they do, unintentionally providing shelter and sustenance, we will never be far from one of nature's most vilified and celebrated animals.
©Nick MacIneskar 2020
It is said that you are never more than 20 feet from a rat, yet our relationship with these rodents has been characterised by a virtual war on their species.
Some cultures revere then, others see them as a tasty snack. In the UK you will most likely seen one disappearing into a drain, but however we view them, rats have been intimately connected with people for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
In the 2012 movie Ratatouille, we meet Remy, a rat with an unusual talent. After a series of misadventures he finds his way to Paris where he teams up with an unlikely companion and takes the world of gastronomy by storm.
Video Credit: Disney
Culture plays a part in how rats are viewed throughout the world. In some parts of India, it is eaten in preference to other food, with some tribes even giving dead rats as wedding gifts.
In the northern part of the country, opinion is reversed at the Karni Mata Temple where up to 25,000 black rats are not only given food and shelter but are venerated and given holy status.
But no matter how much the rodent is vaunted as a food, western culture sees them very differently –
don’t expect to see a rat’n’chip shop on a UK high street any time soon.
Image Credit: National Geographic
In this viral video, a New York rat gamely carries a large pizza slice down the subway stairs. His efforts are vaunted, especially by New Yorkers themselves who see parallels in their own toughness, resourcefulness and adaptability.
The reaction to the video continues to shine a light on our complex relationship with this rodent.
Video Credit: Matt Little