Rats: Pests or Pets?

“You dirty rat!” This is an expression that I have heard one too many times. Even some people who have come to know and love my pet rats, still cannot shake the image of rats as dirty and horrid creatures. Many people can’t think of a rat without envisioning them wriggling around in Indiana Jones Temple of Doom or seething in our sewers. But, I know better. Rats carry a stereotype of stealing from humans, spreading disease, and being no good except as lab animals, but this stereotype does not apply to all rats. Many of these stereotypes are false, and there is also more to rats than these things, both as symbols in eastern cultures and as pets.

Ben was the first rat in my life. He weaseled a way past my rodent hating parents into our household on the hook of his sure destruction at the hands of a 3rd grade school science teacher. Ben dwelled in secrecy under my bed for over a month. We fed him a diet of peanut butter, sunflower seeds, and hamster food, and he grew rapidly larger. Too large to keep contained in his shoebox home where my parents discovered him after a month. After a lot of my explaining and making many promises never to smuggle an animal into the house again, my parents accepted Ben as a new member of our family zoo. My father even helped me build a wire extension to his home so that he had more room to move about.
Ben was the first of a long line of rats I have taken into my home and heart.

Yet, even as I spoiled my pet rats, I have been conscious of the negative reputation of rats. For example, rats are always the bad guys in our children’s stories. Look at the evil Rat King who traumatizes the little girl and her prince in the holiday favorite, The Nutcracker. And the fat, greedy, and downright mean character of Templeton from the classic, Charlotte’s Web. The history of the black plague also does nothing to improve the rat’s image. Then there is that ugly tail! Those who do not think of rats as dirty, disease-spreading sewer creatures or things to be feared in the kitchen, think of rats as albino rodents running mazes or being chemically tested in a research lab.

I admit that rats have done their part to earn their bad reputation. Human/rat relations have been poor ever since humans gave up their hunting-gathering lifestyles and began to farm. It did not take rats very long to discover it is easier to feed off the stores that humans maintained than to find food for themselves. The new houses humans were building also provided wonderful shelters for rodents of all sizes. It was only natural for opportunists like rats to settle into the neighborhood. Then there is the frustration of humans towards the fallibility of all methods of rat extermination. In New York City alone, municipal agencies spend more than five million dollars per year spreading rat poison. Alas, an article in the San Antonio Express on rat extermination explains the survival of rats despite human efforts to destroy the rodents: “Rats are very diverse and persistent, real survivors. A rat can squeeze into a space the size of a quarter. Rats can drop from fifty feet in the air without hurting themselves, and they can swim upstream in a half-mile. They’re tough.”

Rats are also well-known for their part in the famous outbreaks of bubonic plague that devastated human populations for years. The rat is often blamed for directly spreading the plague, placing the responsibility of the entire outbreak on the rat’s furry shoulders. The plague is usually associated with being a rodent-borne disease. Rats and fleas share a cycle of spreading the disease from the rodent, to the flea, to another rodent, and so on. This pattern is known as an enzootic disease cycle (i.e., a disease that is a constant in an animal community but only occurs in a small amount of cases). Unfortunately, under certain circumstances, this cycle expands to include other animals. When fleas have spread the plague to a large amount of rats, the rats die, and the fleas are forced to find another source of food. Mankind has the bad luck of being that food source. So, when you get down to it, fleas, not rats, are the little critters who spread the plague. The rats were as much victims as humans. In that respect, “There are probably more diseases spread from dogs to human than from rats to humans,” says associate curator at the American Museum of Natural History, Dr. Rob Voss.

Rats also have ugly tails. This might sound like a trivial point, but imagine a squirrel, the beloved creature around campus, with a long, naked, scaly tail. This particular anatomical feature does not do a lot for the rat’s popularity. Rats tend to be ugly critters. Their shear size is often enough to disgust even the most ardent rodent admirers. David Letterman has been known to crack jokes about sharing the Ed Sullivan Theater with a lineage of cat-sized rats. Then there is the urban legend about the woman who adopts a small dog off the street, only to find out later that she had taken in a very large rat. Nevertheless, let me remind you of that common clichÃ?© “Don’t judge the book by its cover.” If people can look past the looks of a hairless cat and can love a dear pet llama (with those horrid lips!), then the rat too deserves a chance.

Rats are known for being excellent lab animals because they are small, rapid breeders, and they are intelligent. Rats are also the least likely of all small rodents to bite. It is very rare that a rat will bite a human, that is, unless you tickle them. I do not normally support animal testing, but the latest tickle testing does produce some interesting results on the personalities of rats. By using sophisticated ‘bat detector’ instruments that register high pitched sounds that humans cannot hear, researchers from Bowling Green State University found that rodents are ticklish. When you run your fingers on a rat’s body the same way that you would when tickling a child, the rat produces giggles that can be heard on bat detectors. The rats will giggle and roll about, and show their gratitude with gentle nips. “The amazing thing is, prior to starting this line of research, I have never been bitten by a rat. But since I’ve started this, I’ve been bitten hundreds, if not thousands, of times, but always in a playful way,” says one member of the Bowling Green research team. How’s that for the common, garden variety lab rats?

Somehow, rats in Asia have avoided the bad publicity that western culture has given them. In China, rats are greatly respected, mostly due to the legend of the Chinese Lunar Calendar. This legend recounts that the Jade Emperor of Heaven invited all the animals to a race, the destination being his birthday party on the opposite shore. The Emperor also promised that the first twelve animals to cross the quick current of the river and reach the party would be assigned to the twelve years of the zodiac. The rat and his good friend cat were poor swimmers, so the rat cunningly convinced the kind, stupid, and strong ox to carry them across the river on his back. But, as they were partly across the river, the rat pushed the cat into the river to ensure the rat’s victory. Then, right before the ox reached the shore, the rat jumped off his back and scurried to the party ahead of all. Not surprisingly, rats and people born in the year of the rat are believed to be witty, conniving, greedy, and wise. These traits are widely respected in China as what it takes to reach prosperity. They have much the same repute as a fox or and owl does in western folklore.

In India rats have it even better. They are not just respected, they are worshiped. In the northwestern province of Rajasthan, a revered woman and prophetess named Karni Mata once dwelled. In the temple Sri Karni Mata in Deshnok, India, Karni Mata’s most devoted followers hide from Yama, the Hindu god of death, in the bodies of rats. These rats are called Kabas, which mean ‘little children’ in the local language. Kabas are considered the reincarnated forms of devotees, and therefore deserving of reverence and worship.

The inner sanctum of the temple is filled with thousands of small brown rodents. They scurry through holes that have been chewed in the walls, scamper over the feet of priests and statues and gather around bowls of sugar, milk, and coconut laid out as offerings. The rats are well-fed by both the priests and pilgrims who come bearing gifts of sugar and milk. It is considered lucky if a rat touches your bare feet, or if you eat a piece of food offering that has already been nibbled by a rat. You can purchase a coconut, give it to a priest, and he will smash it and give it to the rats as an offering. If you’re really fortunate, one of the rare lucky albino rats will come out from hiding and take a piece of your coconut. But be very careful where you tread, because if you accidentally step on one of the holy rodents and kill it, you are expected to buy a solid gold rat statue and donate it to the temple to compensate for the body you deprived from that reincarnated soul. The rats are given a good life, and the people of Deshnok live with the hopes of one day being reincarnated into the body of a spoiled rat .

Rats are also considered sacred outside of the temple and Deshnok. Most Hindus are reluctant to kill any rat, in the temple or not. In Calcutta, residents habitually feed the thousands of rats that dwell in the city parks. Images of rats can be seen throughout all of India as the animal accompaniment of Ganesh, the Hindu god of wisdom who is depicted with an elephant head. Ganesh is the first deity invoked during most ceremonies because he can remove obstacles. The rat is his mount and the symbol of Ganesh’s ability to find a way into anywhere. Ganesh and his rat are both the clever and benevolent trickster in many Hindu legends. Ganesh is also invoked to help travelers, so he and his rat can be seen in many buildings and stations of transportation throughout India.

Now that you know more about the rat, don’t you want to fall to your knees and worship them? Maybe not, but you can still play a part in a rat’s happiness. These lovable creatures are being destroyed everyday at research labs and in the stomachs of snakes. For less than two dollars, a rat can be purchased at almost any pet store, and saved from a certain death. That brings me to my next subject, rats as pets.

The practice of keeping rats as pets is really catching on. Over the last fifteen years alone there has been a substantial increase of rats as pets. In 1976 the National Fancy Rat Society was founded, followed by the Mouse and Rat Breeders Association in 1978, and the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association five years later. Many people do not have the time, space, or money for common domesticated animals such as dogs or cats, and are turned off by the nature of many smaller animals like rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters that often nip or scratch. Despite the stereotypes that many people have about rats, rats are a great alternative to those other small animals. They are bright, loving, placid, and clean. Also, it is only in very rare circumstances that a rat will bite, so they make good pets for children. They are social animals that thrive on human interaction and intelligent enough to be trained, learn their own names, and identify two or more people. More importantly rats aren’t biters or barkers or shedders and are easy and inexpensive companions.

It will be a long time before children’s cartoons will stop casting rats as villains. And, as long as rats continue to thrive on man’s food and shelter they will be the focus of extermination efforts. There is no question that rats cause mankind enormous amounts of frustration, whether from squeezing though tiny cracks into our kitchen or breeding in our sewers. But rats are misunderstood creatures. It has been many years since Benjamin rat passed on. But, every time a little pink nose wriggling at me from a cage, or feel a rat’s whiskers nuzzle me, I remember how wonderful Ben was. He was not an exception.

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