Beings which are sociable, intelligent, adaptable, full of ingenuity and like nothing more than a good laugh. No, I’m not talking about human beings, I’m talking about rats.
It really tickled me to discover this week that rats emit short, high frequency, ultrasonic, socially induced vocalization – infact, a kind of chirping, expressed during rough and tumble play, and when tickled. They have certain areas of the body that generate more laughter response than other areas and the laughter is apparently associated with positive emotional feelings. During the course of this research it was also found that those that laughed the most also played the most, and those that laughed the most preferred to spend more time with other laughing rats. However, as the rats got older, there did appear to be a decline in the tendency to laugh and in the response to being tickled. Although this research was unable to prove that rats actually have a sense of humour, it did indicate that they laugh and express joy. (Panksepp & Burgdorf 2003)
Of course they are also known for their aggressiveness which is another characteristic they share with us, and they have also been found to possess metacognition, the ability to essentially think about thinking, a mental ability previously only found in humans and some primates.
We are so caught up in our negative feelings about Rattus norvegicus (our common brown rat) that it is easy forget that they have been a little bit unfairly demonised. Of course you don’t want to share your living space with them as they will eat your food, make a really horrible rodent smell and an even worse noise – one rat behind the wall can sound like a monster of gigantic proportions – so measures do need to be taken.
But their ultra bad press all started with the Black Death, the plague which killed so many people. It is traditionally believed to have been caused by the micro-organism Yersinia pestis, carried by the rat flea Xenopsylla cheopis which preyed on Rattus rattus (the black rat) living in European cities of the day. But these rats were victims of the plague themselves.
And while modern wild rats can carry Leptospirosis and some other zoonotic conditions (those which can be transferred across species, to humans, for example), these conditions are in fact rarely found in temperate places. Wild rats living in good environments are typically healthy and robust animals. Wild rats living in cities may suffer from poor diets and internal parasites and mites, but do not generally spread disease to humans.
When we lived in London we were happy for the rats to live at the bottom of the garden in the compost heap, they were just doing their thing, as long as they didn’t make incursion into the house. And now it makes me smile to think of the big city floating on top of a cushion of giggling.
When we were renovating our house down here we lived in a temporary straw bale structure attached to a caravan and I’m afraid we did have to commit murder, as the rats were very fond of the cosy warm straw to make a nest. And who can blame them? We all need a place to live.
It’s getting to that time of year when rats are looking to be in the warm so it’s essential to block up every single hole or crevice in the house. If there’s a way in, they’ll find it, as they are very ingenious creatures. Their psychology, in many ways, is similar to human beings.
Hopefully, we can make the house secure. The barns on the other hand are completely different. Any farmer will tell you that where there’s animal feed there’s a rat not far away and they are fond of an outbuilding, particularly if it’s got straw or hay in it. The local farm shop has a whole aisle dedicated to rat poison, and though my friend H the vet would categorically disagree, sometimes it’s the only way, though we will do our best to protect the cattle feed without resorting to it.
It’s hard to find anyone with anything positive to say about a rat but I did find this poem by Hayden Carruth, a North American poet whose work was informed by his political radicalism and sense of cultural responsibility. And learning a little more about them has certainly made me reframe how I think. I will dwell on their bright button eyes, inquisitive whiskers and their ability to have a good laugh.
Little Citizen, Little Survivor
A brown rat has taken up residence with me.
A little brown rat with pinkish ears and lovely
almond-shaped eyes. He and his wife live
in the woodpile by my back door, and they are
so equal I cannot tell which is which when they
poke their noses out of the crevices among
the sticks of firewood and then venture farther
in search of sunflower seeds spilled from the feeder.
I can’t tell you, my friend, how glad I am to see them.
I haven’t seen a fox for years, or a mink, or
a fisher cat, or an eagle, or a porcupine, I haven’t
seen any of my old company of the woods
and the fields, we who used to live in such
close affection and admiration. Well, I remember
when the coons would tap on my window, when
the ravens would speak to me from the edge of their
little precipice. Where are they now? Everyone knows.
Gone. Scattered in this terrible dispersal. But at least
the brown rat that most people so revile and fear
and castigate has brought his wife to live with me
again. Welcome, little citizen, little survivor.
Lend me your presence, and I will lend you mine.
Hayden Carruth 1921 – 2008
Ah, poor rat.