Each morning I wake up and take our dog Sam for a walk. Afterwards, he and I feed the chickens, refill the birdfeeders, and check to see that the sheep haven’t broken into the yard. We then sit down, I with my coffee and Sam on the window seat, to watch the birds outside. Whether the sky is clear or a storm is in full force, the view up the valley is a tonic to the start of any day.
But my bucolic moment is occasionally disrupted by a little furry face with a pointy nose popping out from under the rocks. This sly critter keeps his back legs and long bald tail safely in his burrow doorway as he grabs a quick mouthful of birdseed that has fallen to the ground from the birds working the feeders. He’s quick, alert and I’ve come to discover, difficult to spot. This little scavenger is none other than the rat.
When I lived in a city, I would often see rats and mice running about the sewers, subways and storm gutters. They always gave me a start followed by an anxiety knot in my stomach. It never helped to overhear someone point out that there are as many rats as people living in cities.
And now, living out far beyond the sewers of a city, I still see rats. Our rats live in their burrows under the rocks and stones around the bird feeders, and under the barn near where the chickens live. The average rat home can be 50 meters in diameter, so I guess it is safe to assume that rats live all around us.
During my early days at Crockern I admit to an uneasy feeling at the thought of bumping into a rat when I went into the chicken coop. I imagined that the rats would run around me in some sort of threatening behaviour. Irrational perhaps, but a common condition which some people suffer is musophobia, a fear of mice or rats. I’m not one of them, but I can see how that feeling could easily develop.
When I was 9, I saw the horror movie Ben and despite its saccharine and distracting theme song by Michael Jackson, my abiding memory is not of the close and tender friendship between a lonely kid with a heart condition and a telepathic rat leader, but the violent rat uprising that resulted in lots of deaths. That same year, The Poseidon Adventure was released and I spent much time trying to extend how long I could hold my breath should I ever need to escape a sinking ship with Ernest Borgnine and Shelley Winters! Certain images at critical ages evidently make strong impressions.
But, when our friend Phil was visiting recently, he loved watching the rats. Phil has travelled the world over in hopes of seeing wildlife in their natural habitat and pointed out that rats are hardly seen because they are nocturnal, live underground, and are geniuses at not being seen. In other words, it is a privilege to sit and watch rats come and go making a life for themselves.
Of course, not everyone feels the same as Phil. Today, our culturally deep-seated aversion towards rats has got to be related to the plagues of the 14th century. This pandemic resulted in nearly 100 million deaths and was caused by a rat flea that lived on the black rat. The black rat, once the main European rodent, was around during the time of the plague. But much later, the brown rat arrived from Asia during the industrial revolution and subsequently drove out the black rat. This bit of hair splitting history is irrelevant to the overall dislike of the rat because for most, a rat is a rat is a rat and they all caused the plague.
In addition to the plague, rats can carry more than a few diseases and I suppose, these are good reasons to dislike the rat:
- Weil’s disease, which is a potentially deadly bacterial infection, is akin to bird flu because it can cross from animals to humans and is spread by rats’ urine. Okay, the incidence is pretty low still, but it does give pause.
- Rat-bite fever, cryptosporidiosis, viral hemorrhagic fever, Q fever and Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, to name but a few. All of these are deadly, and linked to rats.
Despite all this, rats are elusive and so exposure to these diseases remains pretty rare.
Of course, not all cultures portray rats in evil ways. In Deshnoke India, in the Karni Mata Temple, some 20,000 rats can be found feeding on milk and grain brought by the priests who care for the rats. It is believed that these rats are sacred and are destined for reincarnation as holy men. In China, the rat is one of the 12 members of the animal zodiac and people born in the year of the rat are said to posses qualities such as creativity, courage, intelligence, generosity and ambition. Now that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Some rats aren’t so lucky to be brought bowls of milk, though, and instead wind up as food. Whether in the wild or kept as pets, snakes eat rat. People do too. Rat is readily available in many Southeast Asian countries and is said to taste pretty good. In Africa, cane rats barbecued on sticks are sold at roadside stands. And the lovely paella of the Valencia region in Spain was originally made with rat before chicken became widely available. Lest any reader find themselves thinking, “No way, Jose”, I recently read an article on the i09.com website entitled “Recipes for the Post-Apocalypse: How and Why to Eat Rat Meat”. Could this be the next winning dish on Master Chef?
I’m not prepared to cook up my own rat entree, but I am beginning to admire some of the impressive qualities of the rat. They are smart, socially organized, and keep themselves clean. They have amazing sense of smell and in a darkened room can tell whether food is on the left or right of their nose almost instantly. With their power of odor detection and their ease at being trained, some species of rat are now being used to detect landmines or diagnose tuberculosis.
Yes, I’m reconsidering my feelings toward the rat. Nonetheless, I am still shocked by their numbers. It is estimated that there are 81 million rats living in Britain. When I took my Life in the UK exam for my resident visa, census data indicated that there are 60 million people living in the UK. Those claims that “In cities there are as many rats as people.” are way off–there are clearly more rats than people! 1.3 rats per person in this country to be precise and that imbalance could continue to expand.
It should come as no surprise that there are such large numbers of rats. A brown rat can produce up to five litters of “kittens” a year. Each of these litters can have on average 8 babies who reach maturity in about five weeks at which point these rats are ready to reproduce. In the wild, a rat can live approximately 18 months. So, if my math is correct, one pair could yield something along the lines of 2,000 strong in about a year’s time.
Apparently no manner of trying to decrease the numbers will make much difference. When a large number of a clan are exterminated, the surviving rats increase their reproductive rate in order to restore the group to its original numbers as fast as possible.
In order to control the rats, Roger and I could set traps or lay down some poison. Both of these techniques seem cruel and fairly useless given that unless we got 100% of the rats, with no neighbouring rats moving into the empty nests, the surviving rats would simply repopulate in no time. We are left then with keeping everything safe and sound. The animal food is all in a shed away from the house and in locked down containers. As is the recycling and the rubbish. The rats seem content to live in their burrows, eat the bird food and other things they find on the moors, and scurry away before we are ever around to see them up close.
I’m beginning to feel that culturally we may need to move from our dislike of rats. In a recent visit, our friend Chris stood with me watching the birds and the clouds out the window. Chris spotted one of the rats, smiled and said, “I like watching ratty.” And I suppose I’m starting to as well. They are sort of cute and in honor of that hippest of hip Hollywood and Las Vegas group of entertainers in the 50’s and 60’s, I am thinking of the rats as Frank, Dean, and Sammy.
Rats don’t bother lots of people and there are rat associations in both the UK and the US with the mission of maintaining pedigree standards and promoting responsible rat ownership. Think Best in Show, but with rats. There is also an International World Rat Day, held each year on the 4th of April. This happens to be the day before my Dad’s birthday. I wouldn’t want to rat on anyone here, but the ole man is going to be 89 this April!