Friday 18 January 2019

Smelling a rat about vilified rodents

Fiona O'Connell

There may be buds on the trees, but there's still a nip in the air that my non-human neighbours are clearly also feeling. For I was woken the other morning by the scratching of the live mousetrap. Seems mice will play not just when the cat's away, but also a pair of pungent pooches. Or was it a coincidence that mister mouse made his appearance when my mutts were elsewhere?

But I'm thankful that his rat cousins have never ventured inside. Living on a river means there are plenty about; I saw half a dozen clambering up the bridge during the recent floods.

A lifetime of hearing that cornered rats will go for your throat made me view rats as more like aliens than animals. As does the label 'vermin', suggesting some of God's creatures are mistakes that shouldn't exist.

Yet fear rather than facts fuels their vilification. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so our perception is perverted by prejudice. I lived in Prague years ago, where a friend's father was a vet. He had a hefty hamster that we would let out of the cage to play, even running up and down my friend's arm. Until my Czech improved and I realised to my horror that the hamster was in fact a rat.

My attitude immediately changed - though the poor creature hadn't.

It's true that rats can carry nasty diseases. But let's not forget that Columbus and his pals wiped out nearly 95pc of the native population in the Americas. Among the scores of unsavoury sicknesses that were introduced to the New World or worsened are smallpox, bubonic plague, typhus, cholera, malaria, and that superlative charmer, syphilis.

And while some people may indeed be dirty rats, the fact is that rats are very clean and fastidious cleaners. They are also highly intelligent and easy to train, which is why they are used in so many psychological studies.

And far from ratting you out, rats form lifelong bonds with human members of their 'ratpack'.

They can also look pretty darn cute. A rat at the bird feed scarpered when I knocked on the window the other day. But later I spied a surreptitious head and shoulders peeping over the wall. Its coat was the same soft shade of grey as the backdrop of rushing river; round ears almost transparent and a smattering of white whiskers beneath dark eyes that longingly eyed the tempting seed. Framed by green leaves, this rat looked like he had every right to live in the natural world.

I took photos and was surprised at the reaction when I showed them around. "Poor little guy," one local remarked, "loathed by everyone."

"He looks like a little bear," observed another, who added that he viewed rats with "great respect."

"I love rats," another declared bluntly. "Have had them in my attic for years and they keep their voices down."

Seems there are more than a couple of closet rat lovers lurking about. With St Valentine's Day almost upon us, is this the love that dares not squeak its name?

Sunday Independent

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