Articles

In the Shadow of Man:
The History and Culture of Rats

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I was once opposed to rats. I was not in the minority. Thanks to ignorance, the media, and centuries of good old fashioned prejudice, the world is filled with those who dislike or fear rats, and some that even wish their destruction. Rats, we are told, are vile creatures, after all, filthy, sneaky, destructive, evil-- and those tails!

I don't remember when or how I suddenly decided to like rats, but ironically enough, I think it may have had something to do with the fearful reaction of others. As a youth, I always prided myself on being adventurous; not in the athletic sense, but more in the "willingness to try exotic foods" sense. Most importantly, I didn't want to be one of those sissy girls who was afraid of snakes, spiders or other less-than-desirable creatures. Couple that with a penchant toward eccentricity, and I guess it was inevitable that I would be drawn to rats. (As it turns out, the tail isn't really that bad.)

As a whole, devoted pet owners are a quirky bunch, but rat owners in particular rank pretty high up there on the quirkometer. They are often at odds with the rest of the world, convinced that their pet of choice is wonderful and intelligent, but frequently unable to sway others to their views. They are often ostracized, not only by the general public but also by animal professionals; many a rat owner has been told by a veterinarian that their pet just wasn't worth treating. The road toward acceptance is a long one, as rat lovers are fighting a hatred that has been ingrained into the public's mind throughout history.

One of the major points brought up by those opposing rats is the ratís part in the spread of the Black Death. Around the year 1347, the roof rat, Rattus rattus, came to England, carrying with it a species of plague ridden fleas (Andresen 99). The plague quickly swept over all of Europe, where it ravaged the continent for three centuries, taking down anything in itĎs path; people, pets, even rats themselves suffered. Interestingly enough, rats didnít receive the blame during the plague. It wasnít until 1894 that the organism responsible was discovered, and the connections made to the flea and itís host, Rattus rattus (Hendrickson 45). Ironically, it is theorized that rats also helped bring an end to the plague. In an article in RATS magazine, Rebekah Blackwolf of the Australian Mouse and Rat Information Services explains:

[F]rom the early 18th century onward there was a reduction in outbreaks and deaths from the plague, which some experts at the time attributed to the fact that with the arrival of the Norway rat [the dominant of the two species], the black [roof] rat -- the primary carrier of the Black Death -- had been ousted (Andresen 99).

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All text, images, and content copyright Lori Weeder © 2006 unless otherwise noted.