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

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The “rat fancy” grew in popularity so much that in 1901, at the urgings of Mary Douglas (later dubbed the “mother of the rat fancy”), the National Mouse Club accepted rats and held their first rat show. The National Mouse Club changed their name to the National Mouse and Rat Club in 1912, but rat showing didn’t really pick up until 1976 with the formation of the United Kingdom’s National Fancy Rat Society, followed by the Mouse and Rat Breeder’s Association in 1983. Similar to dog or cat shows, rat shows are competitions to see which rats best meet the standard for their particular variety. In Meeting the Standard, Nichole Royer explains that standards are judged on “general shape, head, eyes, ears, tail, size and all other basic characteristics of the rat’s physical build” as well as “specific features, coat type, color and markings”(111-112).

At the same time rats were being discovered as pets, they were also being recognized as a very useful addition to the scientific and medical field. In fact, rats were “the first mammalian species to be domesticated for scientific research, with work dating to before 1828” (“Genome”). Rats have been used in both physical and psychological studies, and have even played a part in space experimentation. One of the reasons for the extensive use of rats in the lab is their similarities to humans. In More Cunning Than Man, Hendrickson quotes;

“Everything that happens in the human life takes place in the two years or so of the rat’s life,” says Dr. Freddy Homburger of Bio-Research Institute, Inc., in Cambridge, Massachusetts… “Every old-age change that you see in man--all the signs like arthritis, loss of hair, wrinkling of the skin, loss of hydration and fat, and so on--all that takes place in the aged rodent…Rats also are subject to the same diseases of old age, and not only that, but to the same diseases at any time” (212).

The results of rodent research include the polio and diphtheria vaccines, insulin for diabetes, anticoagulants and chemotherapy (Kuhl). Rats have also participated in studies on nutrition, overeating, alcoholism, aging and fertility (Hendrickson 213-14).

With the immense presence rats have had in the history of humanity, it is no wonder that they feature so much in our culture. Horror movies are rampant with rats, both as background elements as well as stars. Numerous movies about rat swarms have been made, including Willard (1971), it’s sequel Ben (1972), Rodentz (2001) and The Rats (2002). Possibly one of the first role of rats in cinema was in the 1922 film Nosferatu, an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In his article “Red-Carpet Rats”, Anton J. Souza explains, It employed hundreds of rats. Wherever the title character Nosferatu emerged, rats swarmed. The rats acted as a literary device used to sustain the metaphor that he is an incarnation of pestilence (118). However, rats are not always the bad guy on the big screen. In The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), audiences were introduced to Rizzo the Rat, a character that quickly gained popularity and has been featured in every Muppet film since (Souza 118). Rat lovers eagerly await the release of the Disney/Pixar film Ratatouille (slated for release on June 29, 2007) which stars a rat named Remy who dreams of culinary success. A similar movie by Dreamworks Animation, Flushed Away (scheduled to hit theatres November 3, 2006) is the story of a pampered pet mouse who inadvertently trades places with a sewer rat.

The history of rats in literature is a long one. “Perhaps the most celebrated rat story is that of the Pied Piper of Hamelin,” writes Andresen. “In 1727, multitudes of brown rats crossed the Volga River in Russia, or more accurately, tried crossing the river (millions drowned). The German nursery legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who rid the town of rats by musically charming them into the Weser River where they drowned, probably originated from such migrations.” There have been numerous variations of the Pied Piper tale, both in literature and in cinema. Terry Pratchett put a new spin on the Pied Piper tale in his 2001 book The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, in which a team of intelligent rodents, a super-smart cat and a young piper boy trick town residents into paying to be rid of their rat problem. Pratchett has also featured rats in his Discworld series, including a recurring character, The Death of Rats (Terry Pratchett). The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents shows parallels to Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM, published in 1971. Both books feature rats who have been made highly intelligent by human intervention (passive in the first instance, active in the second). These intelligent rats are discontent with having to live by scavenging and stealing from humans, and wish to create a self-sustaining lifestyle. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM won a Newbery Medal Award and later inspired a film, The Secret of NIHM (1982).

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