Magazine article The Spectator

Of Rats and Men

Magazine article The Spectator

Of Rats and Men

Article excerpt

The loathed rodents deserve more respect

'I really, really hate rats,' Sir David Attenborough has boasted. 'If a rat appears in a room, I have to work hard to prevent myself from jumping on the nearest table.' But why? Sir David's answers are disappointingly feeble. A rat had once run across his bed. They live in sewers. They show no fear and 'invade the area where you think you are boss'.

It is odd that a naturalist can hate an animal for simply doing what animals do -- survive -- and rather better than most. But almost everything about how humans view rats is illogical. Any social historian looking to prove that an ounce of primitive emotion will outweigh a pound of rational thought should study our creepy rat phobia, as unchanging down the years as it is unthinking.

Rats are a miracle of evolution --resourceful, intelligent and generally fascinating. And yet they are loathed more than any other animal on earth. Our attitude is strangely medieval, and we're proud of it. Even the kindest, most reasonable of people will cheerfully brag of their prejudice. A regular stand-by for tabloids is a story about 'super rats', invariably illustrated with a false-perspective photograph. Recently, the Guardian devoted its 'Big Read' spot to 'Man vs Rats', describing the animals as 'our perfect nightmare'.

There is nothing new in this madness. The French biologist Léon Calmette, in his 1904 paper Declarons la guerre aux rats , announced that if rats weren't exterminated, they'd bring about the end of humanity. They appear in villainous roles in literature, notably crawling all over the works of Orwell. 'Of all the horrors in the world - a rat!' gasps Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four .

A famous New Yorker piece called 'The Rats on the Waterfront', written in 1944 by Joseph Mitchell, listed the usual hysterical claims: rats kill babies, try to eat vagrants, bite the necks of chickens out of a sheer lust for killing. Apparently, they also 'snarl'. (Snarl?)

According to other reports, there are no limits to a rat's sins. One claims they are so sex-obsessed that they will mate with a corpse; another that they are motivated by greed and hedonism. A rat-catcher in Morgan Spurlock's new documentary Rats swears they can read the warning signs on packets of poison.

Yet the more I have seen of these astonishing animals, the more I have come to admire them. When I was small, my brother had a pet rat called Whiskers that he kept inside his shirt. …

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