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The Verge Review of Animals: the rat

The Verge Review of Animals: the rat

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This column is part of a series where Verge staffers post highly subjective reviews of animals. Up until now, we've written about animals without telling you whether they suck or rule. We are now rectifying this oversight.

"Like the rat said: 'Keep the cheese; I just want out of the trap.'"

Lieutenant Geordi La Forge, Stardate 42193.6

I was originally going to begin this animal review with a metaphor about humans and rats as co-pilots on a spaceship traveling through the cosmos, but in this case the fantastical isn’t necessary: we’ve historically been close companions on real ships in the oceans. Rats have been such a problem on our ships, in fact, that humans have often hired cats as marines to protect their vessels from the unwanted travelers. Even when we leave land to cross vast inhospitable bodies of water, rats are among us.

Indeed, almost anywhere you look for human beings on planet Earth, you’ll find rats. They live lots of places humans don’t — even on uninhabited islands — but we notice them most when they enter our homes and scurry along the tracks of our subways. They chew on everything, enjoy the warmth and safety our buildings provide, run amok in our restaurants, climb through sewer pipes and toilets, and otherwise invade the walled gardens of steel and concrete that we create specifically to isolate ourselves from nature. And this cohabitation yields plenty of horror stories — the kind you’d see with huge meme font on the cover of the New York Post — including ones where rats bite human babies and eat cadavers in morgues. So we try to kill them all.

So we try to kill them all

There is no amnesty for rats, perhaps because most human beings don’t find them useful. There’s no Trap-Neuter-Release program for these animals, because that compassion is only practical for larger species that hunt and kill rats. Some keep rats for pets, but I suspect, as with many other species, rats simply aren’t aesthetically pleasing enough to earn sympathy from most people: they’re dirty, they go in cracks and holes we’d never enter, and they forage in trash. They’re also harbingers of disease and death.

For eight whole centuries, rats were blamed for the spread of the "Black Death," which killed between 75 and 200 million people across Europe. Only this year did a study appear to exonerate rats, only to finger the rat’s cousin — the gerbil. But this token of absolution isn’t likely to undo the reputation of rats anytime soon. Disease is still the biggest danger that rats pose to humans, and city rats can carry all kinds of nasty stuff. A 2015 study by Columbia University and Cornell University found that New York City rats carried bubonic plague, typhus, bartonella, and other pathogens, and that they also carried fleas, lice, and mites, which can carry their own dangerous bacteria. Rats and disease are so closely associated in the human mind that people often describe them in the same way. The runaway population of rats is referred to as an "epidemic," the same way health officials describe the flu. Even science denigrates rats in its formal language; a group of rats is technically known as a "mischief."

rat propaganda

Our hatred of rats is so culturally ingrained that we often use "rat" as an adjective to describe completely unrelated species that we don’t like. Pigeons? Flying rats. Lobsters? Rats of the sea. "Rat" as a pejorative is baked into our language, and in our darkest moments we’ve even used the word to describe many of our fellow human beings. Practically speaking, the feeling that "rats are gross" is conflated with the word itself. The very name of the animal means "less-than" — something deserving of disgust and death.

But rats are admirable. For starters, they are consummate survivors in a world that is overtly hostile to them. How hostile? Well, it’s difficult to walk 20 meters in any NYC subway station without seeing a warning about rat poison posted on the wall. Even in rural Alberta, a high-tech rat patrol uses night vision to confirm its kills. For thousands of years we’ve tried to invent newer and deadlier ways to kill all the rats, and yet, the rat hordes are thriving. The "war on rats" seems a lot like the "war on terror": something inherently unwinnable.

For thousands of years we've tried to kill all the rats, and yet, the rat hordes are thriving

Part of the rat’s survivability is likely due to how damn smart they are. Brown rats are exemplary subjects for many kinds of scientific research because they’re intelligent and ingenious; one 1996 study, titled "Underestimating the rat’s intelligence," acknowledged that rats are "frequently successful on their own terms," and described them as "optimal foragers." They’re also prosocial creatures that have been seen behaving altruistically; most of the time in experiments they will free fellow rats from cages when given a choice between sharing food and eating it alone.

Would I invite them to my dinner table or to lounge in my living room? No, but I don’t mind seeing them on the subway tracks, or even on the street. I often delight at the sight of them; if you think about it (and it doesn’t take much thinking) they’re really not that different from other rodents. More importantly, I have to accept responsibility for their plight. Rats are in this city because I’m in this city. I occupy a climate-controlled domicile, I contribute to an economy that imports food from around the world, and like every other New Yorker, I dump my trash on the street, practically taunting rats everywhere to enjoy the remainder of my existence.

If fleas are on the backs of rats, maybe rats are on the backs of humans. The conceit of being part of an ecosystem is that, no matter how special we think we are, the things we do have consequences for other animals (and in turn, ourselves). Sometimes that means other species go extinct, and in other cases, like with cats and rats, it means they thrive. Rats, then, form a strange part of our collective psyche. Opposite the cat, which is a sympathetic predator, rats are furry bottom-feeding manifestations of our self-loathing: both evidence of, and scapegoat for, human excess.

I cannot ignore the risk that rats pose to us, but because human beings largely enhance that risk with their own behavior, the rat must largely be forgiven. Furthermore, rats have (unwillingly) served us, especially in the last century, in scientific experiments that often lead to their deaths while helping human beings preserve their own lives. If thriving in the face of suffering and persecution is noble, then members of the genus Rattus may be the most noble among us. 8/10.

Update, Sept. 21st, 4:30PM: The score for this review has been updated to reflect the heroic efforts of pizza rat.

The Rat

Verge Score: 8.3


Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Very smart

  • Adaptable

  • Arguably very cute

Bad Stuff

  • Carriers of disease

  • Occasionally bites children

  • There may be a cannibal rat ship roaming the ocean