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Davis, California

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Column: Rats!

My roommate last winter was a nightmare. She took my food without asking and stayed up all night. Sure, she was quiet, but that didn’t make up for her terrible hygiene. She actually went into my room and pooped in my closet. What a rat!

Rattus norvegicus to be exact.

Francine was a rat that invaded my house last year. I’m a soft-hearted, animal-person, so I thought she was cute at first. I made a game of sitting on top of the dishwasher, waiting for Francine to scurry across the kitchen so I could catch her with a wire basket.

My human (and more practical) roommates called the apartment management, and an exterminator came by with some rattraps. He put sticky-strips across the kitchen floor.

I wanted to catch Francine the humane way.

“We can take her off the sticky strips when we catch her, right?” I asked.

“Sure, but the rat will have no feet,” said the exterminator.

No way. A happy rat needs feet.

I tried catching Francine with a humane trap. The trap was a wire box with a door on one side. I put peanut butter and almonds inside to lure her toward the trip wire. When I checked the trap the next morning, no rat. But Francine had scratched at the peanut butter from outside the wire bars.

My love for vermin ended when Francine gave me fleas. She met her end in an old-fashioned rattrap.

A year later, my human roommate, Zoë, brought home a rat.

Mochi is fat and white with soft, pink ears and a twitchy nose. We give him treats, and Zoë builds him castles out of cardboard. I pet him and he playfully nibbles my fingers. It is weird to get all gooey over a rat when I killed one only a year ago.

Wild rats are pests. Rats in cages are pets. Rats can be Sith or Jedi, Gollum or Sméagol. I think our mixed emotions toward rats come from the fact that they’re pests. We can’t get rid of them, so we have to find a way to lessen our phobia. We want to believe they are harmless, so we anthropomorphize them in movies like Ratatouille.

Robert Sullivan, author of Rats, sums up the human/rat connection well:

“I think of rats as our mirror species, reversed but similar, thriving or suffering in the very cities where we do the same,” writes Sullivan.

Even if we don’t acknowledge the similarities, the link between humans and rats is evident in our speech. We are part of the “rat race.” We “rat” each other out.

“I’m beginning to smell a big, fat commie rat,” says a character in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

You can’t blame people for hating rats. Rats did carry fleas with a bacterium (Yersinia pestis) that caused bubonic plague across medieval Europe. This “black death” was a variation of the same plague that struck the Byzantine Empire in the sixth century. On March 6, 1900 (the year of the rat), there was another plague outbreak in San Francisco. We can blame rats for millions of deaths.

Thanks to the plague, I was never allowed to have a pet rat when I was younger.

“I didn’t want plague-causing vermin in the house,” my dad said.

He said he hates rats because he hates squirrels.

“Squirrels are disgusting and dirty,” he said. “That’s why I hate rats. They are just squirrels without the faux cuteness.”

I asked him why he hates squirrels. Turns out they’re too much like rats. He called a squirrel “a rat with a toupee on.” Thank goodness there was never a hamster-caused plague.

Rats are pests, but they mean no harm. It’s sad when rat-hate goes too far. I saw an episode of “Verminators” on the Discovery Channel a while ago. One of the exterminators featured said he was excited to trap rats because he wanted to “get his kill on.” The soft-hearted animal-person in me felt sad.

Sullivan writes, “Rats live in man’s parallel universe, surviving on the effluvia of human society; they eat our garbage.”

Poor rats, just trying to eek out a living.

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT realizes this column is biology-heavy. Please e-mail her about your chemistry/physics/geology/astronomy projects at memschmidt@ucdavis.edu.


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