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By Stewart Emmens on

You Dirty Rats…

Dead rats
Rats killed at Paddington Station, London, 9 November 1921 (National Railway Museum / Science & Society)

The recent pronouncements by Scott Springer – Borough President of Manhattan – about the rat problem in New York received international attention. While they may have been motivated as much by politics as public health concerns, they once again highlighted our fractious relationship with these particular rodent.
Few animals have attained such universal levels of loathing, although more than one friend of mine has enjoyed keeping pet rats – ‘Dave’ being one still remembered with great fondness. But even the most committed animal lovers tend to physically cringe should a wild one scuttle past in the street.

Rat trap
Iron gin rat trap, England, c.1800s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Pets aside, our interactions with rats tend to have pretty negative outcomes for one or other party. They are linked with disease, known as stealers and spoilers of stored food and generally associated with gutters, sewers and other nasty places, and we are pretty merciless in our actions.

Each year, we poison, trap and otherwise despatch many millions of these highly fertile beasts. We’ve even developed poisons that effectively mummify the rats to reduce the odour from the carnage – though one wonders what horrors await future generations of roofers and renovators.

Rodent housing unit
Lab rat housing unit, England, 1990-1999 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The benefits we have derived through decades of laboratory research on rats have done little to endear them to us.

The spreading of diseases such as plague, typhus and leptospirosis could be seen as the rats’ revenge, but in reality they tend to play the role of unknowing, if highly proficient, vectors of sickness. They also succumb to many of the diseases they are associated with sharing with us.

X-Ray of rat
Ex-rat X-ray, 1896 (National Media Museum / Science & Society)

While it’s unlikely that we’ll ever learn to love or live happily with rats – the likes of ‘Dave’ notwithstanding of course – perhaps they are due a certain respect. Despite all we have done to them, they just keep coming back for more…