English: A Black Rat or Roof Rat (Rattus rattus), photographed in the Hagenbeck zoo in Hamburg, Germany. Deutsch: Eine Hausratte bzw. Dachratte (Rattus rattus), photographiert im Tierpark Hagenbeck in Hamburg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Who doesn’t shudder inwardly when they see these filthy, greedy rodents that spread disease. They are the stuff of horror stories and to be avoided at any price, especially when you think about the black rat. One third of the population of European died of the Black Death – a disease that these very creatures spread. In reality it was the fleas infesting the rats that did the damage, but nobody cared about that. The rat was dangerous vermin and had to go.
Is this really a fair or true picture of an animal that has been around on this planet for at least as long as we have? They are members of a very large and diverse family of creatures that share one instinct with us that we can’t deny – survival. Rodents come in 34 families, have 354 genera and 1,685 known species. Rodent comes from the latin word ‘rodentia’, which means ‘to gnaw’.
Within all of those species there are only two that we commonly refer to as rats. These are the Black rat and the Norway rat. These creatures are awesome eating machines. Teeth like chisels at the front grow continuously, so they have to gnaw food constantly during their waking hours. If the teeth got too long they would die. Add to this their physical ability to run up walls, leap five feet at one bound, or squeeze through impossibly tight gaps and it’s easy to see why they are so successful.
Rodents belong to a family bigger than all the other species of mammals together and can live in water, in the trees or underground, so they are highly adaptable. Rats could have originated in the South Americas, eventually reaching Africa, the Mediterranean then Europe. The Black rat is also known as the roof rat or climbing rat, about 20cms in length, while the Norway rat is more commonly called the Brown, wharf or sewer rat, about 5cms longer.
Since the Great Plague, after which the Black rat was ruthlessly hunted and killed off in millions, this species has declined to almost nothing in Europe, though it still thrives in the USA and Africa. The Brown rat – just as big a disease carrier, didn’t arrive in Europe until the 18th century. The naturalist Pallas reportedly saw great hordes of them swimming across the Volga river in 1727, from the Asian to the European side.
These are more aggressive creatures than their black counterparts and quickly established their superiority all over Europe. Rats may well like to live in waste dumps and sewers but they are not naturally dirty creatures and are highly intelligent. In many ways it seems that humanity’s war on them is very one sided. Untold millions of rats are ruthlessly exterminated by us, yet the same cannot be said of them where we are concerned.
Each time in history that some kind of plague has broken out, rats became the fall guys. During the Byzantine dynasty there occurred the ‘Plague of Justinian’ where up to 10,000 people a week were dying. The fact is that rats themselves rarely succumb to the disease carried by their fleas, but when they do he fleas have to look for other bodies, like humans, to live on. The risk of infection also increases exponentially, and the potential then exists for an epidemic.
This happened periodically in history as far back as biblical times, and the disease is especially scary because the rupturing and decay of blood vessels beneath the skin cause it to gradually turn black, hence the ‘black death’. China experienced Bubonic plague in 1330, from where it was carried west to the Crimea. By 1347 it had reached Europe via seafarers. Before it died down again, from Russia to the Mediteranean Sea 25Million died. 1000 villages in England were wiped out.
English: Rattus norvegicus, the Brown Rat. Deutsch: Wanderratte (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The disease re-appeared in 1665, when 17,440 people died during the ‘great plague of London’, and in the 1860’s another outbreak in the Far East led to the deaths of 12,600,000 people all the way across to America. It was the 1890’s before Japanese scientist Professor M Ogata found that the fleas carried the bacillus responsible and was able to develop a vaccine
Not that his breakthrough was decisive by any means. Los Angeles had a major outbreak in 1925 and Vietnam saw tens of thousands of cases during the 1960’s. India suffered an outbreak in 1992. Rats do carry other fatal diseases as well. The Hanta virus, Weil’s disease, Tuberculosis, Listeria and Q fever are all carried by them and easily passed on to humans via household pets. This is one cause for rats being seen as vermin, but there is another, perhaps even more sinister side to them.
That constant need to gnaw means that they are incredibly destructive and voracious. Rats will eat absolutely anything and chew through anything to get at it. The more they eat the quicker they breed, and when you consider that there are thought to be at least half as many rats again as there are people in the world, you can see the scale of the problem. Yet the rat is not universally hated around the world and does indeed have its uses.
Remember the ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ and their wise old master? He was a rat and in the Far East, both rats and mice are revered as holy. They are believed to possess occult knowledge and live to incredibly old ages. Legend has it that rats, on reaching 100 years of age, acquire the gift of prophecy. In India, Hindus believe that a rat goes with Ganesh – elephant headed god of prosperity on his travels, and rat worship is common at many places in India.
We also use rats and mice in millions for research, and many medical breakthroughs have come as a direct result of this. There are so many similarities in the genome that they make ideal test subjects, and the intelligence of these creatures is legendary. Many people today keep them as pets. They are clean and intelligent enough to know how to keep their owners happy. Rats just don’t savage people.
They can and will eat you out of house and home but it isn’t malicious. That’s the way nature intended them to be and if truth were told they don’t mean you any harm at all. Trouble is that they are just too good at being what they should be, so we have no choice but to try keeping them under control. When rats desert a sinking ship, they give a clear message to humans around them that they should do the same.
Maybe we do have good reasons to be fearful of this bustling, confident invader who is every bit as successful in the world as we are. Then again, we might be wrong to ignore it when the rats decide that something smells nasty enough to make a run for it. In their own way, they act as messengers of impending disaster, and it would probably do us good to take notice. If it isn’t good for them, it probably isn’t good for us either. Rats and their horrible reputation. Just take a good look at humanity itself, and then spend a little time to think about it. Are we really so different?
English: Rattus norvegicus, Muridae, brown rat, common rat, sewer rat, Hanover rat, Norway rat, Brown Norway rat, Norwegian rat, or wharf rat; Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Karlsruhe, Germany. The blood is used in homeopathy as remedy: Rattus norvegicus (Ratt-n.) Deutsch: Rattus norvegicus, Muridae, Wanderratte; Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Karlsruhe, Deutschland. Das Blut wird in der Homöopathie als Arzneimittel verwendet: Rattus norvegicus (Ratt-n.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have been writing for pleasure for half a century, but only started writing for money around 1994. Since then I have had a few thousand articles, stories and poems published on line and in print all round the world.
I am now 63 years old, male, from Burnley in the UK, and apart from writing, I love to read - mainly crime thrillers, conspiracy theory books and science fiction, though I also love films, gardening and chatting with my wife who is also my best friend.
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