Rats, us, and my weak attempt at comedy.

I think there is no species whose narrative has been as forever altered by contact with humanity as the rat. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a life for them without us. Without the excess of our bloated infrastructure to thrive on, I believe that the modern rat would resemble an entirely different creature. Whether or not we’d like to admit it, human kind probably lives closer to rats than to dogs. In that sense the rat is as much a domesticate of ours as we are of it. Where there are people, there are rats. And where there are rats, there are usually people.

We have always had a relationship with rats to some degree. They live in our cities and are for the most part considered to be vermin. They carried the plague, and while the rest of England stopped bathing, fearful that the illness could carry itself in water, the rats thrived as they have done around us for centuries. A common theory regarding cat domestication is that cats were first brought in to kill mice, and cats comprise most of the internet today. So really, rats have already contributed more to the global consciousness than we ever will. This relationship is illustrated in the following pie chart:

Rats Global Consciousness

Our living with rats extends into the modern era, with whole professions and minor Batman villains dedicated to the practice of catching the elusive rat.


Right up there with Condiment King.

They are vermin, we say, and should be controlled. We have an aversion in our culture to rodents. They are everything filthy and, along with the fly, go wherever there is decay. And yet, they are evidently clean animals, though the places they live are not. Isn’t that an awful lot like us, though? We place tremendous importance on personal hygiene but I wouldn’t eat off the streets of New York.

Our narratives bleed into one another. It’s no secret that writers have connected people and rodents for a long time. The mouse in the maze. The metaphorical cheese as a goal for the protagonist. The expression, “Like a rat in a cage”, referring to someone who feels like they’re trapped in a situation. The common theme for all of these ideas? Our relationship with the rat today is fully eclipsed by its role in science. They are a reflection of us. Of our progress and our struggles in a modern world. They are a microcosm of our macrocosm in which our great metal skyscrapers become towering maze walls to confuse and preclude us. We see our similarities; thus we extend sympathy to the rat in these situations that it does not find anywhere else.

When we start to talk about animal testing, the rat transforms, in some ways, into an ubiquitous object of modern scientific progression. Perhaps that is fitting; man and rat inventing the future together. A romantic notion, but true nonetheless. I wonder how many discoveries would have gone undiscovered without animal testing. But that raises another question; one that gets pushed to the side more often than not, a question that many people believe is a pointless one. Do the lives of animals injured or killed as a result of animal testing have any weight? Or rather, is animal testing ethical? I haven’t read anyone else’s post yet so I don’t know if someone has already sparked this controversial topic. I’ll do it here in any case. Do we even have an obligation to these animals? Should scientific progress bow to animal rights or are animals a necessary casualty of modern science? Are animals used in testing domesticates or something else? I would fall under the human-centric persuasion that it is a fair, if unilateral, price to pay for the knowledge attained as a result, beauty products and psychological evaluations not included. I simply mean to say that there are legitimate and illegitimate reasons to test on animals and that we should apply our best judgment to decide which is which.

5 thoughts on “Rats, us, and my weak attempt at comedy.

  1. You guessed it, your wonderful pie chart warranted my response.
    On one hand I disagree with the standing of your claim that rats significantly have contributed to global consciousnesses (dismissing the relative degree of consciousnesses the chart depicts of rats v. humans). Why? Rats only influence out total perception and understanding and we (humans) are the only animal upon which global consciousnesses can be evaluated. On the other hand our historical evolution with rats and our current interactions DO contribute to the ideas of the world but, perhaps, more realistically rats contribute to overall global understanding in unnoticed but powerful ways. I think the biggest contribution is the realization of our inability to control the vermin.

    The importance of rats I think is our deep desire to control them – actually, to eliminate the majority of them. Nature will chiefly act according to only to its standards. It is shaped by our influences but we can’t control it. Hence, we can understand the importance of rats.

    As far as ethics go… if we consider the historical significance of rats in human society… I think we can ethically, rightfully destroy them. The means, however, do not justify the ends. We can kill them but not cause them undue intentional pain.

    Great post, Bill!

  2. I agree with Erica – terrific post, Bill! And I’m also intrigued by your pie-chart…which means I have lots of questions!!! I love the idea of man and rat inventing the future together! Anyway…when thinking about contributions to the global consciousness (whatever that is?), does the blue represent all rats (the entire species) throughout history and all over the world? And does the orange represent me (a singular human)? Or all of humanity throughout history and all over the world? I’m wondering how rats would adjust this pie chart if they had a say? How would we be different if there were no rats? As for the ethics of animal testing, I’m sure we’ll be talking a lot about this tomorrow. For now, I’d like us to think about whether and why using animals as experimental research subjects (which usually results in their death) might be ethically different from using them as food (which usually has same results)?

  3. As usual you have another great post this week. I really liked the similarity you drew between rats and humans in terms of having good hygiene yet living in dirty places. We really do have a lot in common with rats whether we would like to admit it or not. In regards to your comments on the ethics of using animals in research, I am inclined to agree with you. I think the benefits of animal research outweigh the loss of the lives of many rats and mice even if it is incredibly unfair to those animals. I do have a much harder time justifying the mistreatment and death of animals for cosmetic and psychological purposes; however, I don’t think these purposes should be bunched into the same category as medical research. I’m sure we will have a lot of discussion on the topic tomorrow in class so I look forward to hearing what everyone has to say then.

  4. I completely agree that human kind lives closer to rats than any other species, even dogs. I feel like this is the source of our contempt for them because certainly not many people like this fact. It is forced upon us we didn’t choose the rat to be a part of our lives like we did the dog. Haha I like your reference to cats in the internet caused by rats and based on your pie chart we have to be careful. I hope that you made that yourself and it’s not some actual evidence on some crazed website about rats taking over the world. I agree with the fact that some testing of animals is understandable while some is not. Certainties both exist but I would like to see the testing of animals for luxuries like beauty products to stop. I was glad to see in the readings that despite humanist ideals in laboratory experiments, measures are being taken regarding unnecessary pain and terrible living conditions. Honestly, I see little weight in the death of testing mice in the pursuit of knowledge to cure things like cancer. This is obviously an extreme, but in the pursuit of the betterment of humanity some sacrifices have to fall on the shoulders of lab animals.

  5. I wouldn’t necessarily agree that rats are domesticated…they’re at least in a grey area to me. Our domestication definitions doc gives three requirements for domestication: lost fear of humans; reproduces in captivity; and humans control breeding, organization of territory and food supply. I think the third requirement might be a little sketchy when considering the rat. Certainly (and as our readings say) we HAVE domesticated certain rats, leading to a reuse of a single ‘individual’ in testing. However, we might have to consider how deliberate the control of breading, food, and territory is for it to be domestication. I think if this DOES qualify as domestication, we should qualify this case, noting that it might not be a deliberate domesticate. I’m not sure how important such a discussion/categorization actually is, but it seems like a decent talk to have next class.

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