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.


Happy Earth Day, domestication scholars! Celebrate on campus during Earth Week at Virginia Tech. Now, to the RATS.

In 9th grade I memorized this monologue from the Miracle Worker Anne Sullivan when she explains her experience in the asylum, “Rats, why my brother Jimmie and i used to play with the rats because we didn’t have toys. Maybe you’d like to know what Helen will find there, not on visiting days? one ward was full of the old women, crippled, blind, most of them dying, but even if what they had was catching there was no where else to put them, so that’s where they put us. There were younger ones across the hall, prostitutes mostly, with T.B., and epileptic fits, and some of the kind who- kept after other girls, especially young ones, and some insane. Some just had the DT’s. The youngest were in another ward to have babies they didn’t want, started at 13,14. they’d leave afterwords but the babies stayed and we played with them too, though most had-sores- all over, from diseases you’re not supposed to talk about. The first year we had 80, 70 died. The room Jimmie and I played in was the dead house, where they kept the bodies until they could dig the graves.

I can’t recall the entire piece from memory but, I know it begins powerfully with “Rats,” and that word, the idea of the animal sets the stage for the sickness and death descriptions of a wretched place that follows.

I found the readings about rats very interesting. I’m not sure if I consider them a “domesticated” animal but our evolutionary relationships with them are clearly (and sometimes not so clearly) significant.

At this point in my “human-animal relationship” analysis career I have come to the understanding that if we follow the expansion and movement of humans we will too find close behind their domestic animals. To understand human development and expansion was to know domestic animal development and expansion and vice versa. This relative rule of thumb is true for the rat. The animal I associate with the bubonic plague. Or as Burt summarizes it in The Multiple Meaning of Laboratory Animals: Standardizing Mice for Cancer Research, “The rat is, as some writers have phrased it, a twin of the human, and their mutual history is dark.”

Rats were not understood to carry disease until the mid 19th century. Seen as thieves and pests to eradicate, Burt discusses the question of how rats came to have such low status, since they were not hated or feared. 

Is it because it is associated with danger in our perception? Our relationship to the rat is not just a physical one but one of perception and ideas. The idea that our relationship with an animal can be influenced by simple perception might have serious effects on the next era as humans today do not interact with the animals they eat.

Yet, we admire rats. “The lascivious, greedy and cannibalistic rat…” engages in acts of human sin. They thrive in our gullies and sewers surprisingly manage to avoid toxic pollution exposure. They are smart, adaptable, and even, for some, beautiful.


effluvia  plural of ef·flu·vi·um N. An unpleasant or harmful odor, secretion, or discharge.

The reading proposes the idea that rats survive on the effluvia of human society, thinking of rats as our mirror species. This thought means then rats do come from the dark place (discussed in it being the devil and similar things) but are essential to it. The rat in its harboring of disease and other participation in dark things, has an influence on humans, the rat can be thought strongly as a synonym to human destructiveness. 

At the beginning of the 20th century human associations of rats was that of fear and that relationship to the natural history of the rat is from the many experiments done with the purpose to eliminate and control.

Reading “the multiple meanings of laboratory animals” I’ve got to say it makes sense that our hate and diastase for the mouse (and.. rat) led them to be our object of experimentation.  “MWAHAHA” (sorry, I could not help myself). The reading highlighted just how much our culture and institutions shape our perception, treatment and relationship to mice, rats, and all other animals we interact with in general. It’s a simple understanding yet the many evolutionary, genetic, cultural, and psychological dimensions are complex.

What do you think when you think about Rats?


This is also cool: Once every 48 years, bamboo forests in Northeast India go into flower, and black rats descend upon them, like a plague. Watch it here.




Rats and Mice: Scientific Heroes

After reading the Burt’s piece I can’t help but feel bad for rats. By doing what it is that they need to do to survive and reproduce, they have given themselves a reputation as evil, disgusting creatures. Many other species of animals have habits similar to or far worse than rats, but as the rats live in such close proximity to humans, they are the ones that we seek to destroy at all costs. They are almost like our roommates. It doesn’t matter who your roommate is, it is simply the fact that they are always around that makes them so bad. Many of the early reasons for hating the rat such as the filth and excessive reproduction were wrong or greatly exaggerated which sounds like the exact story you hear from someone who is angry at their roommate. Deep down they are just annoyed and tired of being around the person but in order to justify their anger to others they seek out things to explain why this person is so bad, whether it be made up or exaggerations of little things that occurred. The rat has just evolved to thrive around human habitation and as a result it is one of the most universally hated creatures today.

Although I do sympathize with rats and mice, it is hard to deny that they do pose problems to humans. They are known to carry diseases and disrupt food supplies among other things which are valid reasons to set up methods to remove them from close proximity to humans and to control their numbers. I think that our hatred of rats is a bit excessive and irrational in modern times as many of the diseases they can spread are curable, and better construction methods developed in recent history can do a decent job at keeping them out of our foodstuffs, but many people still see them as insatiable pests that must be destroyed. It seems to me that at some point we just have to live with the fact that rats and mice aren’t going anywhere and we might as well do our best to try to get along with our perpetual roommates.

The first stepping stone to getting along with our little mammalian enemies is likely their use in scientific research. As a biochemistry major many of the experiments that come up in my studies involve the use of mice and rats. Without these experiments, the creation of drugs and treatments to cure the most threatening diseases for humans in the past and today would be far fewer. Their similarities to humans in structure and genetic makeup along with their small size and quick reproduction make them prime candidates for testing different methods of curing and/or preventing diseases in humans. It is by no means a perfect system as in many cases the effects in mice and rats are different than in humans but it is better than no testing at all. In the Shapiro reading, there was a lot of discussion about the use of laboratory animals that highlighted the negative aspects of experimenting with animals. I was not particularly fond of a lot of the arguments presented in this piece. I love animals, always have, and whether it is my dog or a mouse that we find cleaning the garage or a tiger at the zoo, I hate seeing animals hurt in any way from physical damage or separation from their families or torment by some curious toddler.  However, I have come to realize that in some cases, in order to benefit our own human species, some animals, often mice and rats, have to take the bullet. As much as I don’t want to see a mouse injected with a deadly virus or cancer, if that mouse helps to find the cure for someone’s ailing relative, I think it is usually worth it despite being very unfair. Shapiro seems to be saying that what we are doing with animals is largely without any real benefit scientifically, at least in the cases he discusses, and argues that laboratory animals are treated like machines, using the terms deindividualated, despecified, and deanimalized. I think that the cases he uses to argue his points are poor representations of animal research as a whole, and I feel that he is swaying data to prove points that don’t have a lot of validation. I understand that animals cooped up in cages by themselves are not in the best conditions, but they are not treated like machines. There are people who care for and feed the mice on a daily basis who genuinely care for the animals in most cases. Even knowing that the end result for many of them is likely death, they still want them to live comfortably for as long as possible. I have talked to many people who have worked with mice in their research and they all do their best to keep the animals as happy and comfortable as is possible in their experimental circumstances. I know they are arguably not as happy as their wild counterparts, but that is a small price to pay to save human lives. I am all for any new methods that will improve the conditions for lab animals, but I think that their importance to scientific research justifies their use.

Especially in the case of rats and mice, I find it hard to comprehend how people can despise a creature like a rat and go to great lengths to kill them whether it is with traps or poisons, but then as soon as they hear that a lab rat is being kept in a cage and injected with a virus to test out a new treatment it is inhumane. Humans have spent their history trying to destroy the rat because it was foul and useless to us but now that they can be helpful before they are killed, it is somehow crueler than murdering them by the thousands in the wild. All in all, I do feel for the animals that give their lives to science, but contradictory to Shapiro’s arguments, I think they are dying for a noble cause and greatly advancing modern science. They are saving more and more lives every day and should be considered heroes for giving their lives to do so. Anyway that was a bit of a rant that is heavily influenced by my scientific background and hopefully I didn’t set anyone off haha. And just to cover my tail I would like the record to show that I LOVE MICE AND RATS! And all animals for that matter…except for spiders maybe.


I look forward to reading all of your blogs and discussing these readings on Tuesday. See you all then!

Rats as Humanity’s Twin

This week’s readings were very interesting.  One would think that things as ubiquitous as mice and rats deserve consideration and thought.  I’ll admit, though, that before these readings I never thought very much or very hard about rats or mice, and I now realize how little I knew about them.

The idea that I found most interesting out of these readings was the idea that rats and humans are very closely linked.  The Burt reading introduced the idea of rats being humanity’s twin in many ways.  While crazy at first, this idea really appealed to me.  Rats are very tied to us.  They go where we go because they live off the networks that we create.  They come with us even to places where they would not be able to survive on our own, and they survive off the food and shelter they get from us.  War and imperialism took rats all over the world.

Rats also resemble us in their ability to adapt.  They can live almost anywhere, just as we can.  They can evolve relatively quickly to adapt to new environments.  They can dominate an environment in a way few other animals can.  They seem so similar to us, that at first I wondered where our distaste for rats came from.  I assumed that our hatred for rats was a holdover from their days as plague bearing embodiments of filth.  The Burt reading revealed the flaws of this idea.

First, rats are apparently clean animals.  They live in dirty places, but apparently the rats themselves are relatively clean.  I find this hard to believe, but I’m not the expert.  Secondly, while rats were associated with disease, people did not know that rats themselves could bring disease.  Intense distaste for rats started, as so many other intense distastes for things, in the Victorian era.  Disease and dirtiness were not nearly as lamentable as the rats insatiable appetites for food and sex.  Rats’ excesses made them an object of hatred.

Burt also described the relationship between rats and humans as almost parasitic.  Rats gain so much from their association with humans, food and shelter, but humans gain nothing.  The rats exploit humans for their own gain.  This is so radically different from humans’ relationships with other animals.  Humans exploit the animals, not the other way around.  I was intrigued by this relationship because it challenges the idea of humanity as a master of nature, because, try as we might, humans can’t kill all the rats.  The rats’ exploitation of humanity, in my mind, shows that humans are a part of nature, not above it, as many people want to think.

Here are some other questions for us to consider in our discussion on Tuesday:

How do changing attitudes toward rats help explain changing cultural values and vice versa?

In what ways is humans’ relationship with rats similar to our relationships with other animals?  Is the way rats exploit humans similar to the way humans exploit other animals?

Have scientists turned laboratory rats into a commodity?  What effects does this have on the rats?  What are the moral implications of such a process?  Is this different than any other domesticated animal?

How do laboratory rats differ from other domesticates?

Shapiro talks about the deindividuation of laboratory animals.  Does a similar process take place with other domesticated animals?



Saving the best for last

Man. These readings were great. I have enjoyed everything about this class, but these readings (and hopefully, this week’s discussions) are particularly excellent.

Algernon, the rats of NIMH, and other rodents as humans

Rats are like humans, says Burt (from this week’s readings).

When I was a young teenager, I was fascinated with books about the humanity and intelligence of rodents. You will have to forgive me while I write meanderingly about some of these books. Three books that made particularly big impressions on me were Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Flowers for Algernon, and The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. A main theme in all of these books is the similarity of rodents to humans.

Mrs. Frisby and The Amazing Maurice are similar in that they describe human-like populations of sentient rodents. Both are YA fiction and both make make rats and mice seem very human. Interestingly, it seems that is really much easier to write compelling about human-like rodent civilizations than it is to write about human like civilizations of other species, like horses, dogs, or cats. Rats exist in a different realm than we do, but a parallel realm. We don’t really know what rodents do in the sewers or the walls, we just know that they do something. They are there, they survive, they reproduce. We have this sense that they could have human-like civilizations down there.

There is this sense, at the end of both novels, that these rodent populations are struggling against some formidable evil and that they will eventually, inevitably fall. And then, so will we.

Flowers for Algernon is different than Mrs Frisby and The Amazing Maurice in that it doesn’t describe a population of human-like rodents. In Flowers for Algernon, Charlie Gordon realizes what his fate will be when he sees the fate of the mouse (Algernon) which underwent the medical procedure that he underwent. Again, rodents are us, and we are them, but this time much more obviously. Charlie’s fate is Algernon’s fate.

Rodents survive anywhere we survive. We cannot rid ourselves of them. If rodents were wiped out, so would we be wiped out. Like us, rodents are omnivores and are opportunists.

“The rat is a clean animal living in the middle of filth, a cunning and intelligent creature of no discernible use, a parasite rather than a producer,” writes Burt. Is that not as true of humans as it is true of rats? Culvier, who classified the animal kingdom in 1817 said that rats have an “extraordinary capacity for destruction disproportionate to their size” (Burt). Is this not also true of humans?

The mouse as a lab animal

Wow. Before DNA had been identified as the genetic material, people were already doing complex studies to determine whether cancer had a genetic component. To do this, they were using the mouse as a human model. Again, mice as humans. If this medication will cure mouse cancer, we say, it should cure human cancer.

Our distaste for mice and rats has made it very easy to make them subject of our (perhaps cruel) scientific experiments.Don’t get me wrong. I support animal research more than your average American. I’m going to do research on animal when I grow up. Also, most of us are alive due to animal research. But, we must admit that it is sometime cruel. Intrntionally breeding mice that will inevitably die of cancer is cruel. Necessary? yes. Highly useful? yes. But also cruel. I’m not here to discuss the ethics of animal research, however.

Mice came to be a staple model animal because of one researcher, Little, who bred a strain of inbred “oncomice” and because of the American anti-cancer movement. Without Little, what would research look like? How different would it be?

Names: animal as individuals and as objects

Names impart human characteristics. Apparently, there is some evidence that dolphins call each other by name, but (as far as I know) few (if any) other species do. By giving something a name, we are giving it a small piece of our own humanity. We are saying “you are one of us.” Of course laboratory animals are not named, just as meat animals are not named. Once we have named an animal, we have in a way, “humanized” it, and then we couldn’t use it as if it were an object, rather than a living thing.

When we consider laboratory animals, just as with meat animals, we don’t want to consider the idea that animals we use could be anything like us.

Is this wrong? I don’t really know, honestly. If we first say that the use (as food or as a model) of the animal is necessary and further we say that people must be involved in the maintenance of the animal, then these people must somehow get around the fact that the animals for which they care every day will eventually die. This is very possible. We become affectionate selectively in our lives with good reason. If I cared for every person I met as much as I care for my brother, I would not be able to function. Similarly, if I cared for every animal as much as I care for my pony, I would always be filled with despair.

Finally, I’m going to go ahead and say that I’m with Shapiro on the lack of necessity of laboratory animals in psychology. Why are we modeling psychological conditions in something as different than a human as a rat? Medical conditions, yes. I get that. Our physiological systems aren’t tremendously different that those of a rat. Our mental systems, however, are very different and the use of a rat model seems generally irresponsible (not in every case, obviously. But in many, if not most cases).

Moscow Canine Commuters

Hey everyone! I found this great article on the semi-domesticated Moscow dogs that we talked about in class. It’s pretty interesting; the pictures really help convey just how cool this behavior is.


Thoughts on the Darwin Discussion

I think we had a really good session today and covered quite a range of topics. Not often do string theory and Korean politics get tied into a conversation about domestication but somehow we found a way. I feel like there was so much more to cover but you can only do so much in an hour and fifty minutes I guess. Anyways, I just wanted to see if I can get a post onto the mother blog to make sure whatever glitch happened on Sunday is fixed. See you guys next Tuesday.

Evolution, domestication and civilization

The relationship between civilization or progress and evolution is a topic that we have discussed before but it is intriguing enough to address again.  Early on in the reading, Brantz defines these concepts and the relationship between these concepts in a way that I understood more than before.  Evolution and progress on their own are topics with no concise boundaries or definitions.  Thus the undertaking of understanding the relationship between these two is understandably difficult.  I was pleased with the way Brantz described evolution as a broader concept that includes variability caused by nature while progress is mostly a human controlled element with some influence from nature.  By now the importance of domestication is apparent even if it definition is not, so it is easy to believe that domestication can be the link between these two concepts.  Even if the effect of these concepts is different on human-animal relationships, the fact that they both influence the same bond shows some correlation that deserves further discussion.  The statement that evolution brings human and animals closer while civilization drives them further apart really struck me because it seems to finally tie three complex ideas in one true statement: evolution, domestication and civilization.


Early on in the reading I developed a theory that I hoped would remain intact by the end of the reading.  I came up with my own, simple way of tying civilization, domestication and evolution together.  It seemed to me that evolution, being influenced extensively by nature, could be thought of as the first of these three ideas to exist.  In early history Humans had little effect on the complex concept of evolution.  As evolution continued, however, it provided us the means and the reasoning to use it as a tool.  Domestication was the product of this stage of evolution.  As early human’s evolved they began the transition from being a product of their environment to manipulating and changing the environment, or civilization.  This transition is marked by domestication, the moment when humans used evolution as a tool against nature.  Once humans began manipulating nature and were no longer subject to its will, progress and civilization ensued.  I don’t know if I am making much sense but I am basically wondering if evolution led to domestication which then led to civilization.  I know that is a simple way to put things and there must be more overlap but I hope my understanding isn’t too far off the mark.  It is more obvious how domestication was able to lead to progress and civilization that how evolution led to domestication.  Was mastery of one species over another destined to come from evolution?


The integration of pets and the social changes brought about by animals in the home seem to contradict Brantz’s earlier statement that civilization drives humans and animals further apart.  The way in which pets where treated as members of a family and the social groups advocating morality towards pets clearly prove that civilization does not drive a gap in human-animal relations.  As we become more civilized I believe our awareness of animal rights is increasing and thus human-animal relations are actually getting closer.  This only pertains to domesticated pets, however.  The relationship between humans and wild animals does seem to drive further apart at first in our history.  This is evidenced by examples in the text of countries across the world killing strays in various ways.  In modern society I don’t believe the relationship between humans and wild animals is still driven apart.  Wild animal conservation is becoming a larger discussion in our moral duties and is finally gaining appreciation.  The only human animal relationship that seems to drive apart as civilization progresses is the one between humans and livestock animals.



Domestication and Home

First, an apology.  I apologize for the lateness of my blog post.  I mistakenly thought that this week we were working on our projects and had a break from blogging.  I’m glad I found this to be untrue in time to write a blog post at all, but I apologize for being late with it.

That being said, I found the Brantz reading to be incredibly interesting.  First off was the bit of language.  Domestication comes from the Latin word for home, “domus.”  Having never made that particular connection, I found this to be interesting and slightly problematic.  Domestication is the human desire to turn wild animals into animals that we could keep in our homes.  Francis Galton thought that early domestication came from the human desire to keep pets.  This was interesting to me because pets, domesticates we actually do keep in our homes, are very different from other domesticates.  As Brantz points out, we do not eat them or turn them into products, and even go so far as to turn them into individuals by giving them names and such.

So, my question becomes, why does the word domestication come from the word for “home” when most domesticates are not kept in our homes?  It seems to me that other readings have argued successfully that early humans did not domesticate animals to keep them as pets, but for food.  Why then is the word used for the process so tied to the idea of the home?  Could it be just a general idea of living with humans in general?  Most dictionaries I looked in for the definition of “domestication” simply offer two definitions.  One is to make something suitable for the home and the other is to make an animal or plant accustomed to a human environment or be useful to humans.  This proved to be unsatisfying because it did not really answer my question.  This connection with the home seems to important to me.

I thought maybe the word “domestication” originated in the 18th or 19th century and was somehow tied to the emerging bourgeois values that Brantz talked about.  Everything I could find, however, pointed to the word domestication being used before that in the 17th century, which lessens the likelihood of this possibility and left me still wondering.  I’m tempted to become a linguist to figure this out.

The rest of Brantz’s work was interesting as well, I was intrigued by the place of pets in society as a moral force because it is held over to today.  It is still common to get a dog or cat to teach a kid responsibility.  We may have come off the rigid morality of Victorian England, but apparently we still teach responsibility the same way.

Like a few others, I was also pleasantly surprised by the readability of Darwin.  I expected him to be stuffy and inaccessible, but that is of course not the case.  In the Introduction we read, Darwin talked about domestication and how humans can affect it but are ultimately still unable to fully control nature.  The idea of control and power seems so central to domestication, but how much control do humans really have in the process.  I’m curious to see what everyone else thinks about this.