For kids who love animals by a kid who loves animals
As you can imagine from someone who grew up with two pet rats, I spent a LOT of time trying to gently (or not so gently…) educate people that a lot of their assumptions about rats, and why they revile them, comes from misinformation. Now that I’m older, I can better understand where other people are coming from and respect that everyone is allowed to have their own opinion, no matter how incorrect it is (quite an important lesson to learn these days, no?).
Just like any other false conviction or hatred that someone may have, it often comes from miseducation or stereotypes that they’ve been told since they were young. Equally common is the fact that they’ve probably never met anyone willing to or interested in challenging these beliefs. So who can really blame them? But for the sake of the rats (God bless their stinky little souls), I’ll spread some knowledge about a few of the most misunderstood animals in the animal kingdom. Because, no matter how foul, ugly, annoying, or downright cruel you may find a creature, all animals fit into a special place in their complex and beautiful ecosystem. And the fact of the matter is that no animal is as destructive and devastating to Earth as us human beings.
So, even IF you’ve been living under what must be a quite comfortable rock for the past 10 years, you must know from reading the introduction to this blog post that I LOVE rats. But I don’t just love rats to be anti-establishment and argue with people. I love rats because quite nearly everything you probably think you know about them is WRONG. Let me tell you why.
The Black Death, otherwise known as the Pestilence, the Bubonic Plague, or just a really, really not fun time in human history, was by far the most fatal pandemic in human history (and we know how unfortunate pandemics can be). Estimated to have killed anywhere from 30% to 60% of Europeans in the span of 5 years, the Black Death decimated cities, ports, ships, and castles spanning from China and North Africa to England and France.
For an incredibly long time, the primary theory on the sudden and deadly spread of the Black Plague has been that rats infested with fleas carrying with the extremely deadly bubonic plague moved into Central Asia following climate fluctuations–not long after human-to-human contact became another vector of infection as it spread like wildfire through a newly connected world. But recent evidence suggests that we have severely overestimated the role that rats played in the transmission of the bubonic plague. To this tune, History.com has even explored this new information, endorsing the theory based on the fact that rats could not have travelled fast enough to be the primary and most influential vectors of disease, blaming it more on humans than anything else.
To this point, rats are actually incredibly hygienic animals, often self-cleaning their fur with their tongues and hands for hours everyday, both with spit and any available water. As well, cleaning acts as a social activity in which two or more rats will help clean each other. Evidence suggests that rats actually groom more than cats, who do not get the same bad rep!
More than that, rats have deliberate control of their bladder and are very, very picky about where they use the toilet, often using a specific corner where food and social activities never co-occur. For this reason, pet rats are quite easy to potty train. This was actually somewhat surprising to me as well, based on the amount of times that my rats have casually peed on me while crawling around doing their happy cheesy business. But, unless they are terrified, this is a choice–usually a form of territorial marking in which they lay down the law on who’s whose.
I’ve been surprised by the amount of friends I’ve had that are terrified that my rats will bite them or otherwise try to attack them. While rats must be handled calmly and appropriately like any other animal, pet rats have a reputation among rodents for being incredibly curious, social, and loving. Out of the 5 rats I’ve owned thus far, I’ve loved meeting new people–crawling on their shoulders, kissing their faces, being petted, caressed, and even lightly tossed onto a soft surface, just to run back to get thrown again. Every time I came home, they’d leap up to the top of the cage and basically squabble for my attention, which feels really nice after coming home from a quiet or sort of lonely day in the big city.
Rats are also incredibly intelligent, demonstrating high memory retention, learning new behaviors for rewards, empathy, compassion, problem-solving, unique personalities, and childlike curiosity. No wonder why they’re often used in experiments to draw conclusions about behavior, instinct, emotion, and senses.
If you still aren’t convinced, try this on for size: a rat may actually save your life! The African Giant Pouched Rat is one remarkable species of rat that is used by the charity APOPO to detect tuberculosis and detecting landmines, both of which are accomplished with their exceptional sense of smell. Hilarious as it is, rats have been trained to sniff bombs since the APOPO was established in Belgium in the 1997. The most successful Hero rat, named Magawa, is credited with the discovery of 71 landmines, 38 explosive devices, and clearing an estimated than 2.4 million square meters of land during his service. He passed away at the age of 8 in late January of 2022 during his retirement. MAGAWA, YOUNG SOLDIER, WE SALUTE YOU!