• Reading Level 5
Science | Geography

Panic as mouse plague moves towards Sydney

Have animal rights gone too far? Today, as a mouse army swarms towards Australia’s largest city, many simply want to exterminate them. Others say they have a right to be respected. The people of Sydney knew what was coming. The plague had already swept across eastern Australia, wreaking havoc wherever it went. Yet nothing could prepare them for the onslaught itself: millions of furry creatures swarming through houses, gnawing through everything they came across. It was a crisis of Biblical proportions. For months, Australia has been battling a plague. Last year was a remarkable year for grain farmers. But their stored produce proved the perfect breeding ground for mice. Since January, the rodents have spread across rural communities of the country’s southeast. Cities look to be next. The government-funded website Mouse Alert shows sightings have doubled since March – with a surge in cases in and around Sydney. Swarms of animals have always been a cause for fear. In the Bible, God sent plagues of frogs, lice, locusts and unspecified wild animals after the Egyptians. Rodents have inspired particular horror. They have been demonised in folklore and culture, from rat kings to The Nutcracker. For centuries, rats were wrongly blamed for the Black Death. The situation in Australia might justify our hatred. The country has suffered from mice infestations of increasing size and severity since 1871. The first only affected one town. By 1993, the mice caused an estimated AUD$96m worth of damage to crops. This year, mice have been crawling into beds and biting people as they sleep. They have nested in chairs, eaten furniture and eroded fittings with their urine, creating a stench residents describe as “unbearable”. Farmer Ben Storer saw the mice wipe out 800 hectares of sorghum. Another victim, Louise McCabe, estimates that they have cost $30,000 in damage to her house. McCabe says: “They’ve chewed through the carpet, and through the wooden floor. The oven is no longer functioning… they ate the insulation of our dishwasher.” Despite all this, animal rights organisations have argued that mice and rats deserve our love and respect. According to PETA, both are “highly social animals” which “become attached to each other, love their own families and easily bond with their human guardians”. Many agree. In Britain, there are approximately 200,000 pet rats and 100,000 pet mice. Small rodents are emotional creatures. According to animal behaviourist Jaak Panksepp, rats are able to feel joy and to laugh — a capacity that scientists previously restricted to humans and our closest primate relatives. And they are intelligent, fast learners. Rats have a similar capacity for thought and understanding as dogs. They can be trained to detect unexploded landmines and tuberculosis outbreaks. As a test subject, mice and rats have helped us develop numerous medicines. We value cats and dogs for entertaining us. Surely rodents deserve at least as much respect for saving lives. Have animal rights gone too far? Of mice and men Yes, say some. A domestic mouse might make a good pet, but things are different when they breed all at once. Just look at the situation in Australia, where hordes of mice are hurting people, wrecking property and pillaging the land. If the situation is uncontrolled, mice could destroy human civilisation. We should protect our safety and security above all else. Of course not, say others. Earth does not belong to humans alone. Australia’s mice are not to blame for their behaviour. They are just trying to survive, in accordance with their biology. As humans, we have the capacity to empathise with the needs of other creatures. This gives us a duty to conserve the Earth’s living things. After all, we must always remember that we are animals too. KeywordsBlack Death - A bacterial infection that killed as much as 60% of the population of Europe and 33% of the Middle Eastern population.

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