Cannibal rats swarm in lockdown infestation

Hungry: There are an estimated 1.3 rats per person in the UK – 81 million in total. © Alamy

Do rats deserve their evil reputation? The news that a hungry army of rodents is closing in on our homes will probably fill you with disgust. But some say we are too hard on the humble rat.

It is the stuff of nightmares. With restaurants closed and city centres empty because of the coronavirus lockdown, an army of starving rats is closing in on our homes. They have been spotted using cat flaps, climbing up drainpipes, and swimming into toilet bowls.

US officials warn of “unusual or aggressive” behaviour as desperate rodents resort to cannibalism.

Rats are one of our least favourite animals. We recoil in disgust, call them pests and vermin, and spend billions worldwide to eradicate them. Creatures of the night and the urban jungle, we associate them with dirt and disease.

They have a sly ability to escape danger, fleeing a sinking ship or rising floodwater. When something isn’t right, we “smell a rat” and a traitor is a “dirty rat”.

From the Pied Piper of Hamelin to the dreaded Rat King, this little beast has a terrifying grip on our imagination. And, of course, in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Room 101 contains our worst nightmare. Which can only mean one thing: rats!

Behavioural scientist Val Curtis says rat-phobia is hardwired into our DNA. “We are preprogrammed to learn to avoid things that make us sick,” and rats harbour as many as 60 different types of humans disease. The black rat (Rattus rattus) often gets blamed for the Black Death, which wiped out a third of Europe’s population.

But it is its larger, more successful cousin, the brown rat that hitched a lift with European explorers and conquered the world. Like humans, they are generalists, able to adapt to different habitats and diets. They can smell danger and breed at astonishing speeds, creating a massive headache for pest control agencies.

Many believe rats are not all bad. In some parts of the world, their fertility and cunning earn them respect and devotion. This year is the Chinese Year of the Rat, and Hindus in South Asia consider the black rat a sacred animal.

And recent research challenges their maligned reputation. Fleas, lice, and even gerbils are now thought more likely to have spread the Black Death. Rats spend more time grooming themselves than cats, and thrive because of our filth, not theirs.

In tests, rats show concern and empathy for their fellow rodents, rescuing them from cages and comforting each other when distressed. Many owners of pet rats describe them as affectionate, loyal, and sensitive.

Most remarkable of all, rats may have saved far more lives than they have taken by spreading disease. For 150 years, the lab rat has played a pivotal role in modern medical testing. Their sense of smell has also proved revolutionary for detecting tuberculosis and locating landmines.

Small, smart, and natural burrowers, they have even been used to find people trapped under collapsed buildings.

So, do rats deserve their evil reputation?

Dirty rat!

Yes. Rats are horrible little vermin. Everything about them is disgusting, from their yellow teeth to their high-pitched squeaking and long slithering tails. They carry diseases, eat out of bins, and live in sewers. Like snakes and spiders, they are animals that keep us up at night and affect us on a deep, emotional level.

No. They are fastidiously tidy animals. There is much to admire in their intelligence, adaptability, and the affection they show each other. Rats are delightful little heroes, like Ratty from Wind in the Willows or Remy from the film Ratatouille – certainly not the stuff of nightmares.

You Decide

  1. Would you ever keep a rat for a pet?
  2. Can animals be evil?

Activities

  1. Draw a design for a humane rat-catching device.
  2. Write a story about a family of rats surviving the coronavirus lockdown.

Some People Say...

“I don’t like rats any more than the next bloke, but they ain’t wicked and cruel like people can be. They’re just ratty in their habits.”

Philip Pullman, British author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that rats can transmit diseases to humans. Rodents are genetically similar to us, allowing them to be a reservoir for diseases that can cross over to the human population. They are also a vector for disease, spreading bacteria from rotting food and rubbish bins, to human hands via their faeces and urine. This makes them a serious public health problem that governments tackle by keeping streets clean, laying poison, and setting food health and safety standards for shops and restaurants.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is whether it is fair to blame the rats for what some argue is a human problem. We live in densely packed cities and produce a huge amount of waste. When we reduce our waste or dispose of it responsibly, the rat population falls. Squirrels and pigeons are urban dwellers that also spread disease, but we do not have the same visceral reaction to them. So, what is it about rats that makes us feel so uncomfortable?

Word Watch

Cannibalism
Rodent expert Bobby Corrigan explains, “They’re mammals just like you and I and, so when you’re really, really hungry, you’re not going to act the same – you’re going to act very bad, usually […]. So, these rats are fighting with one another. Now, the adults are killing the young in the nest and cannibalising the pups.”
Eradicate
New York City alone has spent $32 million (£26m) on rat poison and pest control. Rats are inherently cautious eaters and are capable of learning to avoid traps – making them a very difficult animal to outsmart.
Pied Piper of Hamelin
The story of the rat-catcher who lures the children of Hamelin away with his magic pipe. In the 19th Century, another rat-catcher called Jack Black bred “fancy rats” to sell to high-society women. Queen Victoria and the author Beatrix Potter are said to have owned Black’s pet rats.
Rat King
A collection of rats whose tails have become permanently entangled. This weird and disturbing sight was considered a bad omen in early modern Europe, and preserved specimens are on display in museums in Germany and France.
Brown rat
Mistakenly named the Norwegian Rat (Rattus norvegicus), the brown rat actually originated in central Asia. It is also known as the common, street, or sewer rat and is one of the few mammals (including mice and bats) to outnumber humans.
Conquered the world
The old adage – that you are never more than six feet away from a rat – is probably not true. Researchers estimate it is more like 164 feet (50 metres).
Smell danger
Rats have a stronger sense of smell than dogs and can detect compounds found in carnivores’ urine, helping them avoid predators.
Breed
Rats start breeding at 12-weeks old and, in one year, a rat population can grow from one mating pair to almost 12,000 rats.
Year of the Rat
The Chinese Zodiac is represented by twelve animals. The last Year of the Rat was 2008, and people born in that year are thought to have creativity, generosity, and ambition.
Sacred animal
As many as 15,000 black rats live in the Karni Mata Temple where they are worshipped as an incarnation of the goddess.
Maligned
Criticised.
Fastidiously
With great attention to detail.

Subjects

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