Panic as mouse plague moves towards Sydney

Friend or foe? In Britain there are around 200,000 pet rats and 100,000 pet mice. © Getty

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.

You Decide

  1. What is the scariest type of animal?
  2. Should humans keep sentient creatures as pets?

Activities

  1. In pairs, create and draw the ultimate pest, explaining its habitat, diet and self-preservation abilities.
  2. In groups, research an animal considered dangerous to farming. Write a speech defending your chosen creature, then choose one speaker to deliver it to the class.

Some People Say...

“All the arguments to prove man’s superiority cannot shatter this hard fact: in suffering, the animals are our equals.”

Peter Singer (1946 — ), Australian moral philosopher and bioethicist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Rodents have played an enormously useful role in science. They have been used in medical research since the 17th Century when English physician William Harvey used them to study blood circulation. Small, easy to handle, genetically close to humans and quick to reproduce, they are the optimal lab animal. Today, rodents make up almost 95% of all lab animals. They have been used to test treatments for disease, understand drug addiction and grow a new human ear. NASA even keeps lab mice in space.
What do we not know?
There remains enormous disagreement on whether non-human animals have rights. Supporters argue that there is no morally significant difference between humans and adult mammals. We should not do anything to them that we would not do to ourselves. Against this, critics say that animals are not really conscious, cannot think and lack the ability to behave morally. There is further debate among animal rights supporters on whether some or all types of animals should be protected.

Word Watch

Unspecified wild animals
The plague, from the Book of Exodus, has been interpreted as either flies or wild animals.
Rat kings
In European folklore, a collection of rats whose tails are entwined and bound together. Seldom seen alive, there are several purported examples in museums.
The Nutcracker
A story by ETA Hoffmann in which a toy soldier fights the evil, seven-headed Mouse King. It was famously adapted into a ballet by Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky.
Black Death
The Bubonic plague killed up to 200 million people in North Africa and Eurasia between 1346 — 1352. Research suggests that it was transmitted by fleas and humans, instead of by rats as was once thought.
$96m
In Australian dollars. This is about £52.5m.
Sorghum
A type of flowering glass. Originating near the Nile in Egypt, it is now the world’s fifth most widely grown cereal after rice, wheat, maize and barley.
PETA
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, one of the world’s largest animal rights organisations.
Primate
Primates include monkeys, lemurs and apes.
Tuberculosis
An infectious bacterial lung disease. In 2018, 1.5 million people died from it, making it the world’s deadliest disease.

Subjects

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