Wednesday, February 27, 2008

In defence of the smart and loyal rat

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
February 26, 2008 at 9:43 AM EST

Question: What is a hamster bubble?

Answer: A) A new hamster toy that uses NASA technology;
B) A new sex toy that uses NASA technology;
C) The outcome of a meeting between the laws of economics and the laws of human squeamishness.
Rodent rescuer, Jane Sorensen of Montreal, with pet rats Bess (front), and Melanie, says many people often compare rats to dogs. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

I know, I know, you really want to read about answer B. But the answer is C. The Year of the Rat, which began on Feb. 7, has had unintended consequences for the rodent economy in China.
According to Chinese media, children have been clamouring for a pocket pet, resulting in a run not on rats, but on hamsters, with the price tripling in under a month. Rats, meanwhile (the legitimate heirs to the throne - or wheel, as the case may be) are being exterminated in unprecedented numbers in Beijing in preparation for this summer's Olympics.

Seems like rats, even in the Year of the Rat, can't shake the bad press they got after helping transmit the plague in 14th-century Europe and 19th-century China. Rats always get a bum deal.

A few valiant fanciers have tried to bring dignity to the reviled rodent, which is widely known to be the smartest and most loyal of all pocket pets.

After Hollywood weighed in with Ratatouille, a cartoon movie featuring an aspiring chef who happens to be a rat, rat sales soared in North America and Europe. Still, the rat's fortunes generally fall more than rise.

"As long as we've been living in settled villages, rats have been living alongside with us, so we have this long shared history ... and because of that we have both positive and negative associations," says Kathryn Denning, professor of anthropology at Toronto's York University.
Although they are worshipped at a temple in India, and were admired enough to merit a place in the Chinese zodiac, "in a lot of places, they're just considered to be unclean and harbingers of disease," she says.

Street kids who acquire rats as a kind of accessory may find the rodent's bad-ass reputation enhances theirs, while they enjoy its lesser-known positive qualities.

"People who actually get them as pets have their entire view revolutionized," says Jane Sorensen, who runs Small Victories rodent rescue in Montreal and has eight rats of her own. "They are charismatic animals. ... A lot of people will compare them to dogs."

Rat agility contests, originating in Sweden, showcase the creatures' trainability and intelligence. But despite these efforts, we will likely never lose our ambivalence about the archetypal "varmint."

In an essay by Birgitta Edelman published in Animals in Person: Cultural Perspectives on Human-Animal Intimacies, the author writes that rats, which are associated with sewers, both disgust and compel us as they provide "a connecting link to the dark world down under."
She's an academic, so when you read "down under," you have to understand she's not just referring to our civic geography, but also to our anatomy, and possibly our psyche. It's one of those theories that is so crazy it just might be right.

(As if to prove this point, last week a drowned rat appeared at the nexus of geography and anatomy, in my downstairs neighbour's toilet bowl, apparently pushed up the drain by rising meltwater.)

Of course, it could just be their tails, which somewhat inexplicably disgust many people.
"There's something about their naked tails that people find icky," Prof. Denning says. Is it because they resemble earthworms? And don't earthworms live underground and thrive on decay? Hmm. The point goes to you, Ms. Edelman.

The all-but tailless hamster outsells rats by "50 to 60 per cent," says one employee at a PJ's pet store in Toronto.

"Hamsters are not very social," Ms. Denning points out, "and yet we regard them as being better pets because they're cuter." Ah, the eternal battle between cute and smart.

"Why are they cuter? They're cuter because they're rounder. What they have are features of neoteny."

The term refers to a certain infantile quality - disproportionately large eyes, rounded features - that we are hardwired to respond to positively.

But we all know that, in the long run, while cute wears thin, smarts endure. And besides, the Year of the Hamster? That just sounds dumb.


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