Why I Like Rats


Like many another obligate weirdo, I like animals, speaking generally, far more than I like humans, speaking generally. This isn’t to say that I hate everyone; it just means that I’m extremely selective in my small circle of close friends. Humans are gregarious, and I’m only a minor exception to that rule.

Whenever I’ve taken the Meyers-Briggs personality test (and for various reasons I’ve taken it like five times), I’ve shown up as split nearly 50-50 between Introvert and Extrovert, with about a three-percentage emphasis on introvert. I understand this is fairly rare.

It’s not the first time I’ve ended up between categories. I’m between the Boomers and GenX. I was raised by grandparents, who adopted me, so my aunts and uncles became legally my sisters and brothers.

I was born female and have never been very good at it. I hate makeup and hairdos and bras and fashion magazines and facials and flirting. When I was little (in the ’60 and ’70’s) I identified almost exclusively with male role models—why not? They got to ride the horses, fight the monsters, wear comfortable clothes, smoke cigarettes on the wide open range. They got to be Illya Kuryakin.

The women? They got to be pretty, dumb, slinky, wear (shudder) pantyhose, and get Napoleon Solo.

I never got the hang of playing with dolls; dressing and undressing a stiff, smirking Barbie seemed to be the height of tedium. Playing mama by feeding scented slurry to a doll which made weird grinding noises and crapped out the same slurry was entertaining only from a mechanical perspective. I played with model horses and plastic dinosaurs and rats and dogs and garter snakes and imaginary friends.

I was obviously not equipped to be female by the standards of the day, so I sided with the guys. This was fine when I was seven and, with the innocent lust of the preadolescent, panting after Don in Lost in Space (I also had crushes on Mighty Mouse, Mr. Spock, Robbie the Robot, Flipper, and, of course, Illya), but it became more difficult in High School when all my real-life role models despised and tormented me for being an atypical (and therefore unattractive and therefore worthless) female; and completely impossible when I actually hit adulthood, which was when I finally figured out that it was far more that I hated the social expectations and stereotypes of womanhood than that I was actually transsexual.

But I digress.

Get used to it.

I’m actually largely an introvert. What slews my personality-test results, I suspect, is that I’ve never been afraid of public speaking and I like being on stage, so questions geared to find out if I will run screaming from mass public situations suggest, falsely, that I’m an extrovert. Introverts who are turned on by being the center of attention aren’t as rare as might be thought—there are any number of odd tormented introverts who, when they get up on stage, are rockstars. It’s the small-talk they can’t handle.

The usual definition of an introvert is someone who loses energy by interaction with other people (humans, specifically), while an extrovert loses energy being by his or herself. I find this is true for me in most situations, but certainly not all. Interaction with a consciousness on the right wavelength gives me sublime energy; interaction with someone who is on any number of other wavelengths (we might call the usual one Radio Normal) can be painfully exhausting. And it’s very hard to define why, except that watching the mounting alarm in the eyes of the Very Normal who are slowly realizing, for all your efforts to keep it to yourself, that you are, for all practical intents, a creature from another planet—can be rather wearing. But there’s more to it than that.

“I say, Holmes—you’ve brought chocolate for the rats!”

Sherlock Holmes (a textbook obligate weirdo) once, after an unsatisfactory interaction with his longsuffering amanuensis, wondered how “a battery feels when it pours electricity into a non-conductor.” That’s about as close as I can come to the feeling of not being properly dialed in to a conversation or other intra-human transaction.

The creepy primal beauty of the babirusa.

Now, animals are another thing. If it’s alive, it’s interesting (people are not excluded here; they’re all fascinating. This doesn’t mean they’re all actually satisfying to deal with). I have special fondnesses for avians of all sorts (what could be cooler than to discover that, not only are dinosaurs much more interesting than you were taught as a dinosaur-obsessed toddler, but that they are still around, haunting your backyard and perhaps even perching on your shoulder?!); rodents; snakes, lizards, and chelonians; horses and dogs. I like babirusas a whole lot. Fish. Mollusks, especially cephalopods. You name it.

Too many legs kind of exclude a lot of things with exoskeletons from my list of loves—spiders, I readily admit, give me the creeps. But I am considerate of their lives and their rights, because I give a lot of people the creeps, too, and I know all about how innocent and helpful Our Friends the Arachnids are. In fact, over many years of trying to educate myself out of my apparently in-born phobia of spiders, I have developed an intellectual appreciation of their form and function, to the extent that I understand they would be beautiful if I could actually get over said phobia. At fifty, I have pretty much given up becoming an actual arachnophile, but then I don’t scream and jump up on chairs anymore either. . . unless it’s a really BIG spider, moving very quickly. Then there’s no predicting my behavior.

I live near a large urban drainage canal, and lots of interesting creatures inhabit it—huge carp, for example, ducks, blue and green herons, and feral nutria. The latter, for some strange reason, often come to my neighborhood to die; we had one inhabit our backyard once for several months before it expired. They eat grass; the lawn has never looked so good.

Rats are another fact of life near water, and my property has occasionally been colonized by these amazing little freeloaders. Rattus norvegicus, the brown or Norway rat, is also the familiar domestic or pet rat. You’ll read a lot of nonsense saying that while pet rats are sweet and nice and clean, the wild rat is a violent savage and the two are not to be confused.

While Ganesha’s “rat” may be a mouse or a an Indian bandicoot, it has that rodent mojo. (Indian bandicoots are not true bandicoots.)

Admittedly, “pet” rats have been bred for thousands of generations for tractability, calmness, and color, and they are far, far less likely to carry zoonotic infections. Stay the hell away from wild rats on this account; especially sick or dead ones (though it’s a service to owls, dogs, cats, and other possible scavengers to dispose of them, since they may be dying of poison transmissible to other species). Rat bites from any source are also no joke.

That said, wild rats are, while less inclined to be pals with humans, are just as intelligent (maybe more so) and just as interesting as tame ones.

I’d enjoyed watching wild rats interacting in vacant lots when I lived in a big city, but I’d never gotten up close and personal with them until one summer a few years ago. I had a cage with a couple of pet lady rats in it who kept me company when working in the art studio in my garage. A wild gentleman rat was probably originally attracted by their alluring scent; I first became aware of him when he was politely offering my excited girls his huge football-shaped scrotum to sniff.

To their frantic disappointment I moved the girls, because of course the diseases wild rats may carry are also easily transmissible to pet rodents, but I wasn’t sure what to do about the uninvited company. So I thought about it for a week or two.

One night he apparently hadn’t noticed me quietly engaged in the studio, and was paralyzed with fright when I turned to look at him sneaking in the doorway. I froze; he froze. After about a minute, moving verrrry slooooowly, he proceeded on his way to my potter’s kickwheel. Turned out he was stashing food underneath the flywheel. After another trip or two he lost all fear of me (as long as I made no sudden moves) and danced back and forth over and over, occasionally even frisking on his way, particularly chuffed by some premium bit of offal. You have to admire the quick learning, as well as the chutzpah.

Eventually he was live-trapped and relocated, and I kinda missed him.

Another live-trapped inhabitant, a very young female, would grab the bars of the trap, look me right in the eye, and scream, which I also admired. It suggested not only defiance, but that she did understand I was an entity, and the one keeping her in durance vile, moreover.

I have also used kill-traps, I’ll admit, because wild rats can be extremely destructive and dangerous and some are too clever to climb into a live trap; also, I hear there’s some evidence that relocating wild animals (and it’s a long drive to a place where no one will object to a released rat) usually results in their demise. Frankly, I’d rather they went to feed an owl family or a fox than into the landfill, but sometimes needs must.

I find rats, wild or otherwise, to be cute.

I mentioned a very, very early crush on Mighty Mouse; I was about four. It’s also relevant to mention that, with the exception of Flipper and Pongo from 101 Dalmations, all my Talking Animal crushes were on rodents. I still fall in love all over again with Ratty, the gentle poet who doesn’t like to disappoint people, when I re-read The Wind in the Willows; and I loved dashing Reepicheep in the Narnia books. (A quick poll of other odd ladies shows Reepicheep to have been a favorite among literary little girls prone to crushes on Talking Animals).

A friend of mine recently mentioned in a social media forum that her pet rats had helped alert her to an unseen entity which was hovering over her head. So you see pets rats can be useful as well.

Humans are the most invasive and destructive species I know of, and rats just came along for the ride. Rats are extraordinarily intelligent for their size, but I don’t think they’re capable of evil or genuine cruelty. They’re just getting by the way they know how. They don’t know it’s your food, your wiring, your compost, your cutlery drawer; they just think it’s a neat place to find food or a cozy nook to hang out in. No rat, as far I know, ever intentionally spread bubonic plague (and anyway that was Rattus rattus, the black rat, and I’m not acquainted with them personally). I’m not going to compare rats to humans on a case-by-case basis, but the inference is clear: who is really the big problem?

So, in closing, here’s a shout-out to the hundreds of wonderful rats I have known: Bernie and Justin and Diamond Grey; the especially magnificent Necrotia X Fiendish; Miss Ng; Badass Ramses Pazuzu and his crazy sister; James Bond, the truly frightening rat who mellowed in his old age; Moddie Moloch Littlemouse; Daisy and Rashid; Justine and the rest of my many lovely studio companions.

Just being a rat.

Thank you for just being rats.

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