Rehabilitating the rat’s reputation

My friend was adamant. “There are no rats in my neighborhood!”

I’d stopped by for a visit to a lovely home in a decidedly upper-middle-class area of Seattle. On my way up to the door, I spied a big, grey rat scurrying among the garden plants. Since rats are ubiquitous, I didn’t find anything unusual about it.

The friend I was visiting was offended when I mentioned the rat. Not her fault really. Rats have a bad reputation. When we think of rats in western cultures, we think of stories such as

  • rats spreading plague in the dark days of the Black Plague
  • the Pied Piper ridding Hamelin of rats by piping an enchanting tune
  • scenes in horror films where hundreds of rats attack a bound victim
  • rats stowing on board ships
  • expressions such as “rat-faced”, “I smell a rat”, “rat on someone”, “dirty rat”

Rats are intelligent, social creatures. They don’t deserve their bad reputation. They need a new story that will rehabilitate their image. Maybe something that will make labs think twice about inflicting pain. A story that will bring respect to these much-maligned rodents.

And here it is. Bart Weetjens admires rats. He knows there are some things they do better than humans, like recognize odors. So he trained them and put them to work sniffing out land mines and tuberculosis. Turns out they trump humans and our machines many times over on both those tasks. And they ask little in return.

This TED video is twelve minutes long. Watch this, and you’ll have a new story about rats, a story that will make you look at them with respect.

This is important because so many of the stereotypes and misconceptions that divide us as people, that rip apart organizations and shatter families and plunge us into wars, are really a function of unhealthy, inaccurate, or incomplete stories. I’m not saying that telling a new story about rats would convince the fleas who feed on them not to spread diseases from rats to humans. I’m not naive enough to claim that if we all knew the stories of Osama bin Laden, Margaret Thatcher, Gandhi, and our next door neighbour, we’d usher in peace on earth.

But I do believe we’d be more careful with each other, our fellow creatures, and our planet if we acknowledged that our stories are always like the ones the blind men told about the elephant—predicated on our partial knowledge of any topic we broach.

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Robin Jarman - December 8, 2010

Amazing from a TB sufferer

storyroute admin - December 8, 2010

And to think a rat might have correctly diagnosed it much sooner!

Dale - December 8, 2010

Simply amazing! I love things that challenge my perception of the world, and this certainly does that. I so admire people who think outside the box.

storyroute admin - December 9, 2010

I’ve never been all that keen on rats as pets, but a working companion for such important work…now that’s something else.

Carol Mason - February 18, 2011

Thank you, Cathryn, for your insights into “categorization” so beautifully expressed.

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