As a general rule, I don’t like rats. With a few exceptions, most people I know are of the same opinion. I appreciate what they’ve done for science, and they can be cute sometimes, but like most of humanity, I don’t think I will ever get past my negative conception of them. The readings this week (particularly Burt) made me question the roots of my disdain for these creatures, something I’ve never thought about before. For me, I’m sure its mostly a product of societal views projected via literature, film, and language, but how did society come to have those views in the first place? I liked that Burt went into the many reasons mankind started demonizing Rattus sp., but I think he missed something. Sure, they carry disease and live in the shadows and are usually surrounded by sewage and death and destruction, but I think there’s a more basic root of our dislike for rats, and those factors just intensified it. I think it comes down to biology (I am a biologist, so big surprise there). We are genetically programmed to be more attracted to species that are more similar to us- and rats may not be that different, but they’re different enough. They have a long pointed snout; we have a flat face. They have small eyes; we prefer large ones. They have a long tail, sharp teeth, are nocturnal, the list goes on. There is a similar distaste among people for animals with similar habits and feature- the mongoose, for example, or the ferret. However, although hamsters and gerbils (even mice) are pretty closely related to rats, the instinctual aversion isn’t there. What’s different about these animals? Their features are a bit more similar to ours, so they’re cute. So we excuse other behaviors which may not otherwise endear them to us, and focus on their evil twin, the rat.
Burt seems to think that we should give rats a chance. In Radar’s writings, Little also believes they should be viewed more positively for the good they are doing mankind (by the way, it seems crazy to me that at one point in time scholars of medicine and genetics refused to acknowledge the interrelatedness of their work, considering how integrated it is today…that’s really another story though). But is the demonization of rats in general necessarily a bad thing? For one thing, it has had health benefits. We tend to avoid rats or drive them away, and so reduce our exposure (and the exposure of our pets and food animals) to the disease-carrying arthropods they ferry around. Our distaste for them has encouraged us to put more effort into their extermination (there was a whole profession and breed of dog created specifically for that purpose), which may have helped make sure the population is controlled and not about to explode. Forget about robots and zombies, we’re more likely to be overrun by rodents if we don’t keep their numbers down. But I think the most important consequence of our society’s demonization of rats is that we don’t really care about their rights- at least, not nearly as much as we care about other animals which are considerably cuter or more human-like- so we can use them in countless aspects of medical and psychological research without dealing with an ethical dilemma. Rats and mice aren’t nearly as protected as other lab animals, and as Radar and Shapiro point out, their use in experimental procedures has been behind huge breakthroughs which have led to an infinitely better understanding of the human body, mind, and disease. Where would we be today without the use of lab rats? I believe that turning the rat into a friendlier face would diminish their historical efficacy as a useful and convenient research tool- as Shapiro says,
“Arluke indicated that the lab animal becomes ‘pet’ when the ‘process that transforms the animal into object is not fully effective’” (Shapiro, p. 457)
I’m not trying to advocate prejudice, but there are a lot of good reasons why we might want to keep rats in a more negative light, even if it may not seem fair to their cute little faces. When speaking of the similarities of man and rat, Burt quotes:
“…Neither of them is of the slightest earthly use to any other species of living things.” (Burt, p. 13)
We’ve changed that for rats- they’re incredibly important to us. Would that still be true if we had viewed them as animals with equal rights to dogs and cats? I’m not sure it would, and personally I’m ok with less rights for rats if it could mean curing cancer.