It’s not something you’re born with. Like hatred of people whose skin is a different hue, or disrespect for those of a different gender or sexuality, fear of rats has to be learned.
But it goes deep. The very word “rat” is used to mean a traitor. The rat’s image is used to depict slyness, evil, insidious threat. Horror stories are written about them.
Perhaps it’s simply because the brown rat, rattus norvegicus, is the most widespread mammal in the world after humans. Which, I suppose, makes it a competitor, of a sort. What’s more, rats are so well adapted to making a living scavenging on humans’ waste that they tend to go where we go. Their evolution has been inseparable from our own.
I was watching a rat the other day. Having climbed easily up the metal pole, it was balancing on the curved arm of a bird-feeder, trying to reach the seed in one of the hanging containers. First it tried stretching out with its little pink forepaws to reach one. Having just failed, it then shifted position, using its tail for balance, and tried to reach out for the other. No go. But it had set the feeder swinging slightly, so that after shinning back down the pole it was rewarded with a mouthful or two of fallen seed.
Good for you, ratty, I thought. A bit of success for intelligence and dexterity. A lovely thing to see. Setting received prejudice aside, this bright-eyed, sleek-furred, healthy rat was delightful.
Maybe it’s time the rat was re-branded. OK, you wouldn’t welcome one in your house. Then again, I wouldn’t want a wild bird in the house, either, but I love seeing them in the garden.
The rat’s success in living around humans makes you wonder how it would fare in a post-human world. It also makes it – along with the cat, some birds and latterly the fox – an unusual sort of creature.
I’ve often wondered how wildlife would fare if we weren’t around. And there’s a great – though unintentional – experiment that provides a convincing answer.
When the nuclear power station at Chernobyl in Ukraine blew up in April 1986 it was a disaster on a grand scale. For humans. For the wild things it was a blessing in disguise.
Not the accident itself, which exposed them to the same radioactive contamination peril that caused 100,000 people to be permanently evacuated from an exclusion zone of 1,600 square miles. But the evacuation was good news for the animals.
A study published in the journal Current Biology reveals the exclusion zone to be teeming with wild boar, deer of several species, wolves, bears, lynx – and all the smaller animals and birds the predators need to survive on. It’s a striking success for re-wilding.
But as Professor Jim Smith of Portsmouth University, leader of the study team, says: “This doesn’t mean radiation is good for wildlife. Just that the effects of human habitation – hunting, farming, forestry – are a lot worse.”