Burt, Jonathan. 2004. Rat. London: Reaktion.
(Summarized by Jeanette Eckert, Animal Studies Graduate Program, Michigan State University)
This book covers the evolutionary lineage of rats, how humans have perceived and represented them throughout history, and how we have interacted with them. The book is organized by the rat’s natural history, their representation in art and writing, their use in science, their relationship to human diseases, and their use as food and pets. While the introduction and first chapter present some objective facts about rats, the focus of the book is primarily on the relationship between rats and humans. The author seems to remain fairly objective on the subject, sharing both the positive and negative qualities of the rat but does not seem to revere them nor disparage them.
In their natural history (Chapter 1), Burt writes about how they evolved over time to become the species we have today. He explains that it can be difficult to know the exact time frame of rodent evolution, but says that the order Rodentia likely evolved about 55 million years ago. About 3o million years ago came the family Myomorphia. The divergence of rats and mice came about 14 million years ago, although this is just an estimate. The earliest known archaeological remains of rats are from 3500 BC, in Sardinia. There is archaeological evidence of rats in Iraq and Egypt in around 1500 BC. Rats made it to Britain around 100-200 AD, and reached North America by the year 1565. Rats likely originated in Southeast Asia, and have spread throughout the world following the same transport networks as humans, essentially following us wherever we have gone. The book focuses primarily on the brown and black rats, as they are the most common.
Burt also discusses the various myths and misconceptions about rats that historians had until recent history when we developed a better understanding of them (Chapter 2). For example, rat feces were at one time thought to be a cure for hair loss. A French historian writing in the 1700s claimed that the reason cats were so aloof, compared to more loyal dogs, is that eating rats causes forgetfulness in the cats, and thus they don’t remember their owners.
There are numerous examples of representations of rats throughout history, and they are contradictory (Chapter 3). They were often seen as a sign of something negative. Before it was understood the role that rats played in the spread of diseases, they were viewed as harbingers of disease. It was also thought that if you saw rats fleeing a structure, the structure was about to collapse. Similarly, if you saw rats fleeing a ship, you ought to follow them for the ship was sinking. They were often used as an insult to other races or ethnicities in writing, as they were often thought of as the lowest rung of biological evolution. Biblical representations of the rat deemed them unclean and taboo.
But there are positive representations of rats in history as well. In some fables, they are the hero, using trickery or their ability to gnaw through things and save the protagonist of the story. Burt also discusses the role of rats in Hindu culture, where they are considered lucky and even sacred. He highlights a temple in India where thousands of rats live and are worshiped.
Chapter 4 discusses the role of the rat in scientific experimentation and research. Highlighting again the parallel existence of the rat and human, Burt says that the use of rats in research that benefits humans is the ultimate substitution; the exploitation of the rat for human gain. The chapter highlights a variety of ways rats are used in research, including a myriad of medical studies as well as psychological ones. The use of rats for research accelerated in the 1800s and by 1906, standardized albino rats were being bred for use in labs. Rats make an ideal lab subject because of their small size, easy manageability, and quick reproduction, and today are used in countless types of medical research ranging from the study of diseases and the effectiveness of medications.
Chapter 5 further explores the relationship between rats and disease, which had been touched in the previous chapters. While humans had long noticed a correlation between the presence of rats and disease, it wasn’t until 1896 that it was understood that rats carried fleas, and fleas carried the plague. When an outbreak of the plague broke out in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1900, Chinese immigrants were blamed. But by the time another outbreak occurred in 1907, the link between rats and the plague was clear, and the city embarked on an eradication program that killed at least 350,000 rats and studied them.
The final chapter explores the various relationships we have with rats today, as pets, vermin and food. The modern trend of keeping rats for pets, and even entering them in pet shows, began around 1900. At the same time, the rat eradication/pest control industry continues to boom, with humans trying a number of ways to keep wild rats out of their homes and yards. And despite their common characterization as vermin, there are parts of the world, such as places in India and Asia, where hunting and eating rats is common. The final chapter ties together the theme throughout the book that rats are complex and contradictory creatures, and our relationships with them are also contradictory.