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8 may 2011

I'm no Winston Smith, but I don't like rats very much. I associate one of the worst times in my life with the house where I lived, where an intractable army of rats colonized the attic and resisted every effort I made to evict them. Rats are like bad people, as James Cagney used to imply. They have the tenacity, heedlessness of others, and sense of entitlement that we like least about the worst examples of ourselves. Like bad people, they are also ubiquitous.

Jonathan Burt is series editor of the Reaktion Animal books. His volume Rat was not one of the very first, but it came early in the series and serves as a model for its best features. Burt includes some natural history of the rat, but moves almost at once to a meta-consideration of what natural-history writers have intended in their discussions of rats. Rat rhetoric, if you will: the realities of rats are always being mediated through language and discourse.

This is so because, unlike polar bears or octopuses, common rats barely have an existence apart from humanity. They don't just happen indifferently to hang out in the same habitats as us, like crows or owls. They live where we live and move where we move. We are rat habitat. And unlike other species that have evolved in tandem with people, like dogs and camels, we don't like it that way.

At one point Burt refers to the rat as "commensal." The Latin roots of the word indicate that the rat shares a table with us. It sounds better than "parasitic," but the distinction can be a somewhat technical one. (In ancient Rome, parasites were people who dined out at others' expense: table-sharers too.) In biology, parasites eat you, and commensals eat your food. If you don't have enough food, that can be much of a muchness.

Though to say something faint in their favor, it's true that rats don't positively eat humans unless the humans are very helpless or very provoking. Humans are much more likely to eat rats. Dried rat snacks are a Chinese delicacy, and deep-fried rat appears to be a Filipino favorite (145). I reckon it all tastes like chicken. An enduring urban legend about American fast food is that rat tastes like chicken because a non-zero percentage of the chicken in our buckets is extra-crispy rat.

Burt discusses rats in art, myth, literature, and film; he takes a look at the "rat fancy," the practice of hobbyists breeding rats for pets and shows. Much of the latter portion of Rat is taken up with rats as scientific subjects. Millions of rats exist only for experimental purposes. Not only do we live with these rats, but in a strong sense we've created them. One of the odder blind alleys of 20th-century science was the further insistence that we could learn important things about our minds from the study of how these purpose-built rats ran mazes. In Burt's analysis, rat-running psychology is the funhouse mirror of human self-contemplation.

Burt, Jonathan. Rat. London: Reaktion, 2006.