BOOKS: The Story of Rats

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2002:

The Story of Rats: Their impact on us, and our impact on them
by S. Anthony Barnett
Allen & Unwin (c/o Independent Publishers Group, 814 North Franklin
St., Chicago, IL 60610), 2001. 216 pages, paperback. $14.95.

“Early in the Second World War,” explains the back cover of
The Story of Rats, “Tony Barnett was drafted into the sewers,
wharves, food stores, and other rat-infested environments offered
by a London bombed nightly by the Luftwaffe.”
Now emiritus professor of zoology at the Australian National
University, Barnett has studied how to kill rats ever since,
including for many years as more-or-less a Pied Piper hired to rid
India of rat problems. Bennett has also extensively studied the
domestication of rats for laboratory use.

In both pursuits, Barnett found investigation of rat
intelligence essential. Most of The Story of Rats concerns his
findings about how rats think, including their tendency to avoid
unfamiliar objects. This, Bennett argues, is why rats tend to
learn to avoid traps and poisoned grain. Barnett applied this
finding to become a very successful rat-killer.
Little of The Story of Rats actually explores “their impact
on us, and our impact on them,” in any dimension other than pest
control. Barnett only briefly discusses how rats have affected human
history and culture, and barely considers at all the role of rats in
urban ecology, as a major predator of mice and in turn the primary
prey of street dogs.
Nor does Barnett show appreciation of rat individuality. He
would probably dismiss as anecdotal the story of eight-month-old Fido
the rat, who at two a.m. on April 12, 1998, was in his cage on the
ground floor of the Lisa Gumbley home in Torquay, Devon, U.K..
Gumbley, 29, was asleep upstairs with daughters Megan, 9, and
Shannon, 3. As an electric heater shorted out, setting fire to the
carpet and furniture, Fido somehow managed to unfasten the door to
his cage. Then, instead of racing outside or away, Fido climbed 15
eight-inch steps to scratch at the bedroom door until Megan awakened,
discovered the fire, and alerted the others, including the family
dog. All escaped safely.
The traditional scientific rebuttal to such heroic animal
stories is that the animal only sought to save himself–but heat and
smoke rise, and dogs kill rats.
Was Fido as desperate as the World Trade Center victims who
raced to the rooftop, were unable to get out, and so leaped through
windows to certain death?
Or did Fido have a latent capacity for altruism and heroism
which could be stimulated in other rats by giving them kind treatment
similar to his experience?
Professor John K. Chapin of the State University of New
York’s Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn is taking an invasive
approach to betting on the latter. Chapin and colleagues disclosed
in the May 2 edition of Nature that they have surgically implanted
wires in rats’ brains which direct the rats to turn left or right by
simulating the touch of whiskers that suggests turning to a rat. and
rewards a turn in the requested direction with a pleasurable
sensation similar to being stroked. Each rat carries a backpack with
a radio antenna and a tiny video camera that transmits an image of
whatever is in front of the rat to Chapin’s laptop computer.
Chapin and team envision using “bionic rats” to help in jobs
such as combing the rubble of the World Trade Center to locate buried
survivors, penetrating caved-in mineshafts, and detecting landmines.
“Unlike robots, animals can quickly adapt to new terrain,”
explained Kenneth Craig of The New York Times. “The researchers were
able to take rats who had never been outdoors and get them to climb
trees, scurry along branches, turn around, and come back down.”
Robots, so far, cannot do any of this.
“A wireless computer network could ferry data among a pack of
rats so that if one rat were out of direct contact with the operator,
its signal could still be transmitted through the network,” wrote
Craig. “Over time, perhaps people could learn to like rats.”
Agreed Chapin, “Maybe if it becomes widely known that there
are these rescue rats, people wouldn’t be scared” to see a rat.

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