The secret life of rats

Smelly, dirty, disease-ridden – this rodent has endured a bad rap for centuries. Now a new film is hoping to change our attitudes towards rattus rattus. And about time too, says Michael McCarthy

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Demonisation is an enduring human impulse, not least when we look at the natural world. It is easy and perhaps even comforting, giving us an imagined hold on reality, to slip other living things into moral categories.

We like to think that, while bees are good, wasps are bad; while lions are noble, hyenas are savage; and while orchids are blooms, dandelions are weeds.

We probably do this because we feel reassured, in making such mental pictures, that in some way we can impose a pattern on the staggering diversity of existence, and centre it all upon ourselves. We want to feel that we are the most important bit of creation. We flee from the idea that we don't matter much.

In reality, of course, each of those organisms is simply following its own nature, and the moral categorisation of them, either upwards or downwards, has no roots whatsoever in the real world: it is entirely a product of our prejudices. Yet it is no less durable and hard to shift, for that. At the thought of a wasps' nest, not many people can suppress a shudder. Can you?

So how successful might a project be that attempts to rehabilitate one of these demonised reputations and turn an animal villain into an animal hero? You might think it hopeless to struggle against the tide of human culture; but if you were the creative types who run Pixar, the celebrated Hollywood animation studio that has brought us all those colossally successful movies, from Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. to Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, movies which were engaging precisely because they featured quite improbable characters, you would certainly think this: the idea has dramatic possibilities.

Even if the creature were a rat. Or, you might think down at the Pixar corporate headquarters, especially if that creature were a rat. I mean, rats – yeccch! Sewer rats. Rubbish-dump rats. Plague rats. You ratted on me, you dirty rat. Whaddya think? Mission impossible? Think we can turn a rat into a hero?

You betcha. Here he comes. He is name is Rémy, and on the let's-go-for-broke basis, in Pixar's new movie he lives in a place where a rat might excite more human antagonism than anywhere else – the kitchen of a leading French restaurant in Paris. But he doesn't only live there. He cooks there. This is a rat with a wholly new take on human food: rather than scavenging leftovers, he creates haute cuisine. This is the first rodent superchef.

The name of the movie, please suppress the groan, is Ratatouille, and it is doing solid box office: since it was released in the US at the end of June it has grossed nearly $430m (£215m) world-wide. You can see why. Dramatically, the inversion principle, the villain as hero, is a sound one – look at Bonnie and Clyde. Look at Macbeth, for that matter. But how far might this new take on rattiness go towards altering our anti-rat prejudice, our rattism, our ratophobia? How deeply embedded in us is that?

Perhaps not as deeply as we might at first think. Human demonisations of other creatures are not random; they are generated by encounters between us and them. It is the creatures we have known longest that feature most in our imagery. For example, the okapi, the shorter-necked relative of the giraffe, does not figure in our insults as it was only discovered in 1901. While plenty of people say, you dirty pig, and you dirty dog, nobody says you dirty okapi (as far as I know).

But you dirty rat ...Rats have undoubtedly been associated with humankind, as pests, since the dawn of agriculture and the first storage of grain, 10,000 years ago and more. Yet the image of the animal as a debased creature, one to be used in insult, does not seem to be a very ancient one.

It is a remarkable fact that there is no mention of rats in the Bible, in either th0e Old or the New Testaments. There are more than 40 mentions of dogs, virtually all of them unfavourable; they are regarded as unclean, and to compare someone to a dog is the grossest insult; but rats are nowhere.

Rats are also invisible in classical literature (the Romans did not differentiate between rats and mice, thinking merely that one lot were big and the other small). And even into the Middle Ages, rats barely touch the human imagination; and although it is true that rats were the principal vectors of bubonic plague, especially the Black Death which ravaged Europe in the late 1340s, people did not know that at the time.

Perhaps it was only with the major advances of urbanisation in the last 200 years, and the coming of large-scale sewerage systems, which rats took to opportunistically as a useful habitat, that we began to regard them as vile. If you think about it, around a farmyard, there is not all that much difference in character between a rat and a hedgehog; but if hedgehogs crawled out of the sewers every night to roam the streets of our towns and cities, we might look upon them very differently.

Away from the sewers, rats are generally healthy and robust small animals, which fall into two species: the black rat Rattus rattus and the brown rat Rattus norvegicus. The black rat was the original European rat, which lived on ships as well as land, and carried the plague across the continent. The brown rat that, despite its scientific name, came from Asia, arrived in Europe in the early 18th century and rapidly spread. Now it has displaced the black rat in much of Britain and Rattus rattus has become one of the UK's rarest mammals, surviving only on Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel and in parts of London's docklands.

Rattus norvegicus , on the other hand, has not only flourished in our sewers; it has given rise to the pet rat, a development that has allowed many people to see these animals differently. (It is thought that pet rats may have been first bred by Queen Victoria's ratcatcher, Jack Black, in the mid 19th century; the first pet rat show was held in 1901).

People who keep pet rats, often bred as all-white, find them sociable and intelligent animals, and no more trouble than other pets. We are even finding that, socially, rats have hidden depths.

Four years ago, two American researchers into neuroscience, Jaak Panksepp and Jeff Burgdorf, published a remarkable study suggesting, in essence, that rats could feel joy, could laugh, and even enjoyed being tickled. They discovered the animals emitted short, ultrasonic "chirping", inaudible to humans without special equipment, both during rough-and-tumble play with each other, and when "tickled", which resembled human laughter.

Humans have "tickle skin" – areas of the body that, when stimulated, generate laughter – and rats have something similar. When it was stimulated, the rats chirped. According to one account of the research: "The laughter is associated with positive emotional feelings and social bonding occurs with the human tickler, resulting in the rats becoming conditioned to seek the tickling.

"Additional responses to the tickling were that those that laughed the most also played the most, and those that laughed the most preferred to spend more time with other laughing rats. This suggests a social preference to other rats exhibiting similar responses.

"Although the research was unable to prove rats have a sense of humour, it did indicate rats can laugh and express joy."

Or as Panksepp and Burgdorf put it themselves, in the abstract of their paper, "Laughing rats and the evolutionary antecedents of human joy", published in Physiology and Behaviour, Vol 79: "Play and tickle-induced ultrasonic vocalisation patterns in rats may have more than a passing resemblance to primitive human laughter."

The laughing rat, eh? The rat that likes a bit of slap and tickle, just as we do. It's a far cry from the foul denizen of the sewers, the scurrying scavenger of the rubbish tip, the bringer of plague and death. It just goes to show the mental pictures we make of things, the "narratives", to use the post-modern concept, are not necessarily rooted in reality at all.

Does this mean that Ratatouille can alter the image of the rat completely? Who knows? It would certainly be a remarkable exercise in ... in ... what's that phrase we've alll being using recently? Oh yes. Brand decontamination.

But if David Cameron can do it for the Tories, then pretty much anything's possible.

The rat pack: a cultural history

* REMY

Ratatouille's Rémy is a resident of the Parisian sewer with an unlikely vocation as a gastronome, and the star of Pixar's latest animation. Forced by species discrimination to lurk behind the salt cellars of the world's greatest kitchens, he finds his niche as a culinary counsellor to a hapless young sous-chef.

* RATTY

Ratty and his friend Mole were co-stars in Kenneth Grahame's children's classic, The Wind in the Willows. Badger was the brains, and Toad had the charisma, but this pair of inseparable chums, who liked nothing better than messing about on the river together, were the heart.

* BEN

Michael Jackson's first solo number one was "Ben", a touching ode to friendship that provided a soundtrack to the film of the same name. Fans of the song and its sentiment, may have been surprised to find Michael's friend Ben was a rat.

* SCABBERS

Ron Weasley's pet Scabbers was a cause of bickering between the ginger teen and his friends Harry and Hermione, whose cat Crookshanks took a particular dislike to it. Crookshanks was vindicated when Scabbers turned out to be not a rat, but Timothy Spall in disguise.

* SAMUEL WHISKERS

A Beatrix Potter creation, Samuel Whiskers was a winning chap with a scoundrel's air. He and his wife Anna Maria did their best to wrap poor Tom Kitten up in a roly-poly pudding in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers.

* RIZZO

In a show with a fair few egos flying about, Rizzo the Rat was a scene-stealer par excellence, mugging his way unforgettably through the final season of The Muppet Show. He went on to star in the team's movie projects, developing a memorable comedy partnership with Gonzo.

* SPLINTER

Splinter was the mutated martial arts master who mentored the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He was the pet rat of a ninja who learnt his moves by mimicking his masterr.

* NICK AND FETCHER

The cameo kings of Nick Park's first feature film, Chicken Run.

* ROLAND RAT

A breakfast TV superstar during the 1980s, he single-handedly revived the fortunes of the ailing TV-AM with his whiskered wideboy schtick. With sidekicks Errol The Hamster and Kevin the Gerbil, he even had three UK chart hits, including "Rat Rapping".

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