Andrew Martin: They are clean, intelligent and cuddly. Let's hear it for the rat

A huge rise in its numbers should not stop us giving the maligned rodent more respect

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According to Britain's pest controllers, rats are on the march. The British rat population is now put at 80 million, having possibly grown by 40 per cent in the past ten years. Municipal spending cuts may be responsible, in particular the replacement of weekly with fortnightly refuse collections, a change that could now be permanent. No rat was available for comment.

If you ask me, it's about time rats got their act together in terms of PR, so what follows is my pitch for the job, aimed at all those people independent-minded enough to see the fun side of having rats around, and who, like me, believe it's time for a Re-Think on Rats.

The rat may carry a number of pathogens that can cause disease, as do all other rodents including the much more popular mouse, squirrel and fox. So what's been holding the rat back? Well, we have to start by confronting the "P" word head on. It's been almost seven centuries since the bubonic plague "swept" (notice the pejorative term) through Europe, yet rats everywhere are still trying to live it down.

Bubonic plague – it just sounds so terrible, and let's face it the alternative title "Black Death" does little to lighten the mood. Our first message must be that rats did not cause the plague, they were merely the unwitting carriers of the fleas which did. In any case, the rats that carried those fleas were black rats, a completely different species to the brown rat that predominates today. (The Latin name of the black rat is Rattus rattus, and I think there's an opening for a re-launch there along the lines of "The black rat – so good they named it twice".)

Need I mention that rats did not start the First World War either? Yes, they were there in the trenches, but rats live where humans live, taking advantage of the shelter humans create, and the food they leave behind. If humans are stupid enough to start a conflagration in which 40 million people die, then rats will be looking on because they – unlike humans – have no choice in the matter.

But to return to rat species... the Latin name of the common or brown rat of today is Rattus norvegicus, a tag that really ought to be ditched altogether. For a start, it means, Norwegian rat, and while we all love Norway, these rats are not from there; they originated in China – the whole Norway thing is a red herring.

Secondly, The Stranglers' thoroughly unpleasant debut album was called Rattus Norvegicus, and so the common rat is tied in with a track listing that gives a negative view of pretty much everything, with songs such as Ugly, Down In The Sewer, Hanging Around.

But the basic problem is that word "rat". It's impossible to say it with a smile on your face, so no wonder it lends itself to insults. An informer is "a rat"; there was James Cagney and "You dirty rat"; the tabloids have their "Love rats". We need a different word to conjure up a rat-like creature. It needs to be longer, gentler, more mellifluous, and right now I'm thinking... Womble.

Of course we'd have to look into the copyright, but if we could buy into that franchise, half the battle would be won. After all, as featured in today's The New Review, a group of Wombles is about to play Glastonbury. When was the last time a group of rats was asked to play there?

If we look at how the rat matches up to the Womble, the synergies are obvious. A rodent-like creature with brownish fur and a sharp snout? Lives in burrows under Wimbledon Common? (The law of averages says that with an 80 million rat population, there's bound to be some under Wimbledon Common). "Making good use of the things that we find/Things that the everyday folks leave behind"? In fact, that lyric describes the lifestyle of the average rat to a T.

Not all references to rats are bad and there are some positive depictions. Ratty in The Wind in The Willows is an attractive chap ("small neat ears and thick silky hair"), an expert oarsmen, and he saves Mole from drowning, although as a water rat he is only a distant cousin. In Cinderella, there's a friendly rat who – in a very rare lucky break for a member of his species – gets turned into a fine-liveried coachman. In the film Ratatouille, Remy is an endearing rat who aspires to become a chef, bravely confronting all the thoughtless prejudice facing any rat who wants to even enter a restaurant kitchen, let alone start handling food.

But generally speaking, the rat is confined to supporting roles in horror films and ghost stories, bad ones at that. So more needs to be done. You'll have ideas of your own but I'll start the ball rolling with Fantastic Mr Rat and Stuart (Quite) Little.

A quick word here about so called "giant rats" that everybody's always claiming to see. When someone says, "Coming back from the pub last night, I saw a rat in the road. It was as big as a cat, I tell you!" the key words are "coming back from the pub" and "last night". In other words, they were drunk, and they couldn't see properly. It was "as big as a cat" because it was a cat. Rats are shy. They are seldom seen "in public".

There was some blatant big rat-scaremongering in the Sherlock Holmes case referred to in The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire. Holmes says, "The Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson... It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not prepared." Even so, many writers have inflicted their own versions on the world, always in the most horrific terms. We need, therefore, to commission a big name writer – what about Sebastian Faulks? – who could create a story featuring this creature in a friendlier light: The Giant Rat of Sumatra... Saves the Day, or similar.

Another man we should sign up is Eric Jukes, the honorary secretary of the London & Southern Counties Mouse and Rat Club. Mr Jukes sounds like Ken Livingstone, and has all his way with words. In short, he is a brilliant defender of rats.

"A rat is highly intelligent and will come when called by name," said Mr Jukes. "They're also very clean animals. They like to be handled, but if you pick up a rat and put it down, it will immediately clean itself. I mean, a rat thinks you're dirty." But if they're so clean, I said, playing devil's advocate, why do they like living in sewers? "They don't like living in sewers," said Mr Jukes, sounding aggrieved. "But it's safe for them down there. A rat isn't going to get attacked by an owl in a sewer."

I mentioned another aspect of rat behaviour that might prove a "hard sell" with the public, namely the well-known tendency of cornered rats to leap for the throat of the nearest human. "How does the rat have any idea," said Mr Jukes when he'd stopped laughing, "of what your throat is or where your throat is?"

Mr Jukes has been keeping rats since 1968, "and I can honestly say I have never received a bite". I then mentioned my own experience of keeping a hamster. It bit me, my wife, both my sons and at least four friends. "And yet," I said to Mr Jukes, "it's the golden hamster, but only the brown rat. What's to be done about that?'

Mr Jukes thought it over for a while. "There is the blue rat," he said, "and speaking personally I'm a big fan of the silver fawn. And of course there's the platinum rat."

I think the way forward is now clear. Mr Jukes and six platinum rats at a central London press conference with all media invited, ASAP.

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