Today’s blog post is about an animal that has become indispensable in the genres of horror and vampires: the rat.
Rodents are part of the order Rodentia, which consists roughly of 29 different families and some 1,800 species. Rodents live in all sorts of habitats, with Antarctica being the only exception to their world-wide domination.
Rodents are rapid breeders and can have between 1 to 20 offspring in one litter. Their lifespan can be anything from a short 6 months to a surprisingly long 10 years.
Brown rats have become the staple “villain” of vampire lore – who could ever forget their cinematic antics in Werner Herzog’s version of Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) – or indeed the furore about the cruel treatment the rats allegedly received at the hands of Herzog and his film crew?
In history brown rats are largely blamed for the spread of the plague and their very existence caused ancient Egyptians to befriend cats in their temples to protect grain stores from being raided by our intrepid little ratty. In Willow the Vampire and the Würzburg Ghosts rats will have their great entrance in my continuing saga – but you’ll have to wait a while longer, before you can read about that!
Brown rats walk on the soles of their feet and use their toes to grip on to things when they climb, making them fast and very agile. Their long, scaly tail balances out their elongated bodies. Rats have a pointy snout, large ears, big button eyes and twitching noses with sensitive whiskers.
Anyone who’s ever been to London will know that brown rats are totally unafraid of humans and these rodents can reach enormous sizes. The Pixar animated movie Ratatouille (2007) may have done something to change our attitude towards rats, but I doubt it will be enough to endear the little master-thieves to us for long.
Rats are very courageous and when cornered, will turn to fight their attackers. They are also resourceful and very clever. Years ago I lived in a railway cottage in Surrey and the embankment behind our garden was always teaming with rabbits. One day rats moved in and drove out the rabbits to take over their burrows. Some of the rats that came out at dusk were nearly as large as rabbits – no wonder the bunnies took to their heels and found themselves a new home!
Rats are adaptable and fast learners; as a result they have long been the victims of sadistic scientists who think anything goes in the name of scientific advancement – after all, under the guise of “for the greater good of mankind” scientists, who make breakthrough discoveries in the medical or pharmaceutical field can reap huge rewards…what do the lives of a few million animals matter when so much money is at stake?
Throughout my cancer treatment – which I didn’t want and would have been far happier to do without – I kept thinking how many of these animals had to die a terrible death just to keep one middle-aged and on the whole pretty useless woman alive. There is enough compelling evidence that animal testing is wasteful and not a great deal of use either, so why do such obscene practices continue? Because somebody is making a great deal of money out of ratty and his friends!
We may be scared of rats, we may not like the look of their scaly tales and their twitching whiskers but where would we be without them? We owe them a debt of gratitude that goes way beyond what we could ever repay in rice, popcorn, half-eaten burgers or carelessly thrown away chips.
Next time you throw a drinks can at a rat or shoo it away, as you’re crossing the street when you come out of Waterloo Station, spare a thought for the Eastern wood rat, a cute little member of the rodent family, or the Hispid cotton rat or the Marsh rice rat, a semiaquatic omnivore, who lives a solitary nocturnal life in South Eastern USA, Northern Venezuela and Northern Peru.
Just remind yourself of the great adventure for the greater good of humanity that ratty is braving every day!