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OK, so our Year of the Rat celebrations have engendered some reader pushback against the maligned rodents, and I can certainly understand that, considering some of the unhappy rat/human collaborative efforts from history (like, uhhhh, the bubonic plague or sundry deep famines).  And, likewise, I completely understand how unnerving it can be when a scabrous piece of the subway wall detaches itself from the general gloom and runs over your foot like a gray hell imp (this is particularly demoralizing after being pushed around by New York crowds all week while desperately trying to hold on to a semblance of sanity commuting to and from your meaningless dayjob).

Yet, despite (ten thousand years of) these bad rat moments, rats are worthy of our respect; not because of their enormous worldwide success, nor their astonishing resilience, nor their acute intelligence (although all of those things are indeed true and respectable), but because of something unexpected–their morality and compassion.

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A landmark University of Chicago laboratory experiment from 2011 presented lab rats with a dilemma. A subject rat was given a choice of  helping an unknown fellow rat trapped in a narrow, scary, and uncomfortable plastic tube (which could only be opened by the subject rat nudging a finicky and unpleasant latch), or eating chocolate.  It is worth noting that rats like chocolate as much as we do.  The NIH summarized the experiment results thusly:

To test how much value the rats placed on liberating a trapped cagemate, the scientists presented rats with 2 restrainers — one with a rat inside and another containing 5 chocolate chips, a favorite rat snack. A free rat could choose to eat all the treats himself by opening the chocolate restrainer first or blocking the entrance to the chocolate restrainer. But the researchers found that the free rats opened the restrainers in no consistent order and allowed their liberated cagemates an average of 1.5 chips. When an empty restrainer was paired with a chocolate-containing one, the free rats ate all 5 chocolates.

To summarize: the rats helped the other rats and then shared the chocolate! Here are some full descriptions of the study.  You should read them and run it through in your head.  Maybe imagine if you were caught in something like this with terrifying alien scientists, a rando human stranger, and a satchel with millions of dollars in it. Would you behave as well as the rats?  Would you try to help or would you try to escape the lunatic aliens with the money as fast as possible? Would you free the other human and then take 3.5 million dollars and give them 1.5 million? Really? Reallllly?

No study about the emotions or virtues of animals would be complete without a loud and peevish set of detractors coming forth to claim that the conclusions are misconstrued (or some form of anthropomorphism).  The “only humans have actual feelings and thoughts” crowd assessed the 2011 study and found it lacking because perhaps the subject rat wanted the companionship of the stranger rat trapped in the tube or something.  It seems to me the original study took such concerns into account by creating scenarios in the which the second rat, once freed, was still separated from the subject rat (this did not alter the experiment’s outcome). However, to placate the naysayers, the neural scientists sighed heavily and created an even more harrowing ordeal in which rats had to risk drowning (or so it seemed to them) in order to help a stranger rat who seemed to be drowning. Once again the rats performed with admirable integrity and heroism.  An additional wrinkle was that the rats who had been trapped in the water as the “victim rat” acted more quickly to save their distressed fellows when they were given the role of subject rat.

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To my ears, that sounds like a textbook definition of empathy.  All of this does! Rats have hearts. They are capable of compassion and nobility.  Guanyin also holds rats in her ineffable embrace. As she listens to the cries of the world she hears their horrified squeaks to their families as we trap and poison them.

I confess that such a thought is deeply disquieting to me. I have been guilty of treating rats like vermin.  Yet I have talked to people with pet rats and I am not really surprised.  It has long been obvious to people of good conscience and reasonable observational abilities that almost all mammals (and a distressing number of birds and fish) have rich and soulful emotional lives.  They are not machines made of meat (or, at least, not more so than we humans are too).  They have souls, whatever that means.  Probably a lot of religious people are cursing me to their made-up gods, but I bet most people with pets are biting their lips and thoughtfully nodding.

I don’t know what to do with this knowledge. Our world is a cruel world of savage competition and appetite.  I eat certain mammals and birds.  I live in rat-free dwellings! It’s how I live! It’s what I have always done… yet more and more I worry that I live thoughtlessly in the jeweled master bedroom of a vast palace of cruelty.

But we are not seeking facile and comfortable answers here. We are seeking the truth, and that can be a narrow path of daggers which cut your heart. If you want soothing lies which confirm all of your biased feelings, go become an evangelical [REDACTED]ian.

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uhhhh….

 

 

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Pseudoscience, quackery, “magic”, and deceptive supernatural practices meant to defraud people (often including the practitioner…for our need to believe in things is deep and desperate indeed) are as old as humankind, but I doubt that many schools of augury are quite as outwardly preposterous as myomancy, divination by means of rats and mice.

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The Romans were into augury of every sort, but they seem to have had a particular fondness for myomancy, and Pliny the Elder refers to it directly several times in his histories (although, in the end, all that study of rat augury doesn’t seem to have kept him safe from unexpected volcanic eruptions).  Myomancy could be “practiced” by freeing rats or mice and seeing which way they fled, by watching the rodents navigate mazes/pictograms, or by simply observing their lives in the wild.

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This last “wild” myomancy was perhaps the most highly regarded, yet it was also the most rare and spontaneous.  Mice and rats were sometimes thought to scream out before a disaster…or to just run away before a calamity.   If rats suddenly fled a house or community, it was thought to be bad luck of the most astonishing sort. Likewise. if a huge number of rats or mice simply appeared, it betokened a coming war or illness.  If rodents were spotted gnawing clothing (or, worse, armor or military equipment) it was regarded as a sign of incipient defeat.

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Now, animals perhaps don’t have occult connections to the forces of fate and divinity, but they have extreme sensory acuity (or sometimes they have entire senses we lack!).  Modern scientists have noticed that animals, particularly rats and mice, can predict earthquakes or extreme weather events.  Rats and mice are sensitive to air changes which betoken fire, pollution, or anoxygenic conditions.  Additionally, if a bunch of rats suddenly appear seemingly out of nowhere it is a pretty dire sign that something has gone very wrong with some fundamental link in an ecosystem.  Famine or pestilence may indeed be on the way.  The link between rats and bubonic plague is direct and (now) well known.  If rats start stumbling out of the woodwork and dying, collect all of your strongest antibiotics and RUN.

So I started this post by belittling myomancy, which certainly sounds less august than reading the stars or speaking to the dead or what have you.  However, on closer examination, it seems like myomancy might provide some real and useful information, which other schools of augury lack entirely.  This is not because myomancy is magical, but instead because rats and mice are clever and sensitive and must stay hyper-alert to survive in a world of poisons, predators, giants, and catastrophes.  Pliny the Elder was one of the forefathers of the natural sciences–perhaps we can still learn some things from him (see more next week), so keep an eye out for mysterious rodent happenings.  You never know what they will tell you! If Pliny hadn’t gotten distracted by the giant mushroom cloud above Vesuvius, he probably would have noticed rats running the other way as fast as they could.

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Two Rats (Masatami. Late 19th century), ivory netsuke

My favorite rat artworks are not from China (nor from the canon of Western Art–where rats tend to be depicted as vile little monsters), but from another East Asian culture which keeps the same lunar calendar and recognizes some of the same symbolic associations.   Here is a small gallery of endearing and playful rat pictures from Japan.

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Treasure Boat with Three Rats (Kubo Shunman, 1816, (year of the rat)), woodblock print

I wish I could explain all of the puns, allusions, and anthropomorphized fables behind these images, but, alas, I cannot.  You will have to enjoy the rats relatively free of context (although I note that the ratties seem to be hungry adventurers…and several of the artworks come from rat years which occurred hundreds of years ago).

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Three Rats (Kono Bairei,1889 (Year of the Rat)) Diptych woodblock print in pastel shades

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Man and Huge Rat (Kunisada, ca. 19th century) woodblock print

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Figures from ” Chingan sodate gusa ” published in 1787

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Rats and fish (Kyosai Kawanabe, 1881) woodblock print

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YEAR OF THE RAT, MID 19TH CENTURY, SURIMONO, COLOUR

One thing that does jump out is that the Japanese found reasons to be charmed and pleased by the curiosity, bravery, and altruism of rats.  Even in the twentieth century, when American cultural influences weigh more heavily on the Japanese canon, there is still an independent likability to these rats.  Do you see it? Do you have any favorite Japanese rat images of your own?

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Toy Rat (Japanese, 20th Century) Plastic

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Happy Year of the Metal Rat!  The Chinese new year 4717 really started on January 25th, 2020, however, since the celebration is ongoing (as is the year!), let’s talk about what we can expect from a rat year.  In the twelve year Chinese zodiac cycle, the rat comes first (which means we are starting a whole new cycle).  The folklore reason that the rat is the first year is humorous and instructive: the Jade Emperor hosted a party for the astrological animals and he decided that the order of years would be set by when they arrived at the party.  The rat rode to the party on the stalwart ox’s back but then when he saw the party food (or maybe the supreme monarch of heaven), he distracted the ox and leaped across the threshold first!

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As pictured in this stirring artwork…

In the non-zodiac world, there are quite a few people who have a negative opinion of (real) rats, but Chinese astrology in no way shares this outlook concerning the versatile rodent.  Rats are regarded as clever, successful, optimistic, and likable. Because of their ability to survive and reproduce even in harsh or inimical circumstances, rats are seen as symbolic of resourcefulness and fertility (it seems like Chinese culture-makers were actually paying attention to how rats came by their worldwide success).  People born in rat years are regarded as problem solvers who are good with money and have the ability to turn unexpected problems into opportunities (tigers, like me, are instead gifted with the ability to turn unexpected problems into histrionic emotional events…but fortunately we also have the ability to make everything about ourselves).

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How did this beautiful and stirring tiger get in here?

Metal rats are most famed for…uh having a predictable and stable life (sigh). So I guess children born into this year can expect to live a life utterly unlike this year.  Also, apparently rats’ lucky flower is the African violet and their unlucky color is brownish yellow.  It is extraordinary what can be learned during 4717 years!

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Actual rats are one of the most interesting and successful creatures in existence.  Their strategy…and their fate has mirrored humankind’s own strange journey, and our two species are rarely far apart.  Thus we will celebrate the year of the metal rat by talking more about actual rats during the course of the week.  So steel yourself, real rats are even more intelligent and likable than the fictional ones, but they are more relentless and disturbing as well.

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Before we get to that though, maybe enjoy some hot pot and dumplings while you can!  Humans and rats alike both know to take advantage of any opportunity for food and fun!

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