by Tricia Dower
At the risk of being accused of appropriating someone else’s culture, may I remind you Chinese New Year begins today? The Year of the Rat. If you're a Rat, you're considered courageous and enterprising.
Rats are a symbol of good luck and wealth in China and Japan. And in India, there’s a rat-worshipping temple. In the West, we raise them as pets, enslave them for research, and fear them as infectious disease carriers.
Helping to fuel my antipathy for the creatures was George Orwell’s 1984 where Winston is taken to the infamous Room 101, strapped to a chair, his head clamped so that he cannot move, and shown a cage full of enormous, squirming rats. When he’s told the rats will leap onto his face and eat it, he cracks and betrays his lover.
The first non-human rat I can recall was one my father and the next door neighbour, Mr. Gardner, cornered one between our two houses. I was just a kid and it looked gigantic as it reared up on its hind legs and challenged Mr. Gardner’s spade. “Get in the house,” Dad said.
I didn’t see another one until in my early thirties and on an early autumn trip to New York. Strolling into Central Park one crowded lunchtime, I spotted a man wearing a red toque, fishing in the pond in the southeast corner of the park. That pond looked so murky and dead, it was hard to believe it could support bacteria much less fish. He had a big, simple smile for everyone who went by. Part of New York City’s charm is that it’s full of nuts. I sat on a nearby bench and watched him cast. He must have been watching me, too, because before long he turned to me and said, “Don’t move. There’s a big rat behind you. When I tell you to, get up slowly and walk toward me.” Yeah, sure. But, what the hell. With all eyes on me, I followed his instructions. Once safely away, I turned and saw a huge rat under the bench where I’d been sitting. Maybe there were fish in that pond.
Flash forward to 2005 in Toronto and a smallish rat, but a rat, nonetheless, skittering across the stone steps in our backyard and nosing its way through the dill and parsley. I talked to the neighbour behind us who said, nosiree, it wasn’t his open compost heap with the corn cobs and egg shells in plain view. He fingered the guy on the corner of the street, a junk collector who’d been told by a city inspector to clean up his place. We didn’t see the rat for a while and thought it was gone until Colin opened the barbecue one evening and slammed it back down again. “I don’t know which of us was more surprised,” he said.
So, there you have it: only three rats, so far, in an already long life. How about you? Do you count rats as pests or pets? Tell us about your close encounters of the rat kind.
Images: Top — some of the rats who call the Karni Mata or “Rat Temple” home. This Hindu temple in Deshnok, Rajasthan, India is devoted to Karni Mata, a goddess who is said to have reincarnated her devotees into rats upon death. Right — a bomb sniffing rat “employed” by the U.S. government in Brooklyn, NY. Left — pet rats.