The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Close Encounters of the Rat Kind


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.

13 Comments:

Blogger Anne C. said...

The only place I've ever seen a rat was in the wilds of the New York subway. I did, however, recently find a mouse dead in my bed, courtesy of my generous cat.

Thu Feb 07, 10:03:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

I had a really crappy apartment once on the ground floor of an old cheese factory. The neighbours told me to get a cat. I didn't. One day I saw a belt move in my laundry. Then I realized it was a snake. Then I realized it was a tail. It was attached to a small dog. Which I then realized was an enourmous rat. He looked at me from about two feet away. I sat frozen to the spot. I'm sure he could have taken me in a fight. Eventually he turned and sauntered off. I went to the hardware store and bought rat poison. This rat poison was both deadly toxic and also had dehydrating properties. This meant that the corpse would dry up instead of rotting and stinking. Apparently I had that to look forward too- finding a dehydrated rat corpse that didn't smell somewhere about the place in the future. I put the poison out in a little dish. Later that night I heard the dish moving around the kitchen floor. I was overcome with sadness. It sounded so cute. I could picture it's little whiskered face munching eagerly on the dinner I'd laid out. I thought he might even be having kind thoughts about me. I felt so guilty. After awhile the sound of the dish skidding across the floor stopped. Over the next few months I expected the corpse every time I opened a drawer or turned a corner. I don't think I relaxed about that for a year. Even after I moved, a part of me was still expecting to find a withered betrayed animal pointing a skinny odourless claw in my direction.

Thu Feb 07, 01:12:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Anne C. said...

I think that you just wrote a Grain entry.

Thu Feb 07, 01:38:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Oh, Andrew, I don't think I would have survived a rat in my laundry. A cheese factory -- how perfect! I agree with Anne: this could be a story.

Anne, I suspect there are as many rats as commuters in the NYC subway system.

Thanks for reading, you two.

Thu Feb 07, 03:17:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger MelBell said...

I'm surprised nobody has done a cover of "Ben", made famous by Michael Jackson. I loved that song - so sad, lovely melody. Then I found out it was a song about a rat. I still loved the song, rat-love or no.

Thu Feb 07, 09:55:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I love that song, too, Mel. Seriously, is Michael Jackson the only one who's ever done it?

Fri Feb 08, 01:32:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger jsnider said...

I used to work in a fine dining room in downtown Montreal and they often left the back door open. Large (I'm talkin' large!) sewer rats had decided this restaurant was ideal for their dining and dancing pleasure.

At the end of my dinner shifts I had to bring down the cakes into the main kitchen fridge. I had been instructed (rightly so) to make A LOT of noise. Nonetheless, I routinely saw the back end of as Andrew said 'small dogs' on my travels. It's a wonder I never dropped a cake in the process!

It took me until today to read this piece. The pictures of the rats were too much for me yesterday.

I guess the sewer rats made a BIG impression.

Fri Feb 08, 08:36:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Great story, jsnider. Sewer rats -- (shudder). Sorry I weirded you out with the photo.

Fri Feb 08, 10:54:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger T said...

I too have been having a hard time with the photos. Rats terrify me, though I recognise they are also very intelligent beings. The first rat I ever saw was when I was about 7. During a typical North Vancouver downpour, the kind of mountainside rain that turns a day a sort of bleak black and blue. Across the street, a black cat-sized thing crawled out of the culvert. The stringy tail was enough: Even at that age I knew the thing was nothing I'd ever known. It terrified me, and is an image that's stayed with me since.

Fri Feb 08, 06:41:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Rats. They fill a niche, I guess. But I think of them as pests. We saw a huge one in Thailand, the thing was the size of a small dog.

The bit about the man in new york with the red hat has flash fiction written all over it. I wanted to know more, anyways.

As for a rat song, check out "Rats" by Pearl Jam. A great song, a great great song.

Fri Feb 08, 09:14:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Sorry, Tamara! The picture is definitely creepy. Interesting that you were frightened of rats even before anyone put the thought into your head. The tail. It must be the tail. Bunnies and squirrels are rodents, too, but we think they're cute. If rats had fluffy tails, maybe we'd like them better.

Thanks for the song recommendation, Steve. I'll look for it.

Sat Feb 09, 11:35:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger The Pale Horseman said...

I have pet rats, they're absolutely wonderful. As smart as dogs, independant as cats and as loving as any other pet. We've had plenty of experience with barn rats at our stables but as long as they don't start stealing the horse feed or causing trouble we have an understanding and let them just get on with their ratty ways. I really dislike how people treat rats, vermin or not. You wouldn't poison stray dogs or set cruel traps for the alley cats so they can be fatally injured and bleed for hours before actually dying, so why don't rats - who can feel pain in all the same ways as us - get treated differently. After all, they're only trying to survive. Also that bottom picture is of mice not rats. :)

Wed Nov 17, 09:43:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Toni Okeefe said...

Ya know not until my twenties when I finally got to move out on my own did I ever experience anything to do with a rat/rats. But oh boy! Could I ever tell a few shoulder shuddering stories. One that really sticks out in my memory bank however is of my Sweatheart of a dog "Luna" ( short, or course, for Lunatic) and the very first time she endoulged in the great game hunting extravaganza these rodents have proven fit for to her!! It was only just about a year ago and I'm not kidding you the house I lived in was INFESTED with them. We set traps nightly of all different sorts and every one had a gorey present in it for us by sun up.... But here my little lady just over a year old herself, catches a glimps of one of these furry friendlies go skittering past her and into the furnace cupboard and she took off after it. At first she whined and WHINED, and dug threw my Xmas ornaments just frantic while I tried to refrain her from the activities. But no such luck! The rat had been cornered and she grabbed that thing with out even a second thought and even with its filthy face latched onto her lip she swung her head vigorously enough for it to catch flight and SNAP!! She caught it again in mid air just long enough to continue her head flail, killing the bugger, dropping it on the hardwood floor and with a proud puffed up chest she came and sat on the ground next to my feet where I stood staring at the whole thing in dismay! I've never ever been so proud, yet discusted in my dogs actions!!!
But she is a terrier.... And they are mousers/ratters

Sat Apr 19, 11:08:00 am GMT-4  

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