Saturday, June 27, 2009
Rats are not the people you think they are...
The most widespread of all mammals that don't walk on two legs or drive cars (at least not yet), rodentia of the Rattus genus are most famous in Western culture as sewer-dwelling, corpse-nibbling cornucopias of contagion who gnaw their way into our homes and use our cereal boxes as toilets.
To be fair, a part of this monstrous reputation is firmly rooted in reality. Besides costing us billions of dollars a year in property damage, rats are one of the most widespread ecological pests in the world, feasting on defenseless native wildlife wherever they've been introduced and even driving other species to the brink of extinction.
On the other hand, the same can be said of a much larger, even more destructive species that happens to be reading this very article as we speak, and while your average person finds rats at least a little creepy, it's probably not because they eat endangered kiwi eggs. Filth, plague and pestilence are what rats are known best for in popular culture, and any extermination company will tell you that rat germs are an immediate, serious and costly threat to you and your entire family.
Oh, but not that costly. They have a very reasonable payment plan. Nothing's too good for your family, you know.
But if rats are really such a biohazard, one must wonder why we don't hear about it more often. If you're living in a city, chances are good you have thousands of the precocious imps breeding right under your feet at this very moment.
The truth is that while you certainly shouldn't pull one out of a storm drain and put it in your mouth, there isn't any scientific basis to assume that rats are exceptionally disease-prone animals. This stereotype primarily stems from the infamous Black Death, an outbreak of bubonic plague speculated to have killed over 75,000,000 people during the mid-1300s. But it was actually transmitted by the fleas of warm-blooded mammals in general. Rats appeared responsible for the plague only because they were so common.
This was also during an era when our most scientific explanation for disease was some sort of divine punishment or witchcraft, and mankind had neither the facilities nor interest in washing their damn hands. Now obviously bubonic plague isn't a problem these days, and you'll be hard pressed to find a rat-spread disease that is. According ot the Center for Disease Control, rats don't even spread rabies.
That's right, despite their absolutely staggering numbers, rats are one of the animals you're least likely to get sick from.
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