The Year of the Rat: From Buddhist Pilgrimages to Extinction Events and Land-mine Detection Awards

In the opening paragraphs of Camus' The Plague Dr. Bernard Rieux spots a dead rat on the landing, the first sign of the plague that is about to sweep the city of Oran. That is how we associate rats in our culture, and have done for hundreds of years. They were assumed to be the bearers of the Black Death of the 14th century that killed an estimated 150 million people in Europe and North Africa. "How now? a rat? Dead, for a ducat, dead!", writes William Shakespeare in Hamlet. "You dirty yellow-bellied rat", James Cagney famously said (and is paraphrased) in the 1932 film "Taxi!". We exclaim "rats!" when things do not go our way, we don't "rat" on our friends, although we might "smell a rat", we can fight "like a cornered rat", and if things are looking bad it's always "the rats that desert the sinking ship", perhaps to avoid "the rat race". We'll need the "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"! Plague-bearing, dirty, unpleasant, selfish, and desperately violent survivalists, we best be rid of them. That is how we, in the Western world, have been brought up to percieve the rat.

Other cultures have a different perspective. From the Vedic tradition, the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha, remover of obstacles, has a rat (or mouse) as a mount. It is noted that in part this may represent an impediment to control (the Sanskrit word for mouse is derived from the root to steal) as rodents are a threat to village crops. It also suggests that ability to penetrate the most secret of places. In Rajasthan, in north-western India, there is the Karni Mata Temple also known as "the temple of rats", where 25,000 black rats are revered as reincarnations of the descendents of the Karni Mata the warrior-sage of the 15thC CE.

In south and east Asia where a Lunar calendar is employed, the rat is the first animal of the Chinese zodiac which cycles through a 12-year cycle of animals and the traditional five elements. This past year, from January 25th, 2020 until February 11th, 2021, is the Year of the Metal Rat. The year 2020 is also associated in popular culture with the Cyberpunk roleplaying game which meant, in my mind at least, that this was the Year of the Stainless Steel Rat, recalling the series by the author Harry Harrison. Indeed, in Decmeber I ran a virtual conference with this title which attracted authors, computer security experts, gamers, cultural aficiandos, and politicos from around the world. A publication of proceedings is forthcoming.

In case you haven't guessed, I'm a bit of a fan of the order Rodentia, family Muridae, and the genus rattus. From 2002 to 2017 I shared company with a number of domesticated breeds of the species rattus norvegicus as animal companions. I learned a great deal about their intellect, curiousity, creativity, and, at the point of seeming ridiculous, even love. I learned a great deal about them, and maybe even something. So, with their assigned names, I will dedicate this presentation to Harlequin and Montebanc, Vagabond and Rogue, Ragamuffin and Scoundrel, Calamity, Mischief, and Trouble, Rascal, Nomad, and Riff-Raff, Tricky and Naughty, Lucky, Picador, Pierrot, and Prankster, Scamper, Rover, and Tramper. But it is not from this litany of characters that I first experienced a rat as a guest and fellow colony member in the house. That honour belongs to Spit, the pet of one Glenn Kneebone. It comes with a story of it's own.

It was February 1996, and it was about to become Year of the Fire Rat. Things were different back then, of course. There was no Zoom, no Facebook, no Youtube. There wasn't even Google. People were, nonetheless, almost like us today. It was in honour of our household animal companion and with a shared and emerging interest in Buddhism, my housemate and I shaved our heads, donned our boots, and set out on a pilgramage to hitchhike to the Nan Tien Temple in Woolongong, which had just been opened. We had barely stepped off the end of what would become the Upfield line and was marching down the Hume Highway with our thumbs out when an indvidual pulled up and exclaimed "Kneebone is it?". My housemate was recognised by an former high-school colleague from several years prior.

Arriving around Wangaratta, when Glenn originates from to visit his family. We went to a local pub in the evening and, true to the style of the Australian country, I pointed out that we were the only men at the bar of hundreds that sported earrings; clearly a couple of weirdos from the city were visiting. The following leg of the journey was to make our way to Albury-Wondonga. A kindly taxi driver took us part of the trip, making their way back from what had been serious domestic dispute in Shepperton. The next person who who gave us a lift was clad in all black and drove a big black old car that rattled along. He duly informed us that he'd just finished a good lunchtime dose of marijuana, saw an advertisement in the local paper, and decided that today was the day he'd go skydiving.

Getting into Albury was one thing; getting out was another. Vehicle after vehicle drove past, so we spent the night in a ditch on the side of the road. Here we were on the the road to Gundagai, and I quipped that the dog must have died because nobody would give it a lift. The following day however we were picked up a travelling salesman who specialised in selling recliner chairs to people in nursing homes, of which several were stashed in the back of a van. Quite a comfort after the evening's lodgings, I assure you.

Reaching Canberra it was a Sunday and in those days the town was effectively shut. Bored, and waiting public transport to our next lodgings we approached a young punk girl with green hair and explained our prediciment. "Of course I'll help you", she said with a charming smile. "I'm an elf". After receiving assistance from the self-identified local fae we made our way to the home of one David Bainz, now sadly deceased, a screenprinter and artist who took us to his local. There I was introduced to an elderly radio engineer who professed the powers of mind-reading and, to be honest, showed some aptitude at the skill. I've never been quite sure whether he actually could read minds or was just very good at reading people.

The following day, having wrenched my stiff and frozen clothes from the washing line, we made the next leg of our journey. At first we were picked up by a thoroughly lost British traveller who was complaining about the heat. Glenn illuminated him by pressing the airconditioner button the dash. The next person to pick us up started with the words, "I knew you guys were alright. You've got earrings". He then proceeded to tell us about his thoroughly normal surburban life with family and kids - and how on Friday nights he liked to frock up in a tight pink dress, don high heels, and party his way down Oxford Street. Apparently, we had reached Sydney.

That night we stayed with friends of mine, early participants in the Clan Analogue music collective, and who ran a website design company, "The Evil Brotherhood of Mutants, Inc" in their residence-cum-business warehouse with a colourful history (it would become known as "Lanfranchi's Memorial Discotheque" for a reason). After this we took the train down to Woolongong and, as the fates would have it, Glenn runs into a member of his old band. Finally, we make it to the Temple. The object of our quest was complete.

There are many other stories associated with these events, but they can be told at another time. This is, after all, a talk about rats and the Year of the Rat, and the ripping yarn of a 24-year-old road trip is a bit of a tangent, even if it was partially inspired by a rat, and carried out at the start of a Year of the Rat. As marvellous and exciting as this journey was, in this context, it is all about the rat. For having been spent sufficient time with these creatures the seed was set to bloom into a full-case of rat madness. So, if we can fast-forward 24-years I would like to discuss a few other rat-inspired activities of the past twelve months.

The first I wish to refer to relates to today's day; January 17. It is actually the second anniversary of the death of former Beatnik radical and author Dr. Sam Savage who was surprisingly catapulted into fame with his 2006 novel "Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife" which became a best-seller in Europe. The story fits into the genre of magical realism where a rat, the runt of the litter, is born in Scollay Square, Boston. Lacking food, it begins to chew on books and, through consuming James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, it learns to read, becoming a bibliophile and bibliophage. A head full of knowledge, but unable to communicate, isolated from the human and rat world, the book dwells on loneliness, mortality, and self-doubt. In an interview the aging Sam Savage spoke about his life dealing with his own existential despair and how writing Firmin brought him relief; "The rat has set me free", he declared. So in this year of the rat, I extensively elaborated the Wikipedia entry for the novel. But more was to come.

The second is Bramble Cay Melomys Day. The Australian Government's Department of the Environment and Energy formally recognised the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys (melomys rubicola) on 18 February 2019, the first mammal declared extinct due to climate change as rising waters and storms washed over its small home off in the Torres Strait. Once numbering "hundreds" on the isolated 340 by 150 metre cay, a 1998 survey estimated the population size at approximately 90 individuals and subsequent surveys in 2002, 2004, and 2008 suggested roughly the same. A recovery plan was suggested in 2008, however 2011 and 2014 surveys failed to find any animals. Seeking to establish a capture breeding programme, in 2015 not a single animal was found.

The day after the extinction declaration, Andrew Marton, known for his "First dog on the Moon" cartoon series in The Guardian, published a piece speculating a national day of mourning and reflection. The cartoon concluded with the words "None of this will happen - we have already forgotten this little creature". Well, I didn't forget. I knew something had to be done; and when a friend in Canberra suggested, following the 2019-2020 bushfire season, that we needed a memorial for extinct and endangered species, the scene was set. We organised a petition to the Federal parliament, and we coordinated several small events around the country in memory of the melomys. It received some press coverage, a mention in the Victorian parliament, correspondence from the Federal minister, and another cartoon by Andrew Marton. The campaign will be ongoing in 2021.

The third is the training of southern giant pouched rat by the charity APOPO to detect landmines and tuberculosis, the trained rats known as "Hero Rats" (check out the Parry Gripp song in their honour). With a fine sense of smell, intellect, and a longer lifespan APOPO was launched in 1997 and in 2004 the first eleven rats were given given accreditation according to International Mine Action Standards, beginning their real work in 2006. Trained from 5-6 weeks for a period of nine months, the HeroRats sniff out the explosive content in landmines or the presence of tuberculosis. The rats were extensively deployed in Mozambique, contributing to that country being declared land-mine free in 2016, along with in Gaza, Zaire, Angola, and Cambodia. Their tuberculosis detection is carried out in Tanzania and Mozambique. In September 2020, the giant pouched rat Magawa was awarded the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) Animal Bravery Gold Medal for finding 39 landmines and 28 unexploded munitions in Cambodia. Of the 30 animal recipients of the award, Magawa is the first rat.

Rats are well-known subject of medical experimentation. Of the Nobel Prizes awarded for Physiology or Medicine, some 75 have involved the use of rats or mice. One experiment I wish to draw some attention to is that of "Rat Park", conducted from 1978 to 1981 by psychologist Bruce K. Alexander and colleagues at the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. Studying the effects of addictive psychoactive drugs, Rat Park took issue with previous studies which had tested the effects of self-administration of drugs when rats were kept in small, isolated cells. Rat Park, in contrast, was an open playground with toys, nesting sites, and other rats to interact with. Those rats kept in isolated retreated into a drugged stupor; those in rat part actively fought addiction. As Stuart McMillan concludes his brilliant comic on the experiments; "What if the difference between not being addicted and being addicted was the difference between seeing the world as your park and seeing the world as your cage"?

Apart from being social creatures, studies from the Parc Cientific de Barcelona in 2005 showed that rats can distinguish the rhythm of human languages (Dutch and Japanese in the experiment). Other studies indicate that rats have empathy even towards strangers. In 2011, at the University of Chicago, experiements were conducted where a rat was introduced to another, the latter trapped in a "cofflin-like restrainer" that could only be opened by the former rat. Despite being a stranger, the majority of rats would rescue the trapped stranger in preference to being offered a treat of chocolate, which rats love. It is the parable of The Good Samaritan, writ in the rodent world. If only we could get humans to behave with the ethical standards of a rat. Unfortunately, they are also subject to the "bystander effect", where confederate rats, having been provided midazolam, which reduces their emotional response to the trapped rat, they didn’t try to help. Now the original empathic rat also became less likely to assist.

In 2015, at the University of London, when rats are shown food treat at the end of a path they cannot access recordings of their hippocampal neurons indicate that when sleeping they are remembering the path and planning alternatives. In 2014, a study from University of Minnesota suggests that rats actually experience regret after making the "wrong" food choice, by making less-preferred choices easier to obtain and watching for activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, the region that is active during regret. In 2018, an experiment at the University of St Andrews showed that rats will trade food for grooming, having contrived a situation where a rat requires grooming on a spot where it can't reach, but has a supply of food which can nudge towards one who can. In 2019 at the University of Washington scientists have developed a software program called DeepSqueak, which promotes broad adoption of rodent vocalization research. Recording and tagging the ultrasonic frequencies that rats communicate shows a rich collection of syllable type and sequence structure.

They feel like we do. They're social, they're empathic. They dream and plan, they feel guilt. They trade, and they communicate with a rich language. They laugh when they're tickled, they bond with their companion humans. Yet, they are often exempt from the sort of animal welfare protections that are assigned to other species. In the United States in particular rats and mice are simply not covered by federal animal welfare laws. Scientists can legally do whatever they want to them; and, without going into the very gruesome details, they do; John P Gluck's 2016 book, "Voracious Science and Vulnerable Animals" is harrowing reading for those who wish to investigate further. The rat is close enough to us to study reactions to drugs and induced psychopathologies, but far enough, apparently, to worry about ethics.

But of course, we used to do similar to things to primates. But things have began to change: in 1999, New Zealand granted all species of great apes rights as 'nonhuman hominids', including protection from maltreatment, slavery, torture, death and extinction. In 2001 in Europe and 2015 in the United States chimpanzee research programmes ceased. In 2013 the European Union Member States also banned all non-human great ape experimentation. But there is still a long way to go. In Russia, the Middle-East, and in most African countries, there is no laws regarding the formal recognition of nonhuman animal sentience and suffering.

We must use the evidence that we have on hand, not just regarding rats of various species and genus' but but rather our knowledge of sentience, sapience, and even consciousness among all animal species. As an address to a Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship, I am reminded of the Seventh Principle of the Unitarian-Universalist Association: "Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." Even moreso, and by way of conclusion, the utilitarian assessment of the Unitarian Jeremy Benthem: "The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny... What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps, the faculty for discourse?...the question is not, 'Can they reason?' nor, 'Can they talk?' but, 'Can they suffer?'"

Presentation to the First Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of Melbourne, January 17, 20201

File Attachments: