Or more precisely: in the rat's eye
In a world where size certainly matters, David doesn’t defeat Goliath so often. But so he did—and in great style—one recent Reykjavík morning when the regular guests of a popular swimming pool had to flee to the safety of locker rooms due to the presence of a single rat. Only hours later, a fellow of that same species terrified the city’s population by biting a little girl’s finger, just as yet another rat had done to a teenage boy a few weeks earlier. Following these events which, of course, were covered by all major media outlets, one couldn’t escape the mighty vox populi: “Kill ‘Em All!”
No doubt: unlike their miniature lookalikes, whose sympathetic status culminates in one much loved Jerry, the members of the Rattus family don’t enjoy widespread popularity. From the Old Testament’s First Book of Samuel to Werner Herzog’s ʻNosferatuʼ and onwards, these long-tailed creatures have been viewed and portrayed predominantly as messengers of bad news—most notoriously the Black Death of the Middle Ages. Dare say their name and people will shudder at the mere thought of these parasitic troublemakers standing in the way of civilization’s cleanliness.
Although old Jehovah didn’t put their name on the menu of “detestable things,” he ordered his children not to touch them with their tongues. When a food shortage pestered Paris during the Prussian Army’s siege preceding the 1871 Commune, rat meat was, however, served at some of the city’s restaurants (and it still is in some places, especially in Asia wherefrom rats are believed to have migrated originally). But if ʻsalamis de ratsʼ was really considered much of a delicatessen then, as contemporary Icelandic biweekly Þjóðólfur stated, the demand for the dish has certainly seen a serious decline: rather than butchered for dinner, today’s killing of rats is more of a hate crime.
Most notably, they have come in handy during crusades against particular social groups. Take, for instance, Fritz Hippler’s 1940 film ʻDer Ewige Judeʼ—a great example of Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic propaganda—where imagery and texts of rats and Jews, respectively, are juxtaposed to demonstrate the latter group’s supposed similarity with the alleged dirty, cruel and destructive nature of the former. Or Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci’s comment about Muslims “multiplying as rats.” Or the 2010 nationwide campaign against drug-dealers in Britain, whose slogan, “Rat on a Rat!” played with the word’s twofold meaning—both as a noun and a verb. Or the war against the seagull, in which that bloody clever bird is often referred to as a ʻflying rat.ʼ
Given the general disgust our culture attributes to rats, it’s easy to understand not only the injury experienced by the insulted but also the choice of those attempting to smear, degrade, and—in the most brutal cases—exterminate the aforementioned. And sure, there are some traces of truth in the rats’ infamous image: they reproduce quite fast, love food (which is handed to them on a silver trash bin lid), leave behind loads of urine and excrement, can transmit diseases (although their role in spreading Black Death is, in fact, still a subject of scientific conflict), and do occasionally bite. But Holy Mary, mother of the son of man! So do good old Homo sapiens too.
On the other hand, research has shown that rats can be altruistic, empathic, pro-social, quite hygienic, and damn good at sports: fast runners, high jumpers, and untiring swimmers. And these charismatic cuties even giggle when tickled which, according to animal rights organization PETA—caught deep in what Swiss animal advocate Antoine Goetschel calls the ʻpuppy trapʼ—is one of the reasons humans shouldn’t treat them badly (referring, of course, to the millions of rats brutally murdered each year in laboratories where they are experimented on, apparently, because of the similarity between their nervous system and that of humans.)
In other words—as demonstrated by the Chinese zodiac—rats are, like any other living creatures, neither purely good nor purely evil. Such a dichotomy, however, is predominant in every denunciation of a particular ʻother, ʼ without which the pillar of those claiming superiority falls like a house built on sand. As a result, we (and let’s be clear: using ʻusʼ and ʻthemʼ is only a matter of speaking generally) are forced to look straight into the eyes of the rat which, in turn, takes on the unselfish role Nico sang about in the company of Velvet Underground: “I’ll be your mirror / reflect what you are / in case you don’t know.” Knowing the historical power of reflectional attraction, this might explain our fear for the others—our fear for the obscure, the foreign, and the exotic. Maybe we are simply afraid of eventually starting to like them. Maybe too much. Maybe more than ourselves.
Reykjavík’s rodents have been making headlines. Read more about them here.