Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Rats: the reality

Gambian giant pouch rat with trainer
(photo credit: www.animalplanet.com)

Before you start shrieking and running from the computer, say hello to the bravest rat you'll ever meet: the Gambian giant pouch rat, also called African giant pouch rat. This fellow has been trained to detect landmines—40 million of them in Africa—and has the ability to rat out TB virus in humans, through its acute sense of smell. These pouch rats are not only hard workers, but are on first name basis with Jane Goodall, who's teamed with APOPO, a humanitarian group that "researches, develops and deploys detection rat technology." The rats save lives all for a liter of bananas! Nicholas Kristof was so impressed he wrote about their work in an article about Father's Day, called "Dad will really like this" (thanks to Lu for pointing out). 

Talking about dads, my father hated rats. Once when I visited my parents' home in Florida, I was hit by the most putrid stench as soon as I walked through the door. "What's that smell?" I asked. "What smell," my father said, eyeing me suspiciously. Me: "That death smell." Him: "I don't smell anything." He left it and turned back to whatever he was doing, while I turned to tearing the house apart to find out what had died. The next day, while doing laundry, I saw two long, stiff tails sticking out from a hole behind the dryer. The dryer vent had been circulating that rankness in every corner of the house, to which my parents were oblivious because they'd lost all sense of smell. My mother remembered putting out poison, but hadn't thought about it since. "Oh, so that's what happened to them," she said, amused.

Why do people hate rats so? The answer to that question can be found in Joseph Mitchell's Up In the Old Hotel in the chilling "The Rats on the Waterfront" (written in 1944 about NYC rats, although things haven't changed that much according to recent reports).

 Joseph Mitchell
(photo credit: www.nytimes.com)

Mitchell, the great New Yorker writer, interviewed exterminators, ship's captains and fish mongers to get the real story of rats in the city. Even I, a rat lover, could barely sit still reading about the rat that climbed up a mop pole and bit off a ship boy's thumb nail. "A trap means nothing to them," said a NYC exterminator, "no matter how skillfully set. They just kick it around until it snaps; then they eat the bait. And they can detect poisoned bait a yard off. I believe some of them can read." 

To that point, I'd agree. Rats are extremely intelligent; but domesticated rats are as different in temperament from street rats as domesticated dogs are from wolves. From my experience, their intelligence and sweet disposition ranks right up there with the pouch rat (also their love for bananas!). APOPO trainers say they take clues from their rats as to where the landmines have been buried, but the thing of it is, each rat communicates differently, i.e., each has a distinct personality with a distinct way to point out where there's trouble. I'd say for a liter of bananas, Malka, our pet brown Dumbo, would do the same.

Malka, just another crazy, banana lovin' rat.


  1. good rat stories!
    i like the new addition to yr bio/profile...
    i love the term POUCH RATS
    much better than COUCH POTATO.
    love, L

  2. What about couch rat? I think that's what Malka is. Thanks again for alerting me to the story. Now i want to go to Africa and see them for myself (maybe bring one home?)(JUST KIDDING). xoC

  3. Sign me up for the pouch rat trip, Lotto. Good story!

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