Rats have not always been the fun, multi-coloured, patterned little pets that we see or own today. There are many different species and they can be found more or less all over the world. They play a major part in history and religions worldwide, as well as today’s modern society. This article aims to explore the history of rats in various different cultures.
Let’s begin with the origins. Rats are rodents of the Muroidea family. As rodents, their teeth grow continuously and they need to gnaw things on a regular basis to prevent their teeth from over growing and causing painful damage to their heads. They are not picky in what the gnaw, they can even gnaw through concrete and steel and are reputed to have a biting pressure of up to 7000lbs per square inch.
Many rodents and small mammals are described as rats although they are not ‘True rats’, example of these include the North American Pack Rat and the Kangaroo Rat. ‘True Rats’ are rats which fall in to the Latin genus Rattus, the most common of these being the Black Rat – Rattus Rattus and the Brown Rat – Rattus Norvegicus. These two rats are the best known and most important to humans. The Black Rat is more timid and less seen compared to the Brown Rat. This is mainly due to the Brown Rat driving out the Black rat, taking over its habitat and competing for its food. Many other species have also become endangered through competition with both the Black and Brown Rat. Fancy Rats are of the Rattus Norvegicus species, the same as sewer rats!
Rats are distinguished from mice by their size, mice generally being smaller and lighter. This is not an entirely accurate way to determine the class, as some rats can have the characteristics of mice and vice versa. As new species are being discovered the standard classifications can be confusing.
Brown Rats originated in Asia in the grass lands of China. They began to spread across Europe in 1553 and arrived in the US in 1775 after hiding away and travelling on cargo ships. Black Rats arrived in Britain long before the Brown Rat although there are no specific record of an exact time. Reports of bones found in London indicate that the Black Rat lived there as early as the mid-third century A.D and in York in the 5th Century A.D.
Today’s rat is opportunistic and lives near to humans, quite often in their houses! This has caused them to become classed as pests. Since one pair of rats can produce up to 300 young per year, many places have become overrun with the mischievous little critters.
Most people don’t realize that rats are a lot more complicated and interesting than they are portrayed. They live in colonies which contain complex hierarchies, where they form deep bonds, often risking their own lives to save family and friends. They are highly social, very intelligent and posses psychological traits very similar to humans.
A group of rats are known as a pack, or more aptly a ‘mischief’. The males are referred to as bucks, females as does and the young as pups or kittens. Domesticated rats differ greatly to their wild counterparts, with smaller hearts, brains, livers, kidneys and adrenal glands. They are also more prone to illness, possibly due to inbreeding.
These animals are usually portrayed as being dirty and diseased, though it is not true. Rats are constantly cleaning and grooming themselves and other pack members. Wild rats are generally robust and healthy, though city dwelling rats have poor diets and can have internal parasites. These cannot be passed on to humans. In fact, rats have very few zoonotic conditions. The most well known of these is Leptospirosis which is also known as Weil’s disease and infects the liver, although this is very rare.
Rats have spread all over the world and are worshipped in many cultures. Though in the Western world they are still frowned upon, possibly because of their association with the Black Plague which I will talk about later on.
First, let’s look at India, where rats are treated like royalty. In the North West Indian city of Deshnoke there stands an ornate temple dedicated to Karni Mata, the rat Goddess. Many people in our society would describe the temples interior as horrifying, but to a rat lover such as myself, the contents are both wondrous and beautiful.
Thousands of furry brown bodies writhe across the floor and scurry up the intricate gold and silver work that lines the walls. The temple is overrun with rats, there are well over 20,000. It is the duty of the attending to put out bowls of milk and grain for the swarm of rats, because they believe that eventually, these furry brown souls will be reincarnated as Sadhus, Hindi holy men. People pilgrimage to this temple, travelling miles just to sit and share food with the rats, or Kabbas, their name for the holy animal. They often eat and drink from the same bowls as the rats, believing that food touched by a Kabbas is a blessing from God.
Many people in our culture would find this temple to be strange or revolting, but it cannot be denied that all religions practise customs that may seem strange to an outsider. The rat loving Hindu temple was constructed in the 1900’s by the Maharaja Ganga as a tribute to the rat Goddess Karni Mata. Kings often constructed temples to Goddesses more than Gods, believing the Goddesses to be more sympathetic and likely to help them achieve their goals.
The legend goes that Karni Mata was a mystic matriarch from the 14th century. It was said that she was an incarnation of Durga, the Goddess of power and victory. At some point during her life, the child of one of her clansmen died. She tried in vain to bring the child back to life, only to be told by Yama, the God of death, that the child had already been reincarnated. Karni Mata then cut a deal with Yama: From that point onwards, all of her tribes people would be reborn as rats until they could be reborn in to her clan once more.
The rat is also recognized in India as the vehicle of Lord Ganesh and pictures often depict him riding on the back of a rat. There are always statues of rats in the temple of Ganesh. In Curzon Park, Calcutta, India there is an attraction simply named ‘Rat Park’, where hundreds of rats scurry around inside a huge wire enclosure.
In Imperial Chinese culture the rat is the first animal of the Chinese zodiac. Rats are revered for their quick wit, ability to hold on to items of value, friendliness, natural charm and loyalty to their friends and family. The year of the rat falls on 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996 and 2008. People who are born in the year of the rat are said to possess the rat-like qualities of creativity, honesty, generosity and ambition, but also a quick temper and wastefulness.
The rat is the first animal of the Chinese zodiac and the story goes that the twelve animals were stood on the bank of a river arguing about who should head the cycle of years. The Gods were asked to decide and they held a contest, whoever reached the opposite side of the river first would win and the rest would receive their years in the order that they finished. They all jumped in to the river, but what the ox didn’t realize is that the rat was travelling on his back. So the rat jumped off first and won. The pig was very lazy and finished last. That is why the rat appears first, with the ox second and the pig has the last year.
In old Japan, white rats were seen as the messenger of one of the seven Gods of luck, Daikoku. It is because of this reason that rats are not killed. There is an old story about rats in the Japanese culture: An elderly rat coup0le wanted the strongest husband in the world for their daughter. They asked the sun, who declined, saying that the clouds were stronger than him as they could cover him up. They asked a cloud who said, ‘The wind is stronger than I because he can blow me away.’ The wind could not make the grade either, ‘The wall stops me cold,’ he said. Even though he wall was honoured by the offer, he wailed ‘The rat is stronger than I! He can bore a hole right through me!’ So the couple wisely gave their daughter in marriage to another rat, who was indeed the strongest creature of them all. At New year, the Japanese leave rice cakes out to honour the rats.
In Ancient Rome there was no classification between rats and mice, they were simply referred to as ‘big mouse’ and ‘little mouse’. The Romans saw rats as omens, seeing a white rat was considered auspicious, though black ones had unfortunate significance. It was said that if a rat had gnawed your personal possessions, you should postpone any business you may have been considering that day.
It is unclear as to whether or not rats held any significance in Ancient Egypt. There are pictures which show anthropomorphic rats, but there appears to be no rat deity. It is believed that rats were pests in Egypt, destroying crops and belongings, which is probably why the cat is held in high favour.
Perhaps the most memorable event in British history concerning rats is undoubtedly the Black Plague. It is possibly because of this that the Western world has such a negative association with the rat.
It is often said that the rats were the actual cause of the Black Plague. This is not true, the rats themselves were also victims. The plague was caused by the micro organism, Yersinia Pestis, which was carried by the Tropical Rat Flea. The bacteria blocked the fleas stomach causing an insatiable hunger. So the fleas fed on the rats. During the feeding process the flea would regurgitate some of the bacteria in to the open would, infecting its victim. After a while the victim died and very soon the starving flea had less and less to prey on, so it moved on to another victim, humans.
The disease itself flared up in Mongolia in the Gobi desert around 1320 and rapidly spread along the trade route, infecting much of Asia before moving through Europe. The plague eventually arrived in Britain in 1348, and by 1349 every town and village in Britain had been infected.
The disease became known as the Bubonic Plague, as it caused painful swelling of the lymph nodes – bubodes. Throughout the years there were many cases as the plague came and went through areas of Britain. But in 1665 the great plague hit London, killing half of its population. The disease was spread from person to person via airborne water droplets, mainly coughs and sneezes. Due to the lack of medical knowledge at the time, it raged through the city. An epidemic was upon us.
It started as an accute fever with headaches, exhaustion, chills and delirium. The lymph nodes swelled up and became hot and painful to touch. The final stages were septicaemia, coughing up blood and a lung infection. Four or five days later, death arrived.
No one really knows how the plague eventually came to an end. Reasons could have been lack of food sources, the bacterium becoming weaker or simply the fact that the surviving humans were becoming immune. Frighteningly enough, the Bubonic plague is still common in parts of the world today, though it can be treated and does not have the same devastating effects.
During the Victorian ages, London was swarming with rats. Rats being the cheeky, opportunistic creatures that they are, realized that there was plenty of food and places to live instead of having to struggle for survival. The abundance of rats lead to a cruel new blood sport, which although is ghastly and gory, is one of the reasons we have Fancy Rats today.
Rat baiting was seen as an entertaining way to keep the pests under control. Men caught large amounts of live rodents and brought them in sacks to public sporting houses. The rats were then dumped in to a pit with a dog, or sometimes even a grown man. The dog (or man) was then timed as it tore through the pack. Whichever dog killed the most rats in the shortest time was declared the winner.
Jimmy Shaw managed one of the largest public sporting houses in London. After a while he began collecting and breeding oddly coloured rats to create more colours and patterns. He then sold these ‘new’ rats to the public as pets.
But the man who can be credited as the originator of the first true domestic rats, was the Royal rat catcher, Jack Black. The rise of the rat population meant that many men had found new employment as exterminators, or rat catchers as they were known at the time. It was often these men who supplied to sporting houses. In his line of work, Black came across many rats and after a while he too began to collect and breed the odd coloured ones he found. After a while he had quite the collection; albinos, fawns, greys and marked rodents, which he then sold as pets. Between them, Jack Black and Jimmy Shaw sold hundreds of pet rats, laying down the foundations from which today’s Fancy Rats originate.
In the 1800’s, coloured or ‘Fancy’ mice became popular pets. People began to realize that these furry little critters made delightful and entertaining companions. They were very easy to keep, only needing small housing as well as food and water, and with the different varieties in colour and pattern they were also pleasing to the eye. Interest in mice continued to rise, until in 1895 the National Mouse Club was founded in the UK. The NMC set up the different standards and varieties and also held shows.
Meanwhile, dwelling in the background was a very special lady, Mary Douglas. In 1901, Ms Douglas wrote to the NMC concerning Fancy Rats and asked if their club would consider expanding their interests to include the Fancy Rat. After much debate, the NMC agreed and that same year, the classes for Fancy Rats were staged.
By 1912 the interest in Fancy Rats had exploded and was so high that t he NMC decided to change their name to ‘The National Mouse and Rat Club’. It was during this time that the scientific community discovered the benefits of rats in research. In 1921 Mary Douglas passed away and the interest in rats began to wane again. The NMC returned to their old name.
Over the following years, the rat lovers longed for an official club of some description, but the interest in rats as pets was still too low and there was not enough rat fanciers to make a decent club or society. The rat fanciers were left wanting until 1976, when interest was high enough again to start up the National Fancy Rat Society, the first ever rat only organization.
Interest in having rats as pets grew rapidly and very soon new varieties were founded and standardized. The National Fancy Rat Society is still active today and remains the UK’s number one rat club.