Two Species at War

My groups engagement project has turned into an endeavor of art engagement surrounding urban ecology, and the beings in urban areas that are unwanted, considered waste, and considered a problem (discard studies to be more precise).  Feona, who has a strong interest in listening to people, will be focusing on the humans element, specifically houseless people.  Sierra is particularly interested in looking at undesirable plants, such as invasive species and weeds.  I have always had a strong passion for animals, and for this project I have especially taken to rats.

During this week of refining the group’s goals for our engagement project, I have been reading up on rats in addition to reading key general scholarship related to this project.  Here is what I have concluded: rats and humans are in a perpetual war and competition against one another.  We are in an unspoken competition to drive the most species possible to extinction (humans are still winning by a long shot, but that doesn’t stop them from shaming rats for their consistently high score in this area).  Of course, I don’t actually think humans or rats are actively trying to kill off large numbers of other species, but we both have a natural talent for this.  We are also in a war to kill off and cause the most destruction possible to the other species.  It is becoming more clear to me this week, that perhaps what humans most despise in rats, are the things we see in ourselves.

Rats are social animals, who suffer in isolation and thrive in groups, just like us (Reinhardt et al.)  Rats are smart like us.  Humans may be more intelligent, but rats are intelligent nonetheless.  Both rats and humans have traveled, colonized and settled throughout the globe, adapting to a large array of climates and conditions.  As Reinhardt et al. explains, “Rats are phenomenally adaptive, with a remarkable ability to withstand efforts to eliminate them.” Furthermore, neither humans nor rats are regarded as animals under U.S. federal regulations, although, this is the case for very different reasons for humans than it is for rats (The Gale Encyclopedia of Science).  

Both encyclopedias I read referred to rats as commensal species, both in regards to humans as well as other species (The Gale Encyclopedia of Science; Encyclopedia of the Natural World).  Yet, these encyclopedias also described specific ways in which rats have harmed humans when benefiting from them, rather than having no effect on us.  And they hurt other species as well.  The Encyclopedia of the Natural World states, “On islands, [rats] have substantially disruptive ecosystem functions.  They have negatively affected at least 170 animal and plant species… and have directly contributed to at least 50 species extinctions.”  Keep in mind humans play their part in 100 to 1,000 extinctions every year (Dell’Amore 2015).

Rats have hurt us and we have hurt them.  According to the Gale Encyclopedia of Science, the four main species of rats ruin “about one-fifth of the world’s food harvest each year.  In the United states alone, the Norway and Black rat damage or destroy a billion dollars worth of property each year, not counting the accidental fires that start when they chew through electrical insulation.”  On our part, Rats and mice make up over 90% of the animals used in laboratory experiments (Rollin).  One of the main toxicity tests they are used for, LD50 testing, is carried out by administering a hypothesized legal dose, then continuing the dose, raising or lowering it about 50 percent until the animal dies.  Rollin (2006) claims, “millions of animals are being wasted, merely to provide an arbitrary measure of toxicity, with little carryover to real human dangers.”

We share some great qualities with rats.  It is in many ways a privilege to be an intelligent, social, adaptable and explorative animal.  But, causing extinctions, wasting resources, carrying diseases to new parts of the world, and generally making life harder for numerous other species are all unflattering characteristics that we also share with the rats that live with and around us.  When we shame rats for the aspects of them we don’t like, we are either ignorantly thinking we are superior in these realms, or without awareness, shaming ourselves.  Just as rats are known to have spread the Bubonic plague throughout Europe, Europeans spread Smallpox and other diseases throughout America.  If we are at war with rats because they are pests, we are going to war against the same characteristics that in part define ourselves.  Just as rats have invaded our cities and homes, we have invaded and changed other species homes and habitats to an even larger degree.  Humans may very well be the biggest pests of all.

As of now – with much work and thinking ahead of me, which may ultimately deter me from my research with rats – here is where I stand. It is not unconditionally wrong to kill or harm rats.  I would not expect my mother, for instance, to let the rats who hid in the walls of the first house she bought after she separated from my dad continue to eat away at her pipes.  We kill animals which have caused us little to no harm consistently for food; there is no reason to stop the massacre when animals negatively impact our lives.  I do, however, believe rats deserve more rights than they currently have.  As of now, the law does very little to protect rats from harm, and absolutely nothing in the circumstances of laboratory experiments.  Rats feel the stress and pain we cause them just as we feel the stress and pain they cause us.  War is not fun, and it is not fun to be at war with another animal.



Dell’Amore, Christine. (2015). “Species Extinction Happening 1,000 Times Faster Because of Humans?” National Geographic.

“Rats.” (2011). Encyclopedias of the Natural World: Encyclopedia of Biological Invasions.

“Rats.” (2008). The Gale Encyclopedia of Science, edited by K. Lee Lerner and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner, 4th ed., vol. 5, Gale, pp. 3641-3644. Gale Virtual Reference Library.

Reinhardt, V., Reinhardt, Annie, & Animal Welfare Institute, issuing body. (2002). Comfortable quarters for laboratory animals (Ninth ed., Animal studies: law, welfare and rights). Washington, District of Columbia]: Animal Welfare Institute.

Rollin, E. Bernard. (2006). Animal Rights and Human Morality. New York: Prometheus Books.

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