Thirteen Ways of Looking at Rats



The reading for the class discussio]]><![CDATA[n my group is leading tomorrow, Thirteen Ways of Looking at Invasive Species, is exactly what it sounds like.  Larson (2007) gives thirteen perspectives from which we may or do view invasive species (IS as he refers to them).  Since rats themselves can be categorized as invasive species, I decided to consider how each of the thirteen perspectives Larson provides might relate to rats themselves.  


Larsen lists three problems with seeing IS as invaders, which are “1) it leads to an inaccurate perception of them; 2) it contributes to social misunderstanding, charges of xenophobia, and loss of scientific credibility; and 3) it reinforces militaristic though that is counterproductive for conservation.”  Like with much of the dialogue around immigrants, which often sounds similar to the language around IS, rats are also seen invaders, as taking over what is ours (our houses, our cities). But other animals, including rats, do not have the same concept of property as we do.  Many animals mark territory, but nothing about our law can communicate to flora and fauna in a way that they can interpret.  There is no way but genocide or forced removal to get a rat to “respect” the geographic boundaries we create.  And like with Xenophobia towards immigrants, it is questionable to argue that “we” belong somewhere more then “them.”


When we decide rats are a type of IS or that they are vermin, we follow the same guidelines that Larsen lays out for terrorists and how we view other IS in such a light.  We define rats as the enemy (a problem we must fight), and we “develop a grand plan to prevent future outbreaks.”  With rats, this usually involves repeated visits from exterminators or pest control.  Larson says we then “justify non-target effects to control the enemy.” With Terrorists, this may be everyone from a certain religion or region of the globe, with IS this is often pesticides and herbicides that kill indiscriminately, and with rats, we often use poison that may have unintended victims. And finally, we forget the role we play in the establishment of rats in the areas they now exist and the effect they have.


Larson relates IS to phoretic mites and other “piggy-backers” saying, “IS similarly rely on us to move them around…Though they may move on their own without our assistance, we often speed up this process. Rats, similarly have hoped along on our rides and travelled with us, through means such as ships.


The Gale Encyclopedia of Science (2008) called rats this exactly, affirming, “these commensal rats succeed because they are generalists and opportunists.”  This section on rats continues to say, “rats are present in almost every major city in the world,” and that sanitation is one of the largest reasons why.  Rats took an opportunity we offered them: trash.  


Larson mentions that many of our behavior patterns, such as our extensive travel and desire for efficiency are the cause of why “IS are out of control.” The same can be said for rats.  We have contributed to their spread throughout the globe and attracted them to our neighborhoods through less than glamorous habits.


In my last post I touched on the many characteristics humans share with rats and how many of the characteristics we dislike in rats are traits we share with them. Larson summarizes precisely what I was describing in my last post.  Larson claims, “ we may dislike IS because we observe something in their behavior that we dislike about our own. We observe them spreading, expanding, and going into the wrong places.”


like many invasive plants are the bulk of our crops, rats and mice are the main animals that provide us scientific data, and serve as being one of the most common “exotic pets” in the U.S.  Larson touches on how we as humans tend to differentiate between IS when they do or do not have a purpose for us, saying ““We accept non-native plants that we cultivate, but not the weeds that affect their growth.”  Larson continues to say, “It appears that what bothers us is… nature that disrupts our plans.”  Rats, similarly bother us, when they disrupt our plans.  Rats are accepted when we choose for them to be present, not when they make the decision on their own.


I will be looking into this more and more with other scholarship, but rats are as much a mix between cultural and natural as everything else. Rats participate in our cities and now live with us, but they exist without us and before our civilizations as well.


Like many IS plant species, rats are very difficult to exterminate.  Rats will go out of their way to avoid unknown objects such as poison, so placing poison in areas where someone wants to exterminate them often is unsuccessful (Gale Encyclopedia of Science). Larson questions this response of mass murder of tricky IS, saying, “we probably first became biologists because of our appreciation and respect for organisms. As many of us were educated, this became a concern for biodiversity. How is it that this has become a desire to kill some organisms and to replace them with others?”


Larson claims, “in many cases, IS have established themselves to such an extent that they have become components of a habitat matrix that we have no choice but to accept.”  This seems to be the case with rats.  It would take mass amount of efforts to eradicate them from our habitats.


It’s hard to tell how long a species needs to exist in a place before it’s no longer invasive.  Species have been spreading around the globe for as long as they’ve been evolving.  Rats have lived in the United States as long as Europeans have.  As Larson asserts, “nativity is always relative to a particular time and place—it must be carefully indexed or it is meaningless.”


Because urban spaces are created by constructing over large amounts of habitats and species, cities are relatively low in biodiversity. Animals such as crows, rats, mice, and pigeons have followed us into cities. By following humans to urban areas, attracted to our waste, they add biodiversity to spaces which are otherwise almost entirely dominated by humans, bacteria and insects.  Larson says, “many of these changes are happening whether we like them or not. We cannot recover the past.”  Rats certainly live with us whether we like them or not.  They thrive where we thrive.  We do not have much of a choice but to accept them.


Larson says we get upset with “nature” when it does not act how we want it to and make assumptions about how we want it to be.  Perhaps perspectives on rats would be more neutral if we didn’t expect them to be one way or another.

In Conclusion

The term IS is supposed to remove the negative connotations associated with invasive species.  Larson says the term invasive causes people to immediately ask, “how do we get rid of them?”  I think some of the words used for rats serve a similar purpose.  Pests and vermin are both words to describe something that is unwanted, and a problem because it exists where we think it shouldn’t.  Maybe we need to stop calling rats names, such as pests, companions, vermin, pets, lab rats, and simply call them what they are: rats.


“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.

Larson, Brandon M. H. (2007). “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Invasive Species.” In Invasive Plants: Inventories, Strategies and Action. Victoria, Canada: Canadian Weed Science Society.

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