Did you say, “rats”?

7 min read

Rats. Slimy, dirty, smelly, infections, grimy, sneaky creatures that slink around in the dark corners of
our streets.  Did such adjectives come to mind when picturing these animals? 

Inhabiting sewage systems and feeding on garbage, it is not surprising that people perceive them as pests. However, this view is not universal. In fact, some people keep rats as pets and some may view them as powerful creatures that can do wonders when they come together as a species. A prominent character with such a mindset would be Ratcatcher2 (aka Cleo) from The Suicide Squad. In the movie, Cleo was taught by her father at a young age that rats are “special”.

“Why Rats, Papa?”

“Rats are the lowliest and most despised of all creatures, my Love. If they have a purpose, so do we all.”

Her father trained her to use a gadget called the Rat Communicator to control rats, influencing the animals to do the things she bade. 

After her father’s passing, she continued to live on the streets with rats, eventually becoming very fond of one, calling him Sebastian. Spoiler alert! Using the Ratcommunicator, she called on the rats to defend the zombie-infested city and defeat the experiment-grown creature, Satrro.  The rats ended up being the only animals that could destroy Satrro by invading its body, eating its nerves, and taking it down from the inside out.

While the heroes in the movies were rats, they have a bad reputation with human civilization. 

Although it’s true that these pesky rodents are detested by our society, they do have unique characteristics and physical traits that make them ‘special’. 

Rats are highly adapted to squeezing through small gaps or holes in walls.  Their pointed heads and slender bodies, together with their ability to collapse their ribcage, thus changing its size, allow them to squeeze through any hole that their head can fit into.  If we were to call that a superpower,  in a way, they can shapeshift to get to where they need to go, or escape into an unexpected space. Yet, this amazing ability of theirs is not all.

Despite being primarily terrestrial, rats are also arboreal, good climbers, and fantastic swimmers. They use their back legs to paddle, steer with front legs, and manoeuvre their tail as a rudder.
They can tread water for three days in a row, and hold their breath for up to three minutes underwater. This trait allows them to travel across continents by hitching rides on boats.

In the movie, the city’s rats claimed the crowning glory of rendering victory in the final battle against Starro by using all these characteristics. They scurried out on the ground from all over the city using roads (terrestrial locomotion), then climbed up the giant creature (good climbers), and finally plunging into its single eye through a hole made by Harley Quinn’s spear. Once within the eye, they swam through its aqueous humour (fluid that fills the eye chambers) for what seemed like an eternity given their puny size, compared to Starro the giant. In the entire journey from the lens of Starro’s eye, past his iris into what seemed like the endless depths of the ocean of aqueous humour, the rats were able to hold their breath, swimming strongly into the core of the creature. Reaching for nerves, they chewed on them, destroying Starro from the inside out. 

Maybe a horrifying supervillain like Starro doesn’t exist in our reality. However, rats, in many practical arenas, have played the role as our everyday heroes using their naturally adapted characteristics to achieve what humans cannot do themselves. 

For example, dogs have been used by police to sniff out bombs for years. Do you think rats can do the same? A rat’s nose is not just able to detect food, but also chemicals in the atmosphere that denote a change in weather and emotion. They are amazingly able to locate the source of a scent within 50 milliseconds, enabling them to sniff out scents that us humans cannot identify with our noses alone. Harnessing this ability, Giant African Pouched rats have been trained and used to sniff out landmines in Africa, and for a very good reason. Being small-sized and lightweight, they can
pick out landmines without triggering them, as these mines are designed to go off when stepped on
by humans or creatures of similar weight. The rats are harnessed to lines, where they search for
explosives methodically, under the watch of handlers. Areas with explosives are then marked and
removed by a bomb disposal team.

But hey, that’s not all they can do! Giant African pouched rats are also used in the medical field to detect Tuberculosis, one of Africa’s deadliest diseases. They are trained to sniff out Tuberculosis in saliva samples, giving quick, accurate diagnoses, thus saving the day’s work of a lab technician vetting samples. Even beyond filling in as mine-detectors and lab technicians, our tiny friends go above and beyond to work in the police forensics teams, making them literally part of our team of everyday heroes! In the Netherlands, common brown rats are used by forensic police personnel to sniff out anything from drugs to gun powder residue as they are cheaper and quicker to train than dogs.

In the movie, Sebastian, the rat that was always with Cleo, led the brave army of rats to destroy Starro. Fighting by her side, Sebastian was more than just superhero and sidekick. It was clear they shared a special bond as he was always seen riding on her shoulder as they charged into battle, bringing her gifts, and conversing with her. So wait… some rats have become our everyday superheroes, but is that all there is to them? What if there was a heart underneath all that?

Rats are highly social animals, forming relationships with other rats and preferring companions. A group of rats, also known as a mischief of rats would huddle together, sleep in tight groups, and groom each other.  Separately kept rats were found to bear an increase in stress hormones.

The Domestic Fancy rat was domesticated from the brown rat to be kept as pets, coming in a wide variety of pelt colours and patterns. They are bred specifically to bring out certain features or mutations, leading to different breeds to be kept as pets. One of them includes the hairless rat, which was selectively bred to have very short fur, appearing completely bald. This breed of domestic rat is highly favoured as pets by folks who are allergic to fur. The most adorable of them all are Dumbo rats, with ears bred to be large and attached to the sides of the head instead of the top, mimicking the fictional character, Dumbo, the flying elephant.

When kept as pets, rats form attachments to their human owners, displaying affection by nesting in their clothing, licking, and resting on their shoulders or laps, and expressing pleasure when tickled by chasing their owner’s hands around. Rats are also capable of expressing pleasure and joy through clicks and squeals. These, however, are too high pitched for the human ears to hear as they are beyond our hearing range. Due to their affectionate and social nature, they enjoy building relationships.

Therefore, as surprising as it may sound, just like cats and dogs, rats perform well as therapy pets too as they are able to alleviate loneliness and provide comfort to the patients in need.

While many of the characteristics of rats make them pests in human society, these same traits
have contributed to their success as an organism on its own. They are considered pests only
because the places where they dwell in our urbanized cities are the closest to the places in which
they naturally live in the wild and feel comfortable there. Although they have been presented badly, these amazing animals have likeable and enjoyable traits that have benefited and brought joy to mankind, achieving things that humans cannot with our natural abilities. Perhaps, like how Cleo and her father feel about them, rats have been underappreciated and misunderstood as a species. Instead of labelling these animals as pests, it is important to respect and recognize them as complex mammals, successfully adapted to their environment, with highly admirable characteristics.

Written by Elizabeth Chang
Illustrations by Lim Daphne


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