This is normally the sort of thing I try to ignore, but the papers and online media sites recently seem to be more full than usual of stories about giant rats, poison-immune rats, mutant radioactive rats with glowing eyes… well, maybe not that last one but you get the idea. It is the summer silly season, after all.
We have a subscription to Fortean Times because it covers a lot of subjects which interest us, and as a hardline sceptic it offers me plenty at which to point and laugh. (Seriously – if you’re ever a bit bored, have a read of the “It Happened to Me!” column where readers send in their supposedly paranormal experiences, and see how many you can ascribe to alcohol, drugs, sleep paralysis or pareidolia. Hint: all of them. I’m not saying that there’s nothing “out there” – but often there is a sensible explanation.) It also gathers news stories from around the world on a range of interesting subjects, and in this month’s issue there is a two page spread on “super-rats” (FT371, pp16-17). Some of the stories are positive, or at least not overtly scaremongering – a short item about Gambian pouched rats being trained to sniff out land mines, for example.
The first one to annoy me is a story from Stockholm, where a rat nicknamed Ratzilla had reportedly “invaded” a family’s house and was eventually killed by a heavy duty trap. The story claims the family cat refused to go in the kitchen while the rat was there. The published photo shows a rat which does indeed look huge. But note the perspective on the photo – it is being held at arm’s length, a good deal nearer the camera than the torso of the person holding it, so of course it looks big. This is a common trick with these scare stories.
The rat is described as weighing a kilo, which admittedly is on the big side, but not unheard of. The measurement given – 39.5cm not including the tail – is again on the big side but was presumably taken after the vicious mutant killing machine was already dead and could be stretched out to get the biggest measurement possible. Out of interest I just measured Cromarty – body length 24cm, tail 23cm. He’s a fully grown buck but smaller than most so that’s not in any way an average; still, I can’t escape the suspicion that these news reports are exaggerated for effect.
The next story is of a palaeobiologist at Leicester University claiming that “[r]ats could grow to the size of sheep or even bigger as they evolve to fill vacant ecological niches”. It continues “… given enough time, rats could grow to be the size of the capybara… which can reach 80kg”. There are many ifs in the quotes, and of course the key phrase “given enough time”, but how many people would notice that on a casual reading? How many people glancing at this sort of news story have any grasp of evolutionary theory? I barely get the basics, and I actively try to read about and understand it because it fascinates me. But there are grown adults out there still repeating the “If evolution is true, why are there still monkeys” trope because they simply don’t (or don’t want to) accept that this stuff happens.
And then we move on to Birmingham and its rat infestation. Rats as wide as house bricks, more than 2ft long from nose to tail tip. More than 5100 alerts between April 2013 and April 2014. Massive mutant rats reported in Bradford, Durham, Liverpool and Dublin. A man photographed his Jack Russell terrier holding in its mouth a dead rat “almost as big as itself”. Well, JRs aren’t the biggest dogs, are they? If it had been a labrador that would have been interesting.
The blame is placed on less frequent rubbish collections and the increase in food waste bins, referred to as “slop buckets” which gives the impression they are open vessels. We have food waste bins, and the lids can be locked to prevent animals from getting into them. I often walk into town and see discarded food on the pavement – the other day I saw an open packet of crisps, almost full. If we had a rat problem that would have gone very fast. Why are we not blaming people for making a mess? The half-eaten kebab thrown on the pavement, the fly-tipped waste in alleys and on waste ground? Oh yes, because that would mean actually taking some responsibility for our own actions, and it’s much easier to blame the rats.
One last thing, about the size of these supposed giant rats. I have a theory. Most people have never seen a rat. Despite all the hype and panic, most people probably never will. They think rats are just a little bit bigger than mice. So if they actually see a fully grown rat, it is so much bigger than they expect that they freak out and decide it must be a mutant giant radioactive etc. etc.
Rats are much, much bigger than mice. Pest controllers should know this, which is why it’s so depressing to see them over estimating the size of the animals too. Maybe it’s for effect – “I do such a dangerous job, me!” Maybe it’s just that when something is moving, at speed, away from us it’s notoriously hard to gauge its size with any accuracy. You only have to go back to Fortean Times and the various stories over the years about big cats roaming the British countryside to see that. And it’s in our nature to exaggerate, especially with something scary, creepy or potentially dangerous.
Let’s finish on a positive note. Apopo trains pouched rats to save lives – some detect landmines, others are trained to detect tuberculosis. Check out their website for the amazing work they do, and maybe even sponsor a hero rat.