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Rats, so sweet and whiskery!

Byline: Hilarie Stelfox

"I THINK," said the Man-in-Charge the other night, with the air of someone about to make an important announcement, "that we've got a rat."

There's not a lot you can say in reply to such a statement, other than: "A RAT?" "Yes, it's living in the compost bin."

Our giant white cat Jason stirred briefly in his slumbers on top of the pouffe.

Perhaps he was dreaming about the rat, which he must surely have encountered during his brief forays into the great outdoors.

"It's made a tunnel.

I'm going to have to dig it out," continued The Man, who was warming to the theme of pest eradication.

I've discovered over the years that men enjoy such challenges.

I think it must appeal to their basic hunting instincts.

"We really shouldn't have to do anything," I replied, gesticulating around the room. "We've got four cats."

Cat number two, Leo, rolled languorously on the back of the sofa as if to indicate that ratting was far too tiring a prospect (he and his soporific kind are systematically ruining our sofas by leaving smuts and deep indents on every cushion).

"Rats are a bit fierce," said The Man, who actually has a great admiration for the tough, smart and adaptable creatures (the rats, that is).

He says they make excellent pets if you can get past the scaly tails.

But, of course, our rat is not a pet; it is a pest, a verminous visitor.

If it was up to me I'd probably ignore the problem because I'm one of those people who thinks that rats and mice are actually whiskery and cute and don't deserve persecution.

In fact, I'd be putting little dishes of rat food out in the garden and giving it a name; maybe Ruby or Ricky (I can almost hear the communal grinding of teeth from environmental health officers).

The Man, however, says they are insanitary and spread disease.

His is the voice of reason, mine the voice of irrational, fluffy bunny sentimentality.

And so this weekend we will attempt to discourage our resident rat by destroying its tunnel and, possibly, its nest.

I just hope we don't find any babies because it will make me feel like the villain of a Disney film.

When I mentioned this to The Girl she said: "If there are babies can we keep them?" thereby proving herself to be even soppier than me.

Human beings have had a long and not altogether consistent relationship with rats.

We put poison down for them and experiment on them in horrible ways.

But we also keep fancy rats as pets (put 'rat' into a search engine and you'll find some extremely pampered rats indeed); and give them leading roles in cartoon movies and picture books, often as the hero.

The common rat, Rattus norvegicus, has a reputation for carrying disease, which is why everyone gets so hysterical at the thought of a rodent infestation and starts shouting 'Weil's Disease.'

But, Weil's Disease or leptospirosis, transmitted by water that has been infected with rat's urine, is fairly rare.

Nasty, but hardly ever picked up by humans.

As every schoolchild knows the Black Rat was responsible for the Black Death (or its fleas were), which killed half the population of Europe.

However, there's now a theory that the reason why the plagues diminished and eventually disappeared is that the Black Rat was displaced by the Brown Rat, which was less prone to carry the fleas and, therefore, rats were both our destroyers and saviours.

Rats appear in the folklore of every culture.

The Chinese made the rat the first of their 12 astronomical animals and say that people born in the Year of the Rat are creative, honest and generous but quick-tempered.

In north-west India there is a temple where the rat population is fed by the priests, who believe the animals will be reincarnated as holy men.

Then, of course, there is the fairytale the Pied Piper of Hamelin, in which rats are removed from an infested German town, said to date from medieval times.

People have been keeping fancy rats since the 19th century and today rat showing is a popular activity.

In fact, there's a National Fancy Rat Society show in Harrogate this very weekend. Unfortunately, we're too late to submit our rat because the closing date for entries was Thursday.

But there's always next year.

All we have to do is catch our rat.


SO CUTE: If the usual type of rid-a rat looked like movie star Ratatouille I'd give him house room
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Publication:Huddersfield Daily Examiner (Huddersfield, England)
Date:Jan 24, 2009
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