In an interview with Maite van Gerwen, project leader and PhD candidate at the Centre for Sustainable Animal Stewardship (CenSAS, Utrecht University), we talked about the special abilities of rats and the benefits that coexistence can bring to humans. Maite studied Animal Sciences at Wageningen University & Research with a specialization in behavior and welfare and is doing her PhD on treatment of rats and mice in pest management.
Rats, like pigeons, seagulls and mice, are often considered a pest, which is why municipalities make enormous efforts to keep these animal populations down, in the case of rats using rodenticides, live and dead traps or drowning. Rats, Maite explains, are not covered by the Nature Conservation Act of the Netherlands: "They kind of fall in between everything, so they're not protected. And that leads to the situation where people can actually do a lot of things with these animals to kill them."
So why should we pay any attention to animals that are actually a nuisance to humans? Are there perhaps behaviors and idiosyncrasies of rats that we can appreciate? Does urban cohabitation have advantages for us humans? Do rats perhaps have superpowers that we don't know about because we have already labeled them as "bad"?
Rats are part of the urban ecosystem. As such, they destroy food scraps and waste, making our cities cleaner. At the same time, they can be considered indicators of a health and hygiene imbalance: if there are problems with waste disposal or sewage systems in a neighborhood, this can be immediately identified and remedied by increased rat sightings.
Rats are opportunists and masters of adaptation. Studies show that rats have genetically adapted to become accustomed to other diets and become resistant against rodenticides for example. They defy all adverse living conditions and survive because of their cunning nature. For example, they send the younger ones ahead to scout out a terrain. If they do not return, the older ones know that there is danger and are more cautious. It is precisely because they are so smart that it is so difficult to get rid of them. Maite aptly describes: "This might be one of the reasons why people don't like them because they are in some ways quite similar in being super animals: they are everywhere and they are smart. It could be a challenge to communicate in a certain way to divide space. Maybe we can learn something about ourselves by looking at rats."
So what can we do to improve the way we live together? A lot of people enjoy interacting with animals that live in cities, they feed the ducks in the park or birds on the balcony. Instead of feeling attached to only some animal species – or to lab rats more than to those living on the streets - the goal could be to try to coexist respectfully and peacefully with all of them. Just like other animal species, rats live together, care for their young, and are ultimately social creatures - just like us. Large cities are man-made places, so we have created the habitat of rats and are therefore partly responsible for creating a healthy coexistence.
So how can an art center like Mediamatic raise awareness on the topic? How can we shift our perspective? Maite is convinced that we should treat rats better than we do now - starting for example by looking at the role humans play in facilitating them by feeding any species living in the city. Since there is so much to learn about these amazing animals - how smart and social they are - we could begin to embrace our similarities.