A work entitled "Banksus Militus Vandalus" is displayed in the first unauthorised retrospective of works by British graffiti artist Banksy in London on June 6, 2014. (JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Rodents have had a terrible reputation ever since they got unfairly blamed for that whole bubonic plague thing. (It was the fleas, people! The fleas!) Rodent reputations have not benefited since, thanks to the fact that people more readily remember the face-eating rats from George Orwell's 1984, than they do, say, Remy from Ratatouille.
Full disclosure before we get into this: I am an unapologetic rodent enthusiast. I believe that any animal that can eat with its hands is deserving of our respect. I had a multitude of hamsters growing up, and when a friend of mine found a baby rat in a pile of abandoned toys on San Francisco's Capp Street a few years ago, I took her in and gave her full reign of my home, free range, for the rest of her woefully short life. Over time, she recognized her name and came when called, and also liked going out for walks. She was basically a tiny dog with more digital dexterity and less of a life span.
Here she is with an avocado she stole out of my bag:
Part of my love for rodents probably stems from watching a slightly surreal, British, stop-motion children's TV show called Bagpuss, during my formative years. The mice in Bagpuss popped up any time someone needed help. They wore tiny outfits, they cleaned, they fixed and they sang the whole time they were doing it. For four-year-olds in 1982, it really didn't get any better than this:
So imagine my unfiltered joy recently, when a real-life helper mouse was caught on camera, tidying up a shed in England. Little Fievel wasn't wearing a dress unfortunately, but still—the dedication to decluttering this work surface is inspiring.
Arguably, rodents are some of the most underrated mammals on Earth. Like cats, mice and rats groom themselves multiple times a day. Like dogs, they are extremely social and enjoy playing (and laughing!) According to PeTA, they are "less likely than dogs or cats to transmit parasites and viruses." Rodents are relatively easy to train and very intelligent too, which is why they've been employed as badass security operatives on more than one occasion.
It started in the 1970s when, somehow (and I really wish we knew how) the Royal Canadian Mounted Police figured out that gerbils could smell human adrenaline. Since Israel was in the middle of a full-blown terrorism crisis at the time, the decision was made to post teams of gerbils at security checks around Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. If the animals smelled higher than usual adrenaline levels wafting over from nearby passengers, they'd hit a lever, alerting airport agents to the potential danger. Sadly, no footage is available of this happening, so I cannot confirm whether or not they got to wear teeny tiny police badges.
While we no longer see gerbils in airports today, teams of African Pouch Rats are still hard at work, sniffing out landmines as only creatures this small and smart possibly could. Land that takes a human de-miner up to four days to cover, can be cleared by a HeroRAT in just half an hour.
Check out these banana-loving daredevils in action:
What's more, pouch rats have also been trained to detect tuberculosis, and can do so 96 times faster than a lab technician, according to Apopo, an organization that has been working with the tiny detectives for over two decades now. If you fancy sending the rats some fruit or some healthcare as a thank you, Apopo can make that happen.
One place where rats are definitely getting their due is Rajasthan in Northern India. One temple there, named after Karni Mata—a Hindu sage, healer and warrior who is said to have lived 151 years and is now an official deity—is also home to some 15,000+ rats who are thought to bring good fortune to worshippers. “We consider the rats as a form of the goddess," one visitor told National Geographic. "We worship them.”
People are only permitted inside the temple barefoot, lest they squish one of the sacred rodents. The priest of the temple eats, sleeps and prays with the rats. The belief here is that when humans die, they are reborn as rats, and when rats die, they are reborn as humans. The priest believes many of the rats in his care are his deceased relatives. "Some are my fathers, my grandfathers," he says, "my whole family is here."
Look! It's like Thanksgiving, but different:
Sadly, in America, rodents are still predominantly viewed as either pests or snake food, though Bay Area rescue organizations like Rattie Ratz and the SPCA are working to make the world a kinder place for them. Happy World Rat Day, everyone!
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.