A Brief Digression On Rodents

Kage Baker,  like so many people, hated rats. Humans mostly don’t like them; I suspect even indifference to them is an acquired taste, and genuine affection takes work and special interests.

Kage said that one could go into this human dislike for rats in all sorts of lofty terms about philosophical recognition of a breed disturbingly similar to our own, if one wanted to be stuck up about it. Rats, like humans, are very clever  beasties who have managed to adapt to just about all environments. More than us, even – some of them live in water, and none of us do. Rats, like us, are omnivorous; they have a natural mob mentality; given their druthers, they’re gregarious, highly social, and promiscuous. They exhibit an alarming degree of self awareness. They laugh, they cry and they go mad.

On a less philosophical plane, of course, Kage observed that all this makes the furry buggers really effective competition for humans. They’ve colonized our cities – we have yet to successfully colonize their warrens, and in fact we built most of them. So it’s just self-preservation, she felt, to abhore the little scuttlers.

They aren’t even especially cute, as mice are. Mice have sweetly neotonic faces, and the sure-fire fascination of being teeny weeny little beasties. Rats have faces that are their own by-word for sneaky and underhanded; and rats can be as long as your forearm. True, they have fur, which gives them points over things like iguanas; but they have those weird naked tails. Not to mention those horrid little pink hands …

Full disclosure, here: I, personally, like rats. Years of interest in biology have exposed me to their many virtues. What I am trying to do here is get into the ratophobic heads of the most of humanity. And most of humanity hates rats.

Though there are good reasons to dislike rodents …

I must admit to harboring ill will to a specific few of them. Our cottage in Pismo was ancient and built of things salvaged form shipwrecks – rats invaded it from time to time, and had to be fought out room by room. They mostly stayed in the walls, and practiced  noisy guerrilla warfare from behind the plasterboard: squeaking and shrieking and galloping about with (apparently) tap shoes on their paws, making an appalling racket.  I hated those guys.

And the gophers. They undermined most of Pismo Beach, and made constant forays in our garden. Gophers are evil. I suppose someone is going to tell me now that they fertilize grain or cacao or something else vital, but I don’t believe it. They are vile.

Kage was revolted by all rodents, though.  (Except squirrels. She liked squirrels.) But hamsters, gerbils, mice, rats – all the critters that have been the foes of farmwives and the pets of apartment-dwellers made her shudder. “Remember the Black Death,” she would mutter. “The rats almost got us once, you know!”

Well, but they were press-ganged into that one. Sure, it was rats and their fleas that brought the Plague to Europe (repeatedly) but it didn’t originate with them. They got accidentally infected by the fleas of the original animal reservoir of the disease, just like we did. That reservoir has only recently been identified with any degree of certainty, and small wonder they had to draft the rats to make it to Europe! The goofiest Italian sailors would have noticed plague-twitchy giant gerbils wandering around their ships.

Giant gerbils. From Kazakhstan. They turn out to probably be the original source of Yersinia pestis, and still a potent reservoir for it. The rats were just their patsies. These monsters (Really. Up to 16 inches long.) are at last unmasked. And they are still in business in Kazakhstan and Mongolia, too, where the natives have an ancient and involved mythology on when you can safely hunt gerbils … mostly, never.

Hamster are no better, really. Well, maybe – they don’t spread plague very often; but they do make life miserable for certain lab workers. Chinese Golden Hamsters are renowned for two things – they have some of the biggest (proportional) testicles of any rodents, and they are vicious little bastards. The fact that they are little  bastards with huge balls makes them handy for reproductive research – they don’t take up much room, and are well-endowed for the work. But they chew up graduate students.

Kage found the combination horrible, but hilarious.

Hamsters in general seem to hide their evil with cuteness. Right now, French farmers are having a problem with feral hamsters. The Great Hamster of Alsace has, according to the EU, not been properly preserved by French farmers. The EU is siding with the hamsters and fining the French farmers heavily. The French farmers seem to be giving serious thought to the concept of, if there are no Great Alsation Hamsters there will be no Great Alsation Hamster problem …

I don’t make this stuff up, Dear Readers, I just report it.

I bring all this up today because I have just discovered some of this information – all at once, which is odd. How often do you find serious rodent news all concentrated in just a few days? Kage always said that when you suddenly began finding information on a topic, you should pay attention – there might be a message or a story there.

Also, we are trying to put up squirrel feeders here, and running into some intelligence problems. Some of those are ours, I must admit, but some are the squirrels’ – they are very good at getting in to things, and really, really bad at getting out of them again. We made some clever squirrel feeders out of cut-down plastic liter bottles, and now we have … several hysterical bottled squirrels.

Sigh. How can the rodents lose so many battles, and yet be winning the war? It must be the Giant Gerbils sending dispatches from Kazakhstan …

Great Hamster of Alsace

Giant Gerbil of Kazakhstan

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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13 Responses to A Brief Digression On Rodents

  1. Laura says:

    “But they chew up graduate students.”

    I took a biology class in college where the professor was discussing how camels don’t sweat. This was discovered (according to the professor) by some poor schmuck of a researcher shaving a camel to discover how much sweat was coming off of it. After class we were discussing who, exactly, had to shave that camel. The PI (primary investigator, aka Boss) would tell the post-doc to do it. The post-doc would tell the grad student to do it. The grad student would tell the undergrad lab assistant to do it. The undergrad lab assistant would tell the grad student where to stick it, as he/she does not get paid nearly enough in work-study to put up with that. The grad student would like to graduate someday and so ends up having to shave the damn camel. Grad students always get the short end of the stick. Just look at Beaker the Muppet…

    Also, after that, any onerous task was known as “shaving the camel.”

  2. MaggiRos says:

    Okay, you don’t often make me literally Laugh Out Loud, but you just did. Hysterical bottled squirrels! Orders from Kazakhstan! ROFL, no really!

  3. Margaret says:

    I never knew that gerbils came in Giant. And I was quite happy that way.
    As for the Great Hamster of Alsace, he does have an interesting color scheme, but otherwise what’s so great about him – utters prophesies, makes sparkling dinner conversation, tap-dances wonderfully, what?

    • Kate says:

      Maggie – everything comes in giant.Or in dwarf. It’s some kind of universal dictum, just to mess with our minds. As for the Alsation Hamster – which is quite a handsome little vermin, I must admit – apparently the EU wants them preserved because they are unique, found only in Alsace, and annoy the French.
      Hard to argue with their reasoning.

  4. Mark Shanks says:

    Bottled squirrels? Not *that’s* something I haven’t tried. How do you manufacture the bottle traps?

    Those damn bushy-tailed tree rats (having a decorative tail does not make them “cute”) regularly tear through my garden, rooting up carefully tended vegetables & herbs to bury the *&^%$#@ peanuts my idiot neighbor feeds them. That and taking *one freaking bite* from the green plums & oranges….and throwing them down on the ground to feed the bugs. I’m about ready to get a pest-control hunting license…

    Anyone know any good squirrel recipes? Or how to tan the skins& tails?

    • Kate says:

      Mark – they aren’t meant to be traps, they just came out that way! But what you do is to cut down a plastic liter bottle, so you have a plastic bowl-shaped thingie left. Punch holes in each side, and string it up in a tree with nuts and other squirrel goodies in it. BUT! If you make it too tall – don’t cut enough bottle off in the first place – they can’t get out once they get in, and just scrabble at the plastic in futile desperation.
      As for squirrel recipes – well, you don’t get big cuts off a squirrel. But they make good pies, and they are a classic ingredient in mincemeat – one of my grandfathers used to make it with squirrels in. The Earl of Buccleuch puts out a recipe book, available at the castle bookstore on the Border, encouraging English visitors to eat the imported grey squirrels so as to save the native red ones … although it has recently become slightly awkward, as the grey American squirrels turn out to carry Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease.

  5. Alex says:

    Haha bottled squirrels? Sounds very entertaining. Personally, though, I like hamsters, mice, squirrels, and even domestic rats (to a point). Now feral rats … no way. I’ve heard horror stories of apartment dwellers waking up in the middle of the night to find a rat sitting on their face making a meal of the cartilage between their nostrils. Still my sister had a domestic rat and it was very sweet. It would even sit on her shoulder like a pet parrot or something.

  6. There also appears to be I believe, a giant chipmunk in Argentina. I like rats, because they seem to have culture. I have known personally a few with extraordinary gifts. I am alas slightly allergic, or I believe I’d have some still. I do however find the rest of them odious. especially squirrels and hamsters. (elaborate reasonings concerning these provided on request.)

  7. David says:

    “How can the rodents lose so many battles, and yet be winning the war?” I would answer: the same way the humans do. By sheer idiotic volume. Mark’s story, right in this hear thread, is a great example: “Those damn bushy-tailed tree rats (having a decorative tail does not make them “cute”) regularly tear through my garden, rooting up carefully tended vegetables & herbs to bury the *&^%$#@ peanuts my idiot neighbor feeds them.” Which I might edit to read: “rooting up carefully tended vegetables & herbs to bury the peanuts my *&^%$#@ neighbor feeds them.” But that’s just because I don’t like our race. ;o)

    • David says:

      Guh. I of course meant to type “this *here* thread”, but my English is still recovering from a recent trip. Sorry for the lazy (read: missing) proofreading.

  8. Kate says:

    David – “Sheer idiotic volume”. What a perfect description of humanity …

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