by Bev

Rats have been around since early Pleistocene, which started 2,588,000 years ago. There are several hundred species.

There are many references in our language about rats, mostly being derogatory: rat pack, rat run, to rat someone out, rat trap, mall rat, rat-arsed, rat race, ratty.

A rat is a pad to shape hair.

The word comes from 'rate', Old English.

Scientific terms: rat bite fever, rat fish.

A Chinese myth: This is the most widespread legend about Chinese zodiac. The Jade Emperor (The Emperor in Heaven in Chinese folklore) ordered that animals would be designated as calendar signs and the twelve that arrived first would be selected. At that time, the cat and the rat were good friends and neighbors. When they heard of this news, the cat said to the rat: 'We should arrive early to sign up, but I usually get up late.' The rat then promised to awaken his friend and go together. However, on the morning when he got up, he was too excited to recall his promise, and went directly to the gathering place. On the way, he encountered the tiger, ox, horse, and other animals that ran much faster. In order not to fall behind them, he thought up a good idea. He made the straightforward ox carry him on condition that he sang for the ox. At last, the ox and him arrived first. The ox was happy thinking that he would be the first sign of the years, but the rat had already slid in front, and became the first lucky animal of the Chinese zodiac. Meanwhile his neighbor the cat was too late so when it finally arrived, the selection was over. That's why other animals appear behind the little rat and why the cat hates the rat so much that every time they meet, the cat will chase and kill it.

If you are born in the year of the rat, you have characteristics of an animal with spirit, wit, alertness, delicacy, flexibility and vitality.

In the small village of Deshnok in North Rajastan sits the only temple in India devoted to rat worship. Every day hundreds of worshippers of the Hindu goddess Shri Karniji make the long pilgrimage to this shrine. Shri Karniji was born in 1444 and was reputed to have lived for 151 years.

In her temple in Deshnok, rats are found in large numbers as they are believed to be the incarnation of the goddess. These sacred rats, or kabas, are fed on gifts of food and milk which add up to about 2,500 a year.

The rats are fed around the clock so that they never leave the temple itself. At 11 o'clock every morning they cluster around a large bowl of buffalo milk set aside for them in the outer sanctum of the temple.

Hindu rats

Many people shrink at the thought of rats but these animals represent more than being the spreaders of plagues for they have, in the last few years, been found to be of help to man.

APOPO (Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling translated - Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development) is a registered Belgian non-governmental organisation started by Bart Weetjens to train African giant pouched rats, genus Cricetomys, to detect landmines and also tuberculosis. APOPO's programmes are run in Tanzania, Mozambique, Angola and Cambodia.

The system of deploying African giant pouched rats,and their extraordinary sense of smell to discover landmines, and also tuberculosis, was developed by Weetjens whose fascination for rodents grew after being given a hamster for his 9th birthday.

Graduating as a Product Development Engineer from Antwerp University, Weetjens designed a simple soyabean-threshing machine for rural communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo gaining working experience in European industries and was also part of the team that developed low, step-in buses for the disabled, a system adopted all over Europe.

Bart Weetjens
Bart Weetjens

Wanting to use his skills to benefit African communities he was alerted to the plight of local peoples coming into contact with landmines which concern brought about the idea of using rats as mine detectors. He received help from his former professors at Antwerp University, partnered with the University of Agriculture in Morogoro, Tanzania, and so APOPO was formed and the Hero-RATS were born. In 2004, APOPO's first mine-detection rats achieved official accreditation according to International Mine Action Standards and fully integrated mine-clearance operations began in Mozambique in 2006.

Full training of a detection rat takes about 9 months. They are trained to associate a click sound with a food reward of banana or peanuts. After learning that click means food they are trained on a target scent. They then learn that when they indicate that TNT is present they will hear a click and then get rewarded with food.

A Hero-RAT getting his reward
A Hero-RAT getting his reward

There are several advantages to using African giant pouched rats to detect landmines. They are indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa where they are used and are, thus, well-suited to the climate. They are also resistant to many endemic diseases and are widely available and inexpensive to procure. Few resources are needed to raise a rat to adulthood and they have a relatively long lifespan of six to eight years. They do not form bonds with specific trainers, being more motivated to work for food, thereby allowing trained rats to be transferred between handlers.

For we animal lovers with concerns over the use of these creatures, it is stressed that they are too light on their feet to detonate mines. They weigh between 2 and 3lb with body lengths of about 9 - 17" which means they are easily transported between sites. They wear harnesses connected to ropes suspended between two handlers and methodically sweep demarcated areas using their remarkable sense of smell to indicate explosives by scratching the ground. These areas are then marked up for manual de-mining teams to detect and destroy the mines. Criticism of this method is that the rats cannot search reliably in thick vegetation, therefore, proof of mine-free areas is not always possible. Also, they can only work for short periods in the heat. Since the start of APOPO's operations their Mozambique Mine Action team has returned to the population over 6 million sq metres of land and has destroyed over 2,400 landmines.

A young Hero-RAT learning to associate clicks with bananas and peanuts
A young Hero-RAT learning to associate clicks with bananas and peanuts

In 2008 APOPO provided proof of principle for the utilisation of trained rats in detecting pulmonary tuberculosis in humans from sputum samples, and, in 2010, they launched a three-year research plan to closely examine the effectiveness of detection rats in diagnosing TB, one of the deadliest diseases in the world responsible for 9.2 million new illnesses and 1.7 million deaths each year, mainly in poor countries.

A rat hitching a lift

This rat was saved from drowning when a fat frog leaped to its rescue. The frog appeared at the rat's side as it clung to some debris in the middle of a small pond on the outskirts of north Indian city Lucknow. Unable to swim, the frog offered a helping hand allowing the rat to board his back before he swam to the safety of the shoreline.

A rat hitching a lift

The seven Lucky Gods of Japan travel on Takara-Bune, the treasure ship which sails into port on New Year's Eve. The treasures the ship carries are the Inexhaustible Purse, the Invisible-Making Hat, the Lucky Coat, the Wealth Mallet, the Ghost-Chasing Rat, the Full Bag of Rice, and the Magic Key. Pictures of this ship are laid under children's pillows, so that they may have happy dreams.

I'm not sure about the ghost-chasing ghost! One of the gods is Daikoku, god of wealth and prosperity, and also the god of grain, so naturally has rats with him! The older Buddhist gods of Japan were jealous of Daikoku, and asked the demon of the dead to get rid of him. But the Daikoku's rat discovered the demon, and drove him away with a sprig of holly.

The picture shows Daikoku with his bag of grain, and his rats.

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