Whether or not you smell them, their presence remains ubiquitous. You will find them everywhere. Having followed humans to just about every corner of the globe, these creatures have demonstrated their incredible propensity for travel. Rats are as much comfortable on moving ships as in running trains. They may have been cause for grounding an Air India flight in the recent past, but are unlikely to miss their big ticket travel on board the space station in near future! Rodent astronauts are on NASA’s agenda for the next launch of the space station.
Be it in space or on earth, human-rodent coexistence has been enigmatic. Based on fossils, researchers have argued that a mouse-like creature that scoured around bushes some 160 million years ago gave rise to humans. Whether or not this research gets validated, the strange paradox is that these lowly creatures have been part of our collective psyche as Mickey Mouse, Tom and Jerry, and Stuart Little.
There are rats that are killed and there are lab-rats that are admired. There are rats that are eaten and there are rats that are considered sacred. There are rats that are chased away and there are rats that accompany the gods. Abhorred and adored in equal measure, rats have been victims of man’s changing priorities and opportunistic misadventure.
Chemical and biological atrocities notwithstanding, rodents have spurned all acts of violence against them. If a global census was to be conducted, rodents would outnumber humans. Ironically, all attempts to get rid of them have helped their numbers swell. Despite many localities across the world vying for a rodent-free tag, rats remain part of our collective coexistence.
Rats may have remained small in size, but their stature has been taller on the evolutionary time scale, having arrived on this planet some 50 million years ahead of humans and other large mammals. No wonder, a four-month-old rat had the audacity to question the age of a baby elephant. “I am four months old,” it replied. Not to be taken aback, the rat retorted, “I am your age, but have been sick for a while.”
A day may come when rats will outgrow their size and take over the earth. If rat menace is any indication, the takeover has already begun. Humans may have been the reason for the extinction of many species, but are unlikely to impact the evolution of rats. A palaeobiologist contends that one day giant rats will become the dominant species.
In John Steinbeck’s classic, The Wayward Bus, the young college student dismisses her father’s lifestyle because she thought it was pointless to race with the rats because in a rat race the one who wins can only be a ‘rat’. Literally!
(Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma is the founder of Ecological Foundation, New Delhi, India.)