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Totems: Rat, Part 2 of 2

by Cie Simurro, a.k.a., Thunderbird Starwoman


Rats are among the smartest of wild creatures. Though anatomically similar to mice, rat behavior is different. They like to explore their environment, and can find their way through mazes. Rats have excellent memories. Once they learn a navigation route, they won’t forget it. All rats are quick to learn by experience, and they retain knowledge gained. Like their 4-legged counterparts, people with this totem are well equipped to cope with new challenges and situations. They are masters of adaptation, and can either work well alone or with a team. Like wolves, there is an alpha rat in each pack, and the members have rank. The pack takes care of one another. Rats will work together to bring large quantities of food to safe locations to be eaten later.

Altricial animals like rats are born helpless, as opposed to precocial, when they are up and about right away. Rats soon make up for it. They mature quickly, breed early and have frequent, large litters. A single pair and their offspring can reproduce thousands in only one year. The reason Nature designed them this way is that they, and similar rodents are the major food of a whole mess of animals and birds. They would otherwise have already become extinct. Owls are the primary predators of rats. Barn owls, Great-horned and Barred owls, as well as snakes (Rat snakes, Bull and King snakes pursue them into their lairs), followed by hawks, foxes, raccoons, weasels, skunks, opossums and bobcats. Terriers were bred in Europe to be first-class ratters. Most meat-eaters will hunt rats if they get a chance, including dogs and cats. 

A female rat is ready to breed at three months. Her eggs can be fertilized every four days. Oh – and after a 21-day pregnancy, she is ready to mate again, if she’s not too busy nesting with her 6-18 babies. Rat mothers are attentive and nurturing, as humans with this totem are. After each baby is born, the mother removes the amniotic sac from around the baby and eats the umbilical cord and placenta after licking the baby clean to stimulate it’s breathing and blood flow. The only thing these hairless, blind 4-leggeds can do is pull themselves forward with their front legs, and squeak for help. Their low-range ultrasonic cries can only be heard by other rats and by your cat! Babies nurse almost constantly, day and night for the first three weeks. By the time they have a layer of hair and their eyes have opened, mom is ready to wean them over their protests. Soon enough they begin trying adult food, and moving by climbing and tumbling.

Animals on a diet of seasonal foods often suffer nutritional imbalances, and yet their physiology adapts. Rats on the other hand are highly neophobic. This fear of new foods and situations may reduce poisoning. That rats are cannibalistic is generally untrue, except in intense situations such as overcrowding and malnutrition, and if one or more of her babies is sick, the mother will eat it. She might also eat the babies of another female. They will eat anything that contains vegetable or animal matter, as well as paint, glue, soap, leather and garbage. On the other hand, in wilderness areas with enough food, they will only eat wild food. Wild rats are “gnawers” and have been known to eat through lead pipes and even gnaw through concrete! Damage from chewing amounts to millions of dollars a year in the U.S. alone. A rat that doesn’t continuously gnaw will be killed by its own teeth. It has been estimated that in a 3-year span, those upper and lower incisor teeth would grow to a length of over 29 inches. Those of the lower jaw could perforate the palate or grow out of their mouths into their eyes.

The Black rat was introduced from the Orient, and the Norwegian or Brown rat a.k.a. Water rat or Sewer rat, from Eurasia (not Norway). So how did they get to North America? The British get the blame for that. In 1776, they hired Hessian troops to fight against the colonists. They brought big boxes of grain to feed their horses, which inadvertently contained brown rats. One of the primary characteristics of rats and those with this power animal is being opportunistic when life presents an occasion. Survival is nature’s greatest opportunity. Rats soon infiltrated every means of travel: ships, railroad cars, covered wagons and carts - penetrating every state, territory and wilderness in America and Canada. Another way they’re opportunistic is that those that live in rural areas will migrate from their winter quarters of underground tunnel networks, to fields where they have easy access to grain. When cold weather approaches, they move back.

You can recognize a Brown rat by its size (about like a squirrel), pointy face, bright eyes, prominent whiskers and that long, bald tail. They swim well and are experts at catching fish. They are so versatile in diet and behavior that they are now the dominant rat species in the temperate zones of the world. Brown rats will fight for their lives so ferociously that they will even attack dogs, cats, and people.

As their name suggests, Ord’s Kangaroo rats have powerful hind legs and get about by hopping. Each rat has its own distinctive drumming signature. With hind legs almost half the size of its body, the Kangaroo rat drums with the tips of both hind feet while balancing on its tail and forefeet. The smaller front legs are used for grooming and for boxing. Yes, this little mammal will fight with surprising ferocity to defend its territory. Large eardrums and eyes are for hearing and seeing predators at night. Since they mostly live in dry, sandy areas, their reproductive timing corresponds with the expected seed crop. Breeding follows the rainy seasons. They are masters of survival. The diet is impossibly dry, taking in only a tenth of the moisture needed. How does our little friend get around this? They make up the difference from water produced through cellular respiration during food metabolism. They also partake of dew on leaves at night. Conservation of energy occurs by staying in cool burrows during the day, thereby avoiding the need to sweat. Fecal droppings are dry; super-efficient kidneys produce urine 4x more concentrated than human urine; and water vapor from the rat’s cool nose condenses before it is breathed out. Unfortunately, even though there are not many left of this fellow and his relatives, they are threatened with habitat destruction as people develop the corridors around deserts for agriculture or urban centers.

It is my hope that knowing more about the natural history and significance of rat as a totem will wipe away prejudice. I think we have to ask the question: Why do we hate rats? Well, to be fair, rats do tend to spread disease. Rats are most infamous for spreading the Bubonic plague in the Middle Ages. Since this killed a third of the population in Europe, they developed quite a bad rep, even though it isn’t the rats themselves that cause deadly disease. Fleas, lice, ticks and internal parasites use rats as carriers. Rats, as well as humans have the onus of being hosts to the organisms that cause typhus fever, bubonic plague, rabies and salmonella. Add to that, the fact that they live off stored food and crops, and you have both farmers and householders hating them. Finally, they breed prolifically, living in huge packs (up to 60 Black rats, and 200 Brown rats to a pack).

Here we come to the truth we humans have to face – those germs? They get them mostly from us. Rodents pick up and carry the germs our discards (like garbage and poorly stored food) provide. Rats take great pains to clean themselves, using their tongues, teeth and claws to groom dirt from their fur, and covering their palms with saliva to get their faces and whiskers clean. Pet rats are friendly, intelligent and very social. Gentle handling allows them to ride around with their person in a pocket or explore, since curiosity is part of their intelligence.

Rats are often bred for genetics, physiology, neurology, behavior and psychology experimentation. While we certainly should appreciate the lives the species has sacrificed on our behalf, I feel there are always alternatives to animal experimentation.
Still not a fan? Here are some Rat Facts to emphasize that may help you appreciate, if not like them:

A rat can go longer than a camel without water.

It can fall some five stories without injury - survive large doses of radiation - swim for half a mile across open water - and tread water for 3 days. Over generations, they tend to build up certain immunities to poisons.

Those rat tails that make you shudder, help rats to balance, communicate, and regulate body temperature.

Rats take care of injured and sick rats in their group.

Like humans, without companionship rats tend to become lonely and depressed.

The rat is the first of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. People born in the year of the Rat possess characteristics associated with rats: creativity, intelligence, honesty, ambition and generosity

Brown rats have gone to space, and returned none the worse for wear.

Rats are extremely social and affectionate animals. They enjoy the company of other rats and domestic rats love being with humans.

WHAT’S NOT TO LOVE?


Cie Simurro ~ Thunderbird Starwoman has been a Healer, Writer, Minister, Advocate and Steward for the natural world for over 40 years; author of this column for 17 years. For Healing for you or your animal, or to buy a print or e-version of Totems for Stewards of the Earth go to www.CieSimurro.com, or send $22 to PO 295, Shelburne Falls MA 01370. Phone: 413 625-0385 or email: cie@ciesimurro.com


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