Why do we need to know about rats?

Or: Why science anyway?

Welcome to Team Trash, a newsletter about the places where humans and wildlife meet. I'm Bethany Brookshire, science journalist and author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains.

I was visiting a Zoom book club last week (and yes, you can have me Zoom into your book club if your club is reading my book! Feel free to get in touch!) with a bunch of very smart people, and we got to talking about the rat czar. One of the participants noticed that, in all of the coverage about what the rat czar will do, several urban rat experts said we really need more science on the rats. Why, she wondered do we need more science, for something that we want to be rid of?

While some science people might react with horror (we always need more science!), it's a very good question. The reasons for scientific research aren't always apparent. There is, of course, the fact that these researchers' jobs depends on us wanting to know about urban rats. So there is that. But they really do have a point.

One of my sources likes to say that we know more about the ecology of polar bears than we do about urban rats. I don't know if she's right, but she might be (we know a lot about polar bears. I mean, they're polar bears!). The point is we know very little about urban rats. We don't know how their social structures work when they hang out in dense populations like the streets of New York. We don't know which type of nests they prefer or whether they divide into social gangs that defend territory. We don't really know where they get their water (though we have guesses), or how they pick who to date. We don't know whether older litters help out with younger ones, or whether teen rats are booted from the nest onto the street in exactly 21 days.

We know a great deal about the habits of laboratory rats, but while those are the same species, they are as different as a cauliflower and a brussel sprout (which are, by the way, the same species).

And you might say, well, who cares? What's the point? All we want to do is kill them! And if we know anything already, it's a lot of different ways to kill rats. Mouse and rat trap patents have filled and continue to fill numerous volumes (I have some!).

But the thing is: we're never going to kill them all. We humans like to think we can extinct anything if we have enough will. We are very, very wrong. If you need lots of evidence for that, I've got a whole book for you!

So we need to live with them. Live with them, and hopefully not in TOO close proximity. We need to live with some rats, knowing they are there, but keeping their numbers down enough for the safety of people living in the city.

In order to do that, we need to know a lot more about rats. Learning about the social structures, for example, could help us deploy rats against each other, keeping the populations low. Learning about their sex lives could help us develop more effective birth control (there is some, it's not working so great). Or maybe it could help us genetically edit the rats to reproduce less--or not at all (something scientists are currently trying in mosquitoes and mice). Learning about diseases rats carry could help us develop vaccines before those diseases spill over into humans.

And learning what rats want and need could help us make sure we aren't inadvertently giving them more of those things. Giving them food we didn't even realize, or shelter we didn't see.

Knowledge is power. And we definitely need more of it.

Where have you been? 

Is it reading this piece about a "morning-after pill" for STIs? Because bacterial sexually-transmitted infections are skyrocketing. And let's be clear, these are diseases no one deserves, any more than you deserve getting COVID after a friend coughed on you because you were hanging out together. STIs can happen to anyone, and it's lovely to see research out there to try and prevent them. There are of course plenty of caveats.

Speaking of COVID, I find the headline "COVID still a leading cause of death as virus recedes" unexpectedly funny. Because...it's still a leading cause of death. People are still getting COVID. They're still dying. We just stopped caring.

RIP Buzzfeed News. A lot of people don't realize the purveyor of listicles operated a Pulitzer-worthy newsroom. It's awful so see great journalists lose their jobs. And a lot of it is because...well people believe news should be free. And maybe it should! But if it is...who gets paid to produce it?

Where have I been?

Getting a small rash (in a good way?) of lovely reviews! One in Earth Island Journal, another in EcoFriendlyWest, EcoLitBooks, and more! EcoLitBooks says "Pests, while revealing our very disturbing past and present attitude toward animals, offers hope to those willing to see it." These reviews warm my heart so much.

And writing for Slate about the new rat czar! And why poison and traps are never going to be enough.