Humans Vs. Rats

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Rats: Public Enemy No. 1
The hatred we feel for rats is the respect due our toughest enemies.

Brian Bethune - June 12th 2006.

In the spring of 1999, journalist Jerry Langton went to gawk at Manhattan's latest celebrities, a pair of red-tailed hawks nesting in Central Park. On his first visit, the female tore a gray squirrel into bite-sized hunks for her brood, and many in the crowd watching muttered uncomfortable "nature red in tooth and claw" comments. The next day, though, when the male flew home with a rat wriggling in its talons, onlookers leapt to their feet in a loud ovation. Yes, indeed, the human hatred for rats can only be described as visceral. Small wonder, of course, given rats' record of corpse making and corpse eating, their ongoing assault on our food supplies, and their general stomach-turning creepiness. "Everyone has his or her rat story," remarks Langton, who has included a few personal testimonials in his appallingly informative Rat: How the World's Most Notorious Rodent Clawed its Way to the Top. "And everyone wants the rat they met dead, not just moved somewhere else."

Part of that reaction is the hostile respect due a worthy adversary, and natural enemies don't come any tougher than rattus rattus (the black rat), and its bigger, meaner cousin rattus norvegicus (the Norway or brown rat). Their astounding adaptability lets them eat virtually anything, from the stuff we want, like grain and electrical insulation, to the stuff we don't, like sewage and garbage. They live anywhere, too: rats have been found deep underground in coal mines, surviving on miners' crumbs, and thriving in meat lockers, nesting warmly inside animal carcasses.

A superb sense of taste means rats can detect poison down to 0.5 parts in a million, roughly the equivalent of two grains of salt in a pound of peanut butter. Even when they ingest poison, they can tolerate many times the dosage that would kill a cat or dog. They can collapse their rib cages and fit through holes as small as three-quarters of an inch wide. They can climb like squirrels and swim like otters. They have a vertical leap of more than a metre. They can survive falls of 10 m. Trap one in a corner, and you might be the one to come out worse for wear. The rat will fight like, well, a cornered rat: teeth stronger than iron have no trouble with human flesh. But don't worry about the teeth; save your terror for the saliva -- possible visitors to your bloodstream will include hanta virus, salmonella, rabies, and two aptly named horrors: rat pox and rat-bite fever. The latter kills 13 per cent of those it infects.

As if all this weren't enough, rats are sex machines. Any female you see is pregnant: after a four-week gestation period and the birth of up to 12 pink, hairless offspring, she can ovulate, mate and conceive again within hours. She announces her availability by running through the colony spreading pheromones, upon which the males will line up to mate with her, more or less politely, so long as the biggest get to go first. The newborns will nurse for almost exactly the same length of time as the next litter takes to gestate, as the perpetual motion breeding machine rolls on. It's possible for a three-year-old female to have more than 500 offspring; with their young factored into the equation, she could be responsible for 16,000 new rats in one year, almost 100,000 in three.

Male rats are ready, aye, ready to do their part. When they are not eating or fleeing for their lives, male rats are having sex. Despite the constant availability of receptive females, they aren't very patient during the rare downtimes. In the absence of females, males have sex with each other; in the absence of live rats of either gender, males have sex with dead ones. To cope with the sperm demand, a one-pound male rat has testicles -- known familiarly as torpedoes -- twice the size of a 400-lb. gorilla's.

Rapid-fire reproduction that incorporates an entire colony's gene pool is the key to rat adaptability. Twice in the past 50 years, rats have evolved resistance to anticoagulant poisons, our most potent anti-rat weapons. Fresh generations keep tried-and-true traits -- lab rats 200 generations removed from the experience of a cat will still panic at the smell of one -- and quickly spread new adaptations. So they carry on, as disease vectors, food despoilers (the WHO estimates rats annually consume or contaminate between 20 and 35 per cent of human food), and arsonists (their taste for electrical insulation means that up to a quarter of fires are rat-caused).

Of course we hate them with a passion. For all recorded history, humans have been determinedly killing rats by the millions; to a scarcely lesser extent they have returned the favour, mostly by spreading plague. Langton, who met a few rat fanciers (yes, Virginia, there are such people) during his research, acknowledges their insistence that rats don't carry plague, their fleas do -- a technical truth, he adds, that's about as meaningful as the statement that guns don't kill people, people do. In any event, the score after millennia of mutual slaughter is pretty much a tie. Rats remain the only mammals to match us in numbers and geographic range. Worst of all, it's our own fault: humans, the planet's all-time champion garbage producers, have made rats the success story they are.

A few millennia ago, rats were just another prey animal trying to scratch out a living in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Once humans invented farming, and large-scale food storage, the rat future was secure. By 1700 BCE the ancient Hindu text Rig Veda included curses hurled at grain-thieving rats. Cursing is about as effective as anything else we've tried. Although Langton writes hopefully of new trends in rat control, most of which boil down to convincing our careless species to reduce its garbage, history allows little room for optimism. We have fought rats in our homes and on our farms, with traps, guns and poison by the truckload. We shall never prevail.


Men Vs. Moose
With a million moose on the march, it's tough to keep everyone safe.

Barbara Righton - December 11th 2006.

There are now about one million moose in Canada -- a population roughly equal to, say, the city of Calgary -- and the sight of them never fails to inspire awe. A bull moose can weigh 800 kg and stand seven feet high at the shoulder.

In fact, it's this extreme height that makes moose so deadly to motorists. When a car hits a moose, the animal is often catapulted over the hood onto the roof, bypassing the airbag system altogether. That's what happened to Cathy McCollum's daughter Carrie last June 8. Carrie was a passenger in a subcompact Mazda Protegé travelling Highway 7 between Fredericton and Saint John, where there's a 26-km stretch of road infamous for its moose collisions. "It was raining hard," says Cathy. "It was about 11:30 at night. They hit a cow moose head-on. Then they hit a telephone pole, cut that in half and flew into a marsh. All the windows blew out of the car." None of the occupants, including Carrie, were badly hurt, but Cathy was wild. "I have been scared to death about moose my whole life."

Little wonder. In the past six years, 2,533 New Brunswickers have hit moose. The provincial herd, meantime, has grown from 15,000 to 25,000 over the past 15 years. And moose multiplication is not confined to New Brunswick. Three years ago, a federal government report estimated that Canadian drivers hit four to eight large animals every hour of every day, resulting in injury, death and millions of dollars in property damage. According to the Canadian Wildlife Federation, there are now large moose herds in north-central Ontario, southern B.C., and the Quebec north shore where the animals were once unknown. Gros Morne Provincial Park in Newfoundland, an island that was "seeded" with a few pairs in the early 1900s, is now so overrun that it is facing a foraging crisis. In New Brunswick, the problem became so acute last summer that it actually became an election issue, thanks in no small part to Cathy McCollum.

McCollum started a petition on June 28 to force the Tory government of then-premier Bernard Lord to do something besides telling drivers to slow down or stay off the roads at night. She wanted eight-foot-high wildlife fencing, one-way gates and underpasses for the animals, like the ones in Banff National Park. While she collected 10,000 signatures throughout last summer's election campaign, Lord refused to ante up. But Liberal Shawn Graham, now the province's premier, promised $21 million to do the job. "I think I hurt the Conservatives," McCollum says with satisfaction. "Cathy is a fine woman, huh?" new Transport Minister Denis Landry says with a laugh. One of the first things Landry did after he got the portfolio was to meet with her at her home in Clarendon, near Fredericton, to assuage any fears. The fencing, he says, will go ahead in June. "It will be good and well-spent money."

Brian McEwing is the engineer in Landry's department who is charged with the mind-boggling logistics. "Right now we are figuring out where the fencing will go, and meeting with other stakeholders like CFB Gagetown and the Department of Natural Resources. The underpasses will need enough clearance between the adjacent topography and the top of the road for us to be able to go underneath. Literally, we will have to dig out a portion of the highway."

Between the promises and the bulldozers is one obvious question. Why doesn't New Brunswick consider upping its 3,000 annual moose-hunting licences? In Vermont a month ago, state wildlife biologists applauded an aggressive moose hunt to cut its herd of 5,000. State wildlife director Ron Regan said moose were beginning to expand into Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York. But Kevin Craig, a DNR wildlife biologist in Fredericton, says the province's rate for the recreational harvest -- an actual kill of about 2,000 moose a year -- is already high. "The thing about natural resource management is it's a combination of two things -- what the people want and what might be good for the species," Craig says.

Landry almost sits on his wildlife fence when he asks, "Are we issuing enough licences? That's not up to me. That's DNR." Then he laughs again. "Some of the people who hit moose would like to see all of them die. But they are part of the environment just as we humans are." McCollum splutters. "We are people; they are animals. If the moose are overpopulated, something should be done about it."

Somewhere in Canada at this very minute a moose is crossing the road.

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