As time goes by, there is greater awareness of the need to treat non-human animals better, with louder calls for an end to factory farming and the campaigns led by vegans to end our dependence on animal products entirely. When it comes to animal experimentation for science, there are now far stricter restrictions to try and ensure that the use of such animals is really necessary. Even those who are not animal rights activists tend to oppose the idea of using dogs and cats and pigs for experimentation.
The one species that does not gain that much sympathy is the rat. Most people view rats with distaste, likely because they are associated with filth and disease, and some people get terrified when they see one in their vicinity.
But Krisitn Andrews argues that rats deserve a lot more of our respect than what they get now and that this paucity of empathy with this species is because we are not aware of the rich emotional life they have.
In the late 1990s, Jaak Panksepp, the father of affective neuroscience, discovered that rats laugh. This fact had remained hidden because rats laugh in ultrasonic chirps that we can’t hear. It was only when Brian Knutson, a member of Panksepp’s lab, started to monitor their vocalisations during social play that he realised there was something that appeared unexpectedly similar to human laughter. Panksepp and his team began to systematically study this phenomenon by tickling the rats and measuring their response. They found that the rats’ vocalisations more than doubled during tickling, and that rats bonded with the ticklers, approaching them more frequently for social play. The rats were enjoying themselves. But the discovery was met with opposition from the scientific community. The world wasn’t ready for laughing rats.
That discovery was just the tip of the iceberg. We now know that rats don’t live merely in the present, but are capable of reliving memories of past experiences and mentally planning ahead the navigation route they will later follow. They reciprocally trade different kinds of goods with each other – and understand not only when they owe a favour to another rat, but also that the favour can be paid back in a different currency. When they make a wrong choice, they display something that appears very close to regret. Despite having brains that are much simpler than humans’, there are some learning tasks in which they’ll likely outperform you. Rats can be taught cognitively demanding skills, such as driving a vehicle to reach a desired goal, playing hide-and-seek with a human, and using the appropriate tool to access out-of-reach food.
The most unexpected discovery, however, was that rats are capable of empathy. Since the 1950s and ’60s, behavioural studies have consistently shown that rats are far from the egoistic, self-centred creatures that their popular image suggests.
They find the same pattern: rats are more likely and quicker to help a drowning rat when they themselves have experienced being drenched, suggesting that they understand how the drowning rat feels. Rats will also help a trapped rat even when they can escape and avoid the situation, something many humans fail to do.
Rats, like cockroaches, know how to survive under the most adverse conditions and for that quality alone deserve some respect. I do know that some people, like the character Manuel in Fawlty Towers, keep rats as pets, much to the disgust of others. I have shared many of the prejudices that people have about rats, and this article has made me rethink that attitude, though I will never go so far as have one as a pet. Since I have never had any kind of relationship with them, these prejudices have not manifested themselves in any concrete way.