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Lucas Adams

7 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Rats

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Lucas Adams

Most people think rats are gross. Filthy and unwanted, they’re known for carrying diseases and sometimes giant pieces of pizza. But Robert Sullivan thinks differently: in 2004, Sullivan published a masterpiece on the critters, Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. In it, Sullivan spends a year staking out alley rats, interviewing rat catchers, and digging through the critters’ contribution to history from housing reform to entertainment. Here are seven short facts we can’t stop thinking about from Sullivan’s incredible book.

1. RATS LOVE TOUCHING STUFF, BECAUSE IT HELPS THEM FIND THEIR WAY HOME.

Rats are thigmophilic (touch loving). As Sullivan points out, it’s why they feel most comfortable in corners, where they can feel up against a wall while scouting for an escape route. As they weave their way through trash-strewn alleyways, stumble through pipes, and flee across kitchen floors, rats “develop a muscle memory” of the spaces, and the best ways to get to their destination. Oddly enough, this knowledge is passed on when a rat dies: In Sullivan’s words, “Deep in their rat tendons, rats know history.” Younger rats follow the lead of older rats and learn these routes for themselves, preserving the pathways to food and safety for another rat generation.

2. SUBWAY WORKERS HAVE A CUTE NICKNAME FOR RATS THAT LIVE IN THE SUBWAY.

According to Sullivan, subway workers in New York call the rats that live in stations and hop around the rails “track rabbits.”

3. QUEEN VICTORIA HAD A RAT CATCHER.

Decked out in a top hat and sash decorated with cast-iron rats, Jack Black was an early pioneer of rat catching. Black dubbed himself the official rat catcher of Queen Victoria, even though he never had a royal decree from her—though he did once sell her some rats. While Black spent most of his time catching the critters, he also collected them and sold them to Victorian women as pets. Queen Victoria was one of his clients, as was children’s book author (and scientist) Beatrix Potter. Black was an equal-opportunity seller. Some of his rats went to rat pits (see below). Meanwhile, others became some of the earliest lab rats, including a specimen of albino rats he sold to scientists in France. As Sullivan theorizes: “I like to think that all the great scientific achievements that have been made in the modern scientific era as a result of work with laboratory rats are ultimately the result of the work of Jack Black, rat catcher.”

4. THE CANADIAN PROVINCE OF ALBERTA IS RAT-FREE. 

When rats were spotted on the southeastern border of Alberta, Canada, in 1950, the Canadian government sprung into action with an intensive rat-control program. The Alberta agricultural department told Sullivan the program has kept Alberta “an essentially rat-free province.” Still, there have been moments when the rats have made inroads, as Sullivan notes: “Alberta did have rats in its border areas for a brief period, and at that time, one Alberta mayor refused to believe it. He stated that he would eat any rats found in his town.” He had a change of heart, however, when “presented with a bushel full of Rattus norvegicus.”

5. RAT FIGHT PITS WERE A POPULAR PASTIME IN 19TH CENTURY AMERICA. 

In the 1830s (well before The Bachelor was the cruelest spectacle the public could stomach), rat fighting was all the rage. Onlookers would bet how long it would take for a dog to kill a group of rats. One of New York City’s biggest pits was owned by Kit Burns, an Irish immigrant linked to the infamous Dead Rabbits Gang. Burns operated his pit out of Sportsman’s Hall, located at 273 Water Street, where he had numerous dogs ready for the matches (“Jack” and “Hunky” were two of his favorites). Occasionally, Burns even subbed in ferrets. But he never crossed one line that other pits did: putting men in the ring.

By the late 1860s, rat pits were under fire. The founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Henry Bergh, was pushing for raids across the city, and Sportsman’s Hall was one of the last operating rat pits. Before long, Kit started diversifying his income. He rented the bar out to prayer meetings in the morning, and then rented it out for three full years as The Kit Burns Mission, a home for “wayward women.”

But Burns didn’t exactly give up rat fighting: 10 years later, he and the crowd at his new bar The Band-Box were busted for a rat fight on November 21, 1870. He died of a cold before he could be brought to trial. As for Bergh and others pushing back against animal cruelty, it’s thanks to their work that rat pit fights have faded both in popularity and from memory.

6. JAMES AUDUBON WAS A RAT HUNTER.

You know James Audubon for his iconic The Birds of North America. But did you know that the guy who traveled across the early United States documenting its avian wildlife also had a thing for rats? He made this lithograph of Black Rats snacking on eggs in a barn. He also used his downtime to chase after them. When he was living in New York in 1839 he got the city's mayor to let him “shoot Rats at the Battery early in the morning, so as not to expose the inhabitants in the vicinity to danger…” Turns out, in addition to being one of America’s foremost naturalists, Audubon was also considerate to his neighbors.

7. THERE IS A RAT CATCHING TRADE MAGAZINE.

Sullivan speaks highly of Pest Control Technology magazine throughout Rats: He attends one of their “Rat Management Summits” and reads columns in the magazine by rat control legend Bobby Corrigan, author of the industry standard Rodent Control: A Practical Guide for Pest Management Professionals. The magazine’s website features a regular podcast interviewing pest catching pros, and also, occasionally, poetry.

For more on Sullivan’s wonderful book, be sure to click here.

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
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Art
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b
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Here's the First-Ever Video of Sand Cat Kittens Playing in the Wild

Sand cats are as elusive as they are adorable. Native to the isolated deserts of Asia and Africa, the nocturnal felines are adapted to desert life, and can go for long periods without water. They’re stealthy predators of venomous snakes and small rodents, and escape detection thanks to their pale sandy coats and furry paws, the latter of which make their tracks nearly invisible. These reasons, among others, are why sand kittens have never been captured on video—until now.

As The Independent reports, researchers from Panthera France, a wild cat conservation group, recently found and filmed three sand cat kittens in Morocco. Thought to be around two months old, they were hiding among vegetation as they waited for their mother to return.

Led by biologists Alexander Sliwa and Grégory Breton, the managing director of Panthera France, the researchers first embarked on their quest to locate and study the wild cat in 2013. Over the course of multiple expeditions, they encountered adults, but no offspring.

In April 2017, during their fifth expedition, Sliwa and Breton were heading back to camp at night when they spotted three pairs of gleaming eyes in the darkness. "They belonged to young sand cats, yellowish, small wild cats with broader faces and larger ears than domestic cats," Breton recounted on Panthera France's blog. Astonished, the scientists managed to record the kittens and identify and radio-collar their mother.

Experts think this is the first time that sand cat (Felis margarita) kittens have been documented in their African range. Until Sliwa and Breton locate even more baby cats for us to ogle, you can enjoy their video footage below.

[h/t The Independent]

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