This Chinese New Year falls on Saturday, January 25, kicking off the Year of the Rat. It may sound inauspicious at first, but children born under the sign of the rodent have no reason to hang their heads. Rats are considered symbols of wit, intelligence and abundance in the Chinese zodiac.
While they get a bad rap for spreading filth and disease, there are a few rats whose honorable service or winning personalities might help you recover from your musophobia (fear of rodents) and put you in the mood to celebrate Chinese New Year.
Long-Tailed Landmine Detectors
The giant African pouched rat is proving that, in many ways, rats are the heroes we all deserve. Tanzania-based nonprofit, APOPO, is training these particular rodents to sniff out abandoned explosives and detect deadly diseases. According to the organization's website, "hidden landmines remain in 60 countries and states around the world." Not only do these explosives kill and maim civilians indiscriminately, but they also hamper development in already war-damaged areas. Dubbed HeroRATS, APOPO's specially trained rats can sniff out explosives with more accuracy than a metal detector while lightly skimming across the ground without activating the mines.
Still other HeroRats work to sniff out tuberculosis. A single rat can check 100 samples in about 20 minutes, a task that would take a human technician 4 days to complete.
Rats' smarts don't stop at the end of a maze. Recent studies show that, in addition to showing empathy and fantastic puzzle-solving skills, rats can also drive tiny rat-sized cars when properly motivated (specifically. .. with Froot Loops). As a bonus: the scientists discovered that the rats actually enjoyed driving! Those who obtained their tiny learners permits experienced less stress and better moods than those without wheels.
Man's REAL Best Friend
Humans and rats practically cohabitate (the conventional wisdom goes that there’s always a rat close by, you just don’t know it), so it makes sense that our two species have adapted to get along. People who keep rats as pets liken them to low-maintenance dogs who cuddle and play, but don’t require daily walks.
Even if you’re not so up close and personal, you can probably find some common ground with these highly relatable rodents. I’m talking, of course, about Pizza Rat, the crafty New York subway dweller caught stealing a late-night slice. Also the fat rat of Bensheim-Auerbach whose extra layer of winter flab got her stuck in the grate of a manhole cover. She was eventually rescued by firefighters, but not before photos and videos of her humiliation spread far and wide.
The Other, Other White Meat
Heifer International provides the livestock farmers choose to work with, and sometimes, that means rats. Specifically, the greater cane rat, although “grasscutter” is the preferred name. Prized throughout West Africa for their sweet meat, grasscutters were once caught in the wild but are increasingly being farmed. You can help farmers around the world cultivate crops and livestock that are culturally and ecologically appropriate.