a brown mouse pokes it's head out of a flower pot
When a rat you've never met before shows up instead of flowers Credit: Smithsonian's National Zoo/Flickr via CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

OK, here we go: I’m writing an op-ed to defend rats. Not a popular stance, I am aware. 

In my practice as an artist concerned with climate change and biodiversity loss, I suggest that we must move beyond human supremacy if we are to come back into alignment with a world pushed dangerously out of balance. So yes, that includes reconsidering our relationship with rats.

I believe in applying ethics consistently, no matter how different, repellent, or foreign “the other” (in this case, rats) may seem. So where fear, anger, or revulsion clouds judgment, we can gird ourselves with an ethical framework and scientific facts to work against bias and prejudice.

Many humans fear or even hate rats. This is not without reason. Rats can make a mess in our homes and spread disease. This regularly costs city residents time and money. In Chicago, as climate-related flooding increases, the possibility of future outbreaks of leptospirosis (a bacterial disease that humans can develop through contact with soil or water that has been contaminated by bodily fluids from infected animals) is a real concern. I argue that part of how we might improve this outlook is to reconsider rats as a companion species in our larger urban ecosystems.

One compelling reason to do this is that rats are not going anywhere. There is no realistic possibility of evicting rats from “our” cities anytime soon, and so I believe we need a more scientifically-driven, more humane, and less human-centered view of how to better live side-by-side with rats—and they with us.

This starts with the need to know a lot more about rats. In general, rat behavior is not well understood and urban areas don’t tend to have accurate data on how many rats abound, where they live, or even whether or not rat populations are increasing. 

Methods to reduce rat populations don’t tend to be well studied for effectiveness. And for this reason, cities often do not know if their rat control budgets are being well spent or wasted on ineffective or cruel measures. A 2021 Chicago-based study, whose lead author, Maureen Murray, is Lincoln Park Zoo’s wildlife disease ecologist, showed that rats who had been exposed to anticoagulant rodenticides were actually “significantly more likely to be infected with Leptospira spp. than other rats.”

Rats are sentient animals, care for their young, and even show empathy towards unrelated rats. An often-cited study published in Science in 2011 showed that a rat will release another trapped rat, whether or not they receive any reward, even if the rat is a stranger to them. More surprisingly still, they will voluntarily share highly favored chocolate chips with the freed rat. This suggests that rats likely have emotional lives that drive this empathic behavior—and of course, like us, they certainly feel fear and pain. Glue traps and common anticoagulant poisons cause incredible suffering, and can accidentally kill pets or predators like hawks and falcons. 

As ethical beings, we humans are diminished when we act from our base reactions towards these nonhuman creatures, with no regard for their internal experiences and little knowledge of what might actually create a better situation for us all. 

I am not suggesting we should live with rats in our homes. It is not positive for humans or rats to be in conflict with one another. This is upsetting and expensive for humans and dangerous for rats. We need to create and maintain healthy boundaries on the personal and municipal levels. 

We should be proactively maintaining our homes and yards to keep rats out. Cities should strengthen laws that make landlords responsible for proper maintenance and humane rat removal. We need to manage our own food waste and feed pets indoors, and our cities need to hold restaurant and grocery owners responsible for appropriate measures to control food waste. (I would argue that municipal composting and food-waste laws in general would go far here, ultimately saving costs and benefiting climate and food security, as well. This could be something implemented under the city’s Department of Environment, currently being resurrected in Mayor Brandon Johnson’s new budget, hint hint.) 

We need to work internally to confront our own fear and bias towards rats—and maybe urban, nonhuman animals in general—and we need smart investments by cities into research on rat behaviors and effective and humane control methods. (We could start by better supporting the excellent work of the Urban Wildlife Institute at Lincoln Park Zoo which had to hold a fundraiser to complete work related to their rat study cited above.)

It is also important to note that socioeconomic status and stresses caused by systemic issues like racism and overpolicing reduce city residents’ abilities to effectively manage rat problems in their homes and yards, so the city must be additionally attentive to these areas and apply more effective pressure on noncompliant landlords of properties and vacant lots. 

At my own home, I have tried to notice where rats have been moving through the yard and digging. I have used affordable and simple methods like patching concrete, blocking holes with metal sheeting, and maintaining to-the-ground fencing to reduce the amount of rat “traffic” through the yard and to keep them from nesting. 

I maintain my garden crops, picking often and trying to keep fruits and veggies up at higher levels. I compost in a rat-proof tumbler. I feed birds from rat-inaccessible window feeders. I try not to let the brush pile up. None of this means that there will be no rats in my yard, but it does allow me to minimize my concerns and therefore feel as though I can accept the presence that rats do have in “my” space. (Not that I really believe that anyone can or should own land . . .) Sure, I lose some cherry tomatoes, but this is what it is to live in an urban environment—and a shared biosphere. 

And before you think, “This person has never experienced a rat home invasion”—I actually have. Years ago, rats entered my art studio through a hole in an exterior wall, which they chewed to enlarge. They ruined materials, made a huge mess, and had me feeling nervous about disease. 

Instead of getting scared, I got informed. I looked up the CDC’s instructions for handling rat materials. I carefully investigated, found the hole where they were coming in, and patched it temporarily, while notifying my landlord for a permanent fix. We solved the problem and presumptively, the rats went back to living outside. It wasn’t a particularly fun experience, but I do not believe hating rats or putting out cruel or potentially ineffective glue traps or poison would have made it any better.

Had I needed to remove a rat from my studio, I would have used an inexpensive catch-and-release trap, and checked it often to be sure the rat didn’t die of thirst. I could even have made a rat-safe trap with materials I already have. There’s a TikTok for that, I’m sure. 

You may not agree with me, but ultimately, we have to live with ourselves and I believe truly seeing, respecting, and making space for “the other”—whether human or nonhuman—is the central moral challenge of our time. At the very least, I believe we can mostly agree that causing terrible pain to nonhuman animals—especially for little purpose—is neither ethically nor morally acceptable. 

Since there is no way to get rid of rats altogether, and the current situation is far from ideal, I offer instead that we should shift our perspective in meaningful ways to reimagine what that relationship looks like. As cities, we need to understand rats better—and as individuals, I urge us to better understand rats. The city is an ecosystem and ultimately, we all have to live here together.

And maybe, like me, on darkening evenings when walking along a Chicago alley, you can sometimes cheer these brave little denizens as they zip from fence to fence, using their incredible abilities, honed over millennia, to raise their families and somehow thrive alongside us humans—where few other species can. Really, it’s quite an achievement.

So when we consider these plucky rodents, rather than reacting with hate and fear, my hope is that we can move towards something more generous and wiser in the way we make mental and physical space for rats—and all nonhuman “others.” 

Rats have empathy for strangers, but do we?

Rats issue 2023

Chicago rats

The most notorious rats in Chicago’s history have generally been the two-legged variety.