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What Ratatouille Got Right about Rats

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Ratatouille, an animated movie about a wild rat who dreams of becoming a gourmet French chef, asks you to suspend your disgust you feel upon learning a rat is in a restaurant kitchen. While the movie focuses mostly on how Remy overcomes the obstacles in his way–namely, the fact he’s a rat trying to guide an obtuse human into cooking Michelin-star quality meals while avoiding detection–it portrays rats very accurately. While Remy is a wild rat, this article focuses mostly on their close relative, the domesticated rat.

Both Remy and his family, as well as domesticated rats, are known in Latin as Rattus norvegicus, or Norway rats, due to the false belief they originated in Norway. They are actually native to Asia and made their way around the world by stowing away on ships. Rats live almost everywhere except Antarctica (due to the cold) and Alberta, Canada (due to the cold and an aggressive rodent-control program that bans rats outside zoos and labs). Both wild and domesticated rats are survivors who have mastered the human environment. According to multiple sources, domesticated rats are the descendants of wild rats.

According to The Complete Guide to Rat Training, rat domestication began with the sport of rat-baiting, in which a terrier was placed in a pit with rats and bets taken on how long it would take the dog to kill them all. Wild rats were captured and thrown into the pits as lures, but some were spared due to an unusual mutation such as a different-colored coat or unusual eyes. These rats were selectively bred over time, resulting in the domestic rats we know today. Domestic rats, also known as fancy rats, were popular pets for girls during the Victorian era. One such girl was Beatrix Potter, who had a pet rat named Sammy who later appeared in some of her stories.

Remy is known for his sharp sense of smell, and is able to detect poison by its scent. According to the book Rats: Practical Advice From the Expert, wild rats do indeed have this role in their packs. The designated rat’s job is to interact with new objects. Since rats are able to learn from the experiences of other rats, the other rats in the pack watch to see what happens and respond accordingly. This is one reason poison is not effective against a rat pack. A domesticated rat has this same hesitation, but the result of thousands of generations of being pets has made them more likely to try a new food.

In the movie, Remy’s family flees to the sewers after being discovered by the human whose home they inhabit. In actuality, rats can survive in the sewers and being flushed down the toilet, according to National Geographic. Rats can also enter a building via the toilet, according to MythBusters. According to the book American Indian Ceremonies, “They can fall six stories and scurry away unharmed. They can gnaw through lead pipe and cinder blocks (their teeth can exert 24,000 lbs. psi); swim 1/2 mile; and tread water for three days.”  According to The Lab Rat Chronicles, laboratory rats who were placed in aquariums would dive and explore their aquatic quarters if they knew they would eventually be removed. While domesticated rats prefer not to go in the water, they are amazing swimmers who can hold their breath for a few minutes.

When Remy first enters the restaurant his hero founded, the ghost of the owner asks him several questions, which Remy answers correctly. “You are a very clever rat!” the ghost says. Some say the average rat has the intelligence of a two-year-old human child. Debbie Ducommun, author of The Complete Guide to Rat Training, argues they are just as smart as a dog. According to this book a 2005 study found that rats can tell the difference between spoken Dutch and Japanese. A study in the 1980s found rats were capable of basic arithmetic. In 1999, Dr. John Chapin found that lab rats could control a robotic arm to get a drink of water. In 2001, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers found that rats trained to run a maze would dream about running the maze. Pet rats can be taught a multitude of tricks, ranging from riding on their owner’s shoulder to playing a miniature piano. In fact, some rats have even been trained to detect land mines in Africa, enabling humans to disable the explosives.

In the movie, Remy’s father Django tries to dissuade him from becoming a chef, citing the prejudice humans have against rats. Rats are commonly blamed for the Black Death, and despite evidence this may have been caused by fleas, the Centers for Disease Control still lists plague as a disease linked to rats, along with salmonella and rat-bite fever. However, rats are viewed through the lens of culture. In India, rats are venerated as an associate of the elephant goddess Ganesha; her temples always feature a rat statue. According to Wikipedia, in the Indian city of Deshnoke at Karni Mata Temple, rats in the temple are destined to be reincarnated as holy men. In China, the rat (or sometimes the mouse), is the first animal in the zodiac. People born during the Year of the Rat are said to be creative, honest, intelligent, ambitious and generous, but also quick-tempered and wasteful. According to a Nancy Drew video game, the rat is the first animal in the Chinese zodiac because it was the first animal to say goodbye to Buddha.

Remy spends a good deal of time to promote good food to his family, and the movie ends with rats and humans eating at the same restaurant. Rats in popular culture have a reputation as being motivated by food, and this has some basis in reality. In Charlotte’s Web, Templeton is coaxed to help when he realizes that Wilbur’s food is his food, leading to a hilarious eat-a-thon at the Fair. In an animated version of Heidi, the titular character tells the rats they would love her grandfather’s cheese soup. Not all rats are motivated by food, although many can be trained by appealing to their stomach. However, some are motivated simply by praise or a desire to please their humans.

The movie portrays an unlikely hero and is critically acclaimed, and gets much right about rats. The DVD comes with a short animated documentary about rats, but sadly skips over why rats are often considered great pets. But by portraying rats as intelligent, persistent, and able to learn tasks, it does raise the possibility a rat may make a pet worth considering.

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