Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Story of Rats: Their Impact On Us, and Our Impact On Them (nonfiction book) by S. Anthony Barnett

The Story of Rats is nonfiction, originally published in 2001. I may have owned it for almost that long.

I've opted not to include a read-alikes list.


I first became interested in rats after being required to train a rat to do various tasks in an Intro to Psychology class in college. I ended up getting myself a pet rat (not realizing at the time that they should at least be kept in pairs) and have had a total of five rats over the years. I also spent several months writing a paper on various aspects of rodent control. I've read a bunch of nonfiction books on rats, and S. Anthony Barnett's is one of my favorites. However, it's been maybe a decade since I last read it, so I figured a reread was in order. Also, my last pair of rats died long enough ago that I figured rereading this wouldn't make me too sad.

Popular nonfiction on rats generally comes in two varieties: pet care books and books by journalists who have probably never had contact with rats prior to beginning their research. The Story of Rats is neither of those things. As near as I can tell from the info given in this book, Barnett's experience with rats first began during World War II, when he was tasked with trying to reduce the rat populations that were stirred up by frequent bombings. From there, he went on to study rat behavior both in the wild and in a laboratory environment.

This book covers an enormous variety of topics, especially for something so short, and you can see Barnett's particular academic focus all throughout it. After Barnett finishes discussing a few different species of rats, the origins of lab rats, and rats as disease vectors (bubonic plague is mentioned, of course, but so is leptospirosis, Lassa fever, and hantavirus), he spends a great deal of time discussing the study of animal behavior (not always specifically rat behavior), how findings have sometimes been applied to humans, and why researchers must be careful about the conclusions they make. I can't remember if his criticisms of Pavlov's experiments with dogs were ever mentioned in my Intro to Psychology class.

My favorite chapters dealt more heavily with rats. I particularly liked Chapter 6, which dealt with rats' eating habits (including the aspects that can make poisoning them difficult), and Chapter 8, which dealt with social behavior in rats.

I've seen at least one review criticizing Barnett's complete lack of mention of rats as pets – when he discusses rat domestication, it's only in the context of lab rats and the way "gentling" affects the ease with which lab rats can be handled. While this didn't really bother me, it's an aspect of “[rats'] impact on us, and our impact on them” that's noticeably missing from the book. Even if Barnett had avoided the topic in order to reduce the possibility of anthropomorphizing them, he could have at least tacked on a brief mention of the origin of pet rats when he discussed the origins of lab rats.

I enjoyed rereading this, even though far less of it turned out to be specifically about rats than I remembered. I'd recommend it to those interested in a quick and readable overview of rodent control, animal behavior research, and/or rats in general, as long as you don't mind occasional descriptions of rats being raised in sometimes very abnormal and/or uncomfortable environments (for example, female rats raised in cages without anything that could be used as nesting material, to see if they could instinctively build a nest after giving birth in a cage containing nesting material).

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