The Rat Fan Club

Book Reviews:  Non-Fiction

by Debbie “The Rat Lady”



Book Review:  Rat: How the World’s Most Notorious Rodent Clawed its Way to the Top  

This book was written by Jerry Langdon and published in 2006 by St. Martin Press. The cover design is interesting as the words of the title create the shape of a rat’s body, with the word “RAT” forming most of the head. The nose, ear, feet and tail are added.  Once you get into the text of the book it’s obvious that the purpose of the book is to create or maintain the dread some people have of rats. At the beginning of every chapter there is a drawing of a rat snap trap. 

The first chapter is titled An Eating and Reproducing Machine. The book starts out with story of a big guy cleaning out the garage of his new home.  When a wild rat falls on his head and poops in the hood of his jacket the guy totally freaks.  He ends up throwing away the $300 jacket and has nightmares about the incident.  The author then compares rats to lions. Huh?  Scattered throughout the book are samples of statements taken from an online petition to stop the proposed ban of pet rats by the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.  The samples chosen just happen to have poor grammar and spelling, I assume to give the impression that rat owners are uneducated or simple.

On page 16 the author makes the brilliant statement that the small rats in palm trees in Morocco look like “an entirely different animal” from rats behind a dumpster in Alaska. Uh, that’s because they are completely different animals.  The rats in Morocco are Rattus rattus and the rats in Alaska are Rattus norvegicus, two different species.

A chart on page17 titled Developmental Milestones has several errors.  It says rats have a complete fur coat at 9 days.  That depends on your definition of “complete.” By 9 days a baby rat will have most of his body covered by only a very short baby coat.  It says the eyes open at 12-14 days, but they almost always open at exactly 14 days.  It says they are weaned at 20-21 days, but that only occurs in laboratories.  A pet rat shouldn’t be weaned until at least 4 weeks of age, and a wild rat wouldn’t wean her babies until at least 4-5 weeks.  It says they will venture above ground at 22-30 days, which means they are referring to wild Norway rats, yet the ages listed for reaching puberty—34-47 days—are definitely only for domestic rats.  Wild rats don’t reach puberty until probably 3-4 months of age.

The author makes the statement that a 3-yr-old rat could have 43 litters in her lifetime.  This is absolutely not true because a female rat will stop reproducing at about 1 ½ years of age.  So even if she were to get pregnant at 5 weeks of age, which some domestic rats can do, then have one litter a month for her reproductive life, that would only be about 18 litters.

On page 21 he says rats lack rotation joints in their back legs and therefore can’t descend trees as quickly as squirrels.  I have personally seen rats rotate their legs like squirrels to climb down, and certainly roof rats climb trees as easily as squirrels.  Then he repeats the common myth that any rat can squeeze through a hole the size of a quarter, or only ¾ inch across.  This is absolutely false.  An adult rat can only squeeze through a hole it can fit his head through, and then only if he is quite thin.  Most Norway rats, even wild ones, have bodies larger than their heads.  He says they can do this because they have a collapsible rib cage.  Again, another myth.  Yes, the chest of a rat will get smaller when they exhale, just like with humans, but their ribcage cannot “collapse.” He goes on to make another completely false statement saying each paw has 4 claws.  Rats have 5 toes and claws on each back foot.

The author goes on to repeat just about every myth I’ve ever read in any book about rats.  Such as they “can easily chew through copper and concrete,” and a “membrane slides down between the incisors to prevent the rats from swallowing any debris.”  The rat does have folds in the cheeks that help block debris from entering the mouth when gnawing, but not a “sliding membrane.”  And yes, rats can chew through soft metals and concrete, but not easily, only with a lot of work and waiting for their worn teeth to grow back in between.

On page 25 he states that rat-bite fever is caused by a virus, when it is actually caused by a bacterium.  Plus he says that rat-bite fever if fatal in 13% of cases despite antibiotic treatment.  I have no idea where he got this figure, but I don’t believe it.  Rat-bite fever is not a reportable disease, and the Center for Disease Control does not keep records on it.  Most cases of rat-bite fever are fairly benign, and there is no way that 13% of people treated for it die.  In fact, on page 72 of the book he includes a chart that says the fatality rate of rat-bite fever is 7-10%.  Hmm, which is it?  Probably neither.

He goes on to claim that rats have killed hundreds of millions of people, referring to the plague, and once again compares this to the number of people killed by lions.  Huh?  He then makes the statement that the plague was caused by a virus, when it was cased by bacteria.  Apparently he really doesn’t know the difference.

When he makes statements like, “They are in our forests,” and “They can be a cherished family pet, a lifesaving laboratory animal, or a snack served on a stick,” it is obvious that he is really confused about the difference between various wild species of rats, and the difference between wild rats and domesticated rats. Wild roof and Norway rats do not live in forests in North America!  He compares rats to mice and says that “very few humans hate or fear mice.”  Then, although he has already called rats “a cherished family pet,” he says “It [the rat] hasn’t become our friend like the dog, or our captive like cattle, but instead lives alongside us, as constant companion, irritant, and sworn enemy.”  Has this guy read his own book?

Chapter 2, The Prehistory of the Rat, follows the supposed evolution of the rat.  On pages 44 and 45 he again confuses wild with domestic rats.  He references experiments done by B.F. Skinner that showed rats were attracted to new objects in their environment, but these were done on domestic rats, not wild rats.  On page 46 he repeats the common myth of a rat king, a group of wild rats who are knotted together by their tails and fed by their colony mates.  This is just impossible.  The tail of a rat is tapered.  I cannot imagine any situation that would cause a group of rats to have their tails attached to each other.

On page 54 he says the population of roof rats is limited “to just a few colonies in the palm trees above Los Angeles and a few other warm-weather cities.”  This is so wrong.  Roof rats live in most of California and all across the southern U.S. All you have to do is scan the internet for stories about rats and you will see many stories about the major problem of roof rats in southern states.

Chapter 3 is called A Most Uneasy Partnership, but starts out with a story about a California woman who contracted the plague from a gopher or ground squirrel.  We are then treated to several pages about the plague.  Finally on page 72 we get to hear about other diseases carried by rats.  On page 74 there is a statement that implies that rats have infected more than a dozen people in Alberta, Canada with hanta virus, several of which died, despite the fact that Alberta is officially rat-free.  Later he mentions that hanta virus is usually transmitted to humans through mice.

On page 73 he makes the ridiculous statement that a rat produces about 200 droppings a day and urinates more frequently.  At the most a rat might produce 50 droppings a day, and will urinate maybe once an hour.  He obviously got this info from one of his “rat experts.”  The rest of the chapter is devoted to how rats eat food stores and cause damage.

In Chap 4, called Entertainer, Test Subject and Family Friend, the author continues with his incredible bias against rats.  After holding a rat for the first time he said, “The collapsible rib cage gives them a springy almost gelatinous feel, nothing like a more rigidly built puppy or kitten.”  Then he says that all of the more than 100 rat people he talked with were eccentric.  On page 90 he says you can buy purebred rats from “ratteries (rat farms).”  I bet he wouldn’t call a cattery a cat farm.

On page 91 there was a redeeming quote from me, my usual one that pet rats are as different from wild rats as dogs are from wolves.  On page 92 he says male rats urinate pretty well everywhere leaving a particularly virulent scent. A little later he says rats “can be taught rudimentary behaviors like recognizing their names” but that it requires great patience.  And that “rats can be sort of affectionate in that they will begin to enjoy coming into contact with their owners.”  Anyone who knows what pet rats are like will know that rats learn quickly and are very affectionate.

On page 93 he points out that keeping rats as pets is relatively recent, and goes on to describe horrible things done to animals in history, including 4 pages on rat baiting.  He finally gets back to the subject of pet rats on page 99 with an explanation of how Jack Black domesticated rats.  On the next page the Rat Assistance & Teaching Society is mentioned as the source of the fact that about a half-million households in North America own rats, he than says, “many people are still against the idea, often because they believe that escaped pet rats may start infestations where none exist.”  He goes on to discuss the possibilities of feral domestic rats, and includes a whole page about feral dogs.

On the next page he talks about lab rats for 2 pages, and then switches over to jokes about eating rats.  Over the next 4 pages as he talks about people eating rats in different countries but he never mentions what species of rats are eaten.  On page 110 he’s back to talking about killing rats for sport, this time in a modern setting. Wait, what was the name of this chapter again?  Oh, I get it, his idea of entertainment is animal torture.

Chap 5 is called Vermin, Villain and God’s Best Friend, so you can imagine what it’s about.  The only point worth mentioning is where he talks about the protest against the use of rats on the TV show Fear Factor, which The Rat Fan Club took part in.  Cool, but he misspelled my last name Dumcommun, even though he had spelled it correctly earlier in the book. Could it have been a Freudian slip? At the end of the chapter he discusses how the rat appears in other cultures, including the rat temple in India, thus the “God’s Best Friend” of the chapter title.

Chap 6, titled Destroyer of Worlds, talks about how rats have decimated animals on different islands around the world, and how scientists are trying to help some of the endangered species by killing the rats. He does explain that the rats traveled to the islands on human ships.  When telling the story of a flightless duck that scientists were trying to rescue from a Campbell Island, New Zealand, he makes the bizarre statement that a duck “gave birth to a number of litters.”  An interesting sidebar on page 143 lists the average length and weight of the brown rat, black rat, house mouse, opossum and feral cat for comparison.

Chap 7, titled Second Only to Us, talks about wild rats in cities and the attempts to eliminate them.  It includes instances of rats biting humans.  On page 157 he makes the statement: “Although listed biologically as herbivores, rats are true omnivores…” I’m not sure where he found that; I’ve never seen rats listed as herbivores. On page 159 he mentions me again, saying: “Although she’s a vegetarian herself, Rat Fan Club president Debbie Ducommun found it impossible to make a meatless diet that would keep her rats healthy.”  A sidebar on this page and the next list the different colors and varieties of rats recognized by the National Fancy Rat Society in the U.K. 

On page 164 he says a biologist told him that rats don’t lick up water with their tongues but instead scoop it up with the backs of their top incisors.”  This bizarre and totally untrue statement also appears in the book Rats, Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan.  I guess they must have both spoken with the same incompetent biologist.  On page 168 he says, “While pet rats may live more than 7 years, a wild rat is lucky if it lives a year.” While this statement is true, it implies that pet rats live much longer than the average two to two-and-a-half years.

Page 169 had a very interesting short article about the Rat Control Academy run by the New York City Health Department to educate city workers about rats where rat expert Bobby Corrigan teaches them to look for the source of food for rats, not just to put down poison.

Chap 8, titled Quagmire, focuses on an exterminator named Ben, and as you could guess, is pretty unpleasant.  However, Ben does explain how cruel glue traps are, and says they don’t work well for rats. He also explains that animals trapped in a glue trap can be freed with mineral oil, but that its  poisonous so it will probably kill them anyway.  Too bad he didn’t say you can use vegetable oil.

The author then talks about live-traps, and on page181 makes another bizarre statement: “Many humane societies will accept trapped rats, but they can’t be adopted as pets and are likely to be euthanized.” I can’t believe that any humane society would take in a trapped wild rat, and of course it couldn’t be adopted out.  He then talks about electronic traps, and then spends 8 pages talking about poisons.

On page 190 he includes a quote from a Toronto government official: “Small rats can squeeze through a hole the size of a pencil.” How stupid can some people be?  Rats are bigger than that the day they are born.

Chapter 9, titled Future Rat, starts out with a story of a supposed giant rat, which turned out to be an opossum.  He then goes on to debunk the idea of a giant Norway rat, and says the largest one he ever saw was feeding in garbage cans outside a Toronto grocery store and was probably a bit less than 2 lbs.  The rest of the chapter more or less deals with parallels between rats and humans.

This book has two big shortcomings: the numerous factual errors, and the continual negative bias and failure to properly separate wild rats from domestic rats.  I do not recommend it for rat lovers.




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