The Rat Fan Club

Book Reviews:  Non-Fiction

by Debbie “The Rat Lady”



Book Review:  The Story of Rats

by S. Anthony Barnett, published in Australia, 2001

This book, The Story of Rats: Their Impact on Us, and Our Impact on Them was written by S. Anthony Barnett and published in Australia in 2001.  Barnett previously wrote the book The Rat: A Study in Behavior, originally published in 1963 and revised in 1975, about a series of lab experiments he did on rats. 

The blurb about Barnett on the back cover of The Story of Rats says, “Early in the Second World War, equipped only with first class honours from Oxford University, Tony Barnett was drafted, not into the trenches…but into the sewers, wharves, food stores and other rat-infested environments offered by a London bombed nightly by the Luftwaffe.  Thus began his interest in rats and his academic career in Scotland, India, Australia and North America.  He is now Emeritus Professor of Zoology in the Australian National University.” Since the book is basically Barnett’s personal commentary, I think a more detailed explanation of his experiences would have been appropriate.

Barnett explains in his preface that what he attempted in this book was a social history of human relationships with rats.  The main failing of this book is that he absolutely ignored the fact that rats are kept as pets!  He didn’t mention it anywhere in the book.  I found this to be totally inexplicable.  If his book is supposed to be about our impact on rats and their impact on us, then it would make sense to cover this part of our relationship.

I was also disappointed in the book as a whole because it seemed to me that Barnett’s general attitude was not respectful or interested in the rats themselves, but only what society could learn about humans by comparing us to rats.  Maybe this attitude can be better understood when you see on page 119 that in Barnett’s world of laboratory research, it was not usual for the rats to be socialized.  He makes the comment that socialized rats “can be highly disconcerting to visitors to one’s laboratory who are accustomed only to normal Norways which bite vigorously when handled.”  Earlier in the book he says “All handling has a disturbing effect, even on domestic rats,” and “If you pick one up, even very gently, it is likely to stiffen and to extend its legs fully, as if poised to fall.”  He goes on to explain that “some rats behave differently: when picked up, they lie back, relaxed, rather like a pussycat waiting to be tickled.  These rats have been frequently handled and probably stroked, or ‘gentled.’”  But it is clear throughout the book that Barnett’s main experience is with rats who are not socialized and therefore likely scared of people.

This would also explain another statement he makes.  He says at the end of Chapter 2 that when some of his lab rats escaped into “the gloomy junk-filled cellars of a large ill-designed building,” and were later captured and restored to their cages “they were quite vicious.” 

While the book was meant to be historical, I was also disappointed that he did not include more recent scientific discoveries about rats, such as the fact that they laugh, and the brain research that shows rats think about what they want (some were able to control a machine that gave them water by thought alone.)

Right from the start you can see Barnett’s approach to rats.  Chapter 1, titled “Tales of Rats,” begins with curses people have used against rats and mice, and includes subsections titled “Abominations and Horrors” and “Magic, Sport and Nourishment,” which lists two cookbooks that include recipes for rat.  He does point out that the horror scene featuring rats in the novel 1984 “has no connection with what rats would actually do….”

In Chapter 2, “Naming and Taming,” he says about the Norway rat, “in its domestic forms it is usually white, or white and black….”  While this is essentially true, it would have been nice for him to point out that domestic rats are now bred in a wide variety of colors and patterns, but as I said before, he makes absolutely no mention of pet or show rats anywhere in the book.

I’m sure you won’t be surprised that Barnett spends most of Chapter 3, “All Fall Down,” on the plague.  The strange thing is that in the 12 pages on this topic, rats are only mentioned once!

In Chapter 5, “Do Rats Think?” we can see a bit more of Barnett’s attitude towards rats.  He makes the statement, “Although children cannot be kept like rats, in cramped and featureless cages….”  It’s obviously okay with Barnett that rats are kept in cramped and featureless cages.  Amazing that he would believe anything could be learned about rat behavior in that situation.

I found Chapter 6, “Are Rats Gluttons?” to be the most interesting of the book.  Barnett talks about the individual eating habits and preferences of different rats and how they can choose the right supplement when they are deficient in a nutrient.  Other interesting topics are social feeding and social learning.  However, I was surprised that he made no mention of genetic obesity.

In Chapter 7, “All in their Genes,” there is an apparent mistake as readers are referred to a previous chapter for an example that I couldn’t find anywhere. 

In Chapter 8, “Rat Societies,” Barnett makes a strange statement.  When talking about how rats chatter their teeth when fighting he says, “Whether this is a social signal is doubtful.”  I think it’s clear that tooth chattering is a social signal!  He also makes no mention of how rats use ultrasound.  In this chapter he also says that the domestic rats he studied were always peaceful and non-territorial and never fought even when he introduced new rats.  Now that’s strange!

In Chapter 9, “Population Explosions,” Barnett makes another strange statement.  He says, “Despite or because of their strange social interactions, rats have a fabulous capacity to multiply….”  Even after reading the book I’m not sure why he feels rats have strange social interactions!

While I feel that this book is woefully incomplete and biased, it does include some very interesting information about rats such as the differences between wild and domestic rats, the interaction of learning with instinct, and how wild rats avoid poisons and traps.  However, Barnett’s negative attitude towards rats is disturbing for someone who loves them. 




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