Rat Tales

Unlike its rodent cousin the mouse, the rat hasn't enjoyed many star turns - perhaps until now

June 27, 2007|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,Sun Reporter

Ronald Cuffie chuckled at the thought of Baltimoreans lining up this weekend to see Ratatouille, the new animated film about a rat in Paris who's an expert chef.

Surely some of the city's moviegoers are responsible for the 25,000 service requests made each year to the city's "Rat Rubout" program, which removes the repulsive vermin from infested neighborhoods.

"In the movies, rats are likable characters," said Cuffie, director of the city's vector control initiative. "In real life, people want to drop a brick on them."

Actually, even in popular culture, rats aren't all that likable. Other animals, from creepy, crawly ones to man-eaters, have been made lovable in children's literature, on television and in the movies. But the rat has rarely been able to transcend its repulsive, garbage-eating, germ-carrying self. Perhaps only the snake has a worse public-relations problem.

The rat's rodent cousin, the mouse, may not be much more likable in real life but has been all but lionized in popular fare: Mickey Mouse, Mighty Mouse, Danger Mouse, even Jerry trumps Tom the cat. The few fictional rats of fame are mostly in supporting roles.

Perhaps that could change with Ratatouille (pronounced rat-a-TOO-ee), the story of a cuisine-savvy rodent named Remy who lives out his craft through a bumbling human chef. With his sad eyes, passion for his dream, a father who doesn't believe in him and the struggle to remain alive in a kitchen full of sharp instruments, viewers will surely pull for him.

There's nothing about this rodent that says break out the strychnine. That's due mostly to the creative work of Walt Disney's Pixar, the animation studio that made clownfish such a sought-after pet after Finding Nemo, made insects lovable in A Bug's Life and even made heroes from the stuff of childhood nightmares in Monsters, Inc.

Pixar creators say that in order to gain a better understanding of rats, they adorned their offices with rats in cages.

"We spent a lot of time at first just observing them and getting to know the rats," said Brian Green, the film's character supervisor in a Disney/Pixar news release. The film crew incorporated the rats' behavior into models that helped the animators convey their movements.

"Living with rats, you get to see all their mannerisms," Green added. "They're really quite social animals. They'll play with you and even cuddle on your arm."

That's not the typical view of the rat of film and fairy-tale lore.

Templeton of Charlotte's Web garners stereotypes of a real-life rat: wily, sneaky, with a knack for hiding and a taste for throwaway food. Splinter, the rat of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, is a soft-spoken sage and martial arts master, but not as free-spirited as, of all things, the turtles he adopted. Ratty of Wind in the Willows is good-natured, but, in truth, is a water vole, a semi-aquatic mammal that resembles a rat. And in the Australian children's show Bananas in Pajamas, the Rat in the Hat is an eccentric in a red vest that lures other characters into schemes with the come-on, "Trust me, I'm a rat."

To be sure, the rat isn't universally reviled. As the first sign of the Chinese zodiac, rats are characterized as leaders, pioneers and conquerors. Next year, the Year of the Rat returns in the 12-year cycle.

But for most people, particularly in Western societies, a rat denotes contempt, filthiness and distrust.

Gangster films have popularized the word to describe a turncoat. In the final scene of last year's Oscar-winning The Departed, a gangster who infiltrated the state police lies slain in his Boston high-rise as a rat creeps across the balcony railing.

The late legendary actor James Cagney was famous for the line, "You dirty rat!" although what he actually said in the 1932 film Taxi! was, "Come out and take it, you dirty, yellow-bellied rat, or I'll give it to you through the door!"

Though the rat as cartoon character may inch up on the likability scale, the rat as real-life character is still destined to have it bad.

William B. Jackson, a retired professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio regarded as an expert on rats, said most rats don't make it to their first birthday.

"Six months is pretty old for a rat," Jackson said. "It's exposed to many types of hazards - being run over by a car, caught in a trap, feeding on poisons." Still, rats are very resilient and can chew through lumber as well as some types of concrete, he said.

"They have strong teeth, and the front teeth of a rat are continuously growing," Jackson said. "So the teeth that are gnawed down are replaced. It's a feature that contributes to their great adaptiveness."

Cuffie, the Rat Rubout manager, said that, like humans, they love chocolate (most baits are set with it), prefer fresh food and usually don't attack unless they're cornered.

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