Given our tendency toward horror in their presence and our enormous appetite for their slaughter, you’d be forgiven for thinking Vancouverites hate our local rats—especially when it feels like they’re everywhere lately. Really, I think our true feelings about them are more complex—a mess of disgust, recognition, even admiration.
Most people who choose to spend time with rats—such as by researching them or by keeping them as pets—report back to the rest of us, the mildly skeptical majority, that rats are actually okay. That in fact, they are similar to people, with their own little personalities.
Some are sweet. “I’ve had a wild rat crawl right into my hand,” says Dr. Kaylee Byers, a scientist who has researched Vancouver’s rats. Others are anxious, playful, or ruthless and scrappy. Like us, they seem to enjoy the satisfaction of mastering new skills, such as driving little cars, researchers found. They can even share our disorders; scientists will give rats Autism or depression to model their effects on humans.
Last year, scientists implanted clusters of human brain cells into living rats and observed something remarkable: the cells cozied up inside the rat brains and started functioning as if they had been there all along. Maybe they had—the collective shared ancestor of all modern mammals is a 200-million-year-old rat called Morganucodontids. There were once other mammalian lineages, but Morganucodontids out-survived them all.
That is key to our issue with rats: they survive too well. And their thriving creates an ever-present, dark-shadow society to our own—a disorder amid our order and a challenge to our dominance that’s a little too well matched. When they become diseased and contaminated through contact with human urbanism, rats don’t politely die off, but instead disease and contaminate us right back.
Moreover, they do it with gusto. Rats act like they own Vancouver, embodying a kind of revolutionary attitude that repulses and enrages those of us who lack it.
On Vancouver Reddit, I found a thread in which someone describes watching packs of rats run down alleys, “backflipping” in apparent exhilaration. As if to say, “Nothing feels so free as my life,” and you know they’re probably right.
Of course, we’re all complicit in welcoming them here, though some of us perhaps more directly than others. Another Reddit poster describes seeing a man who, much like someone feeding pigeons, was tossing bread to a swarm of rats, each one reportedly “Costco hot dog-sized.” Bread Guy is hearsay, but I think we can all agree that there are those who feed wild animals from a place of unshakable, shrouded conviction.
A friend of mine lives next door to a woman who scatters dog food outside expressly for the rats. What can be done? My pal has removed her fig, magnolia, and cherry trees in an effort to make her own yard the anti-buffet, and separate the sacred civility of a home from the raw profanity of a decomposing rat in the walls. But her neighbour carries on, welcoming generations of newborn rats with her plentitude.
Chris Frederick, owner of Pest Detective pest control services, tells me that rat control hasn’t been quite as effective since 2018, when second-generation anticoagulant rodenticide usage was curtailed in Vancouver due to the toxins carrying up the food chain—killing owls, and possibly pets, if you’re the kind of person who goes urban rat-hunting with your dog (there’s a Vice documentary on that). This might help explain why, depending on the alleys you frequent, our rat population seems extra robust these days.
Local environmental epidemiologist Dr. Michael Lee argues that the best approach to managing rats in Vancouver is a collectivist one, in which community members, biologists, and the City collaborate on a campaign to make our streets a less appealing rat habitat. But until that happens, Pest Detective Frederick deals with rat problems on an individual case basis, often sealing up foundation cracks in buildings and closing off nearby burrows.
“We just try to keep them away from our areas,” he says, “and try to mitigate the risk of them doing damage to our homes and vehicles.”
The latter scenario—rats in cars—is the setting for my favourite Redditor speculation. That being: charred food found atop car engines, suggesting rats are cooking with heat, thus ushering in a stage of evolution much like the one which saw Homo erectus rapidly gain intelligence after taming fire, starting a great reallocation of physiological resources away from the digestive system and toward our big, rat-compatible brains.
The cooking theory would mean rats are closing the gap between us and them even more. Still, Byers, the rat scientist, dismisses the notion: “Yeah, maybe if we start finding a little bit of flour, a little bit of milk, some eggs, and butter all mixed together,” she says, “and a nice little bread forming on the engine.”
What Byers considers fact is somehow worse: we don’t know if rats are getting smarter. We don’t know if urban rat populations are actually rising, though it can certainly feel that way. There is far more that we don’t know about rats than we do, and this mystery only enhances the disconcerting thrall they create when they’re skittering beneath our streetlights and feasting on our garbage, making us feel gross to be alive.