There is a squirrel or squirrels in our attic. I hear them gnawing and scrambling as I try to fall asleep, as I try to settle into meditation. The sound is both unnerving and cozy.
It’s not a surprise, really. We get them almost every year even though we have had our house “bat-proofed.” Twice. Just so you know—bat-proofing doesn’t work particularly well for bats, either. The house is old and full of charming detail—and gaps and openings. It’s drafty and strange and creatures seem to find their way in quite easily.
I imagine that this squirrel is the one who has grown sleek and glossy at my bird feeder. I see their plumpness and feel as proud as if I were raising a healthy child. I know some people don’t like squirrels; I like the little wretches. I like their bright eyes and chuffing tails. I like their unselfconscious greed, the dozens and dozens of seeds they bury in my lawn. To be scolded by a squirrel with that raspy call and twitching tail is to feel yourself truly seen.
Although both are rodents, my feelings about rats are quite different. Rats also visit my bird feeder (!) and they have become plump and glossy as well. These are Norway rats, aka brown rat, common rat, street rat, sewer rat, wharf rat, Hanover rat, Norwegian rat and Parisian rat. Global rats who live wherever humans live, particularly in urban areas, particularly beneath our wood pile because beneath the driveway runs an abandoned storm sewer which the man from city environmental services calls, “the rat highway.”
I struggle to appreciate the presence of the rats because—well, they’re sneaky, right (as if squirrels aren’t) or so we believe. Maybe because squirrels are active during the day; rats at night. Or because rats communicate at frequencies humans can’t hear while squirrels make charming little tsking sounds.
Okay, but rats carry disease. This I know. But it turns out that rats are no more likely to carry disease than squirrels, on average, and neither carry rabies. Still, it’s hard to forget the role of rats in the bubonic plague. Rats aren’t filthy, either. They groom themselves constantly, up to one-third of the time they are awake. Final note, almost all lab rats and the so-called fancy rats that people have as pets, were bred from the Norway/brown rat. So when my daughter had a pair of adorable black and white spotted pet rats when she was young--
I suspect that the distinction comes down to tails; the squirrel’s is fluffy and cute, the rat’s—downright ugly. Even the tails of pet rats.
At any rate, it seems as if the difference between my reaction to a squirrel in the attic versus a rat under the woodpile comes down to judgment. Prejudice. The human brain is wired to make judgments and this likely served us well in our early days—this will eat us, that we can eat. But nowadays this quality of mind, this unfortunate tendency to determine “good” and “bad” based on very little, too often gets in the way of kinship, of love of neighbor.
I judged the rat. Where else do I go awry? What frameworks have I built in my mind that slot people and creatures into categories that I have no business defining?
That question bears reflection.