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Encounters with and in the more than human world Assembled through a micro-emotic approach

Relations with Rats: Rat City

A work in progress by 
Merel Ligtelijn, Christine van Royen

Do not cite or reproduce without contacting the authors.

Human animals have multiple relations with the rat and vice versa. The rat is hated, feared, used in laboratories and on the other hand it makes a very nice pet. The most striking relation however between human animals and rats is killing: the rat is incessantly being killed. We, Christine and Merel, would like all of us to reflect on the relation between this animal and the human animal, and on the reciprocity of relations and possible new relations between the animals, both rat and human. We do so from a shared interest in animals and humans and their relations, that we develop through the Centre for Animal-Human Studies. We both are members of the research group of this Centre and were paired as we have a shared interest in and empathy with neglected, disregarded and hated animals; we decided that the rat fulfills this description. 
One of the aims of the Centre is to establish an interdisciplinary approach that investigates the relation between humans and other animals. The Centre focuses on animals and language, on the representation of animals in schoolbooks and on animal law. A congress on these subjects and more is being organized every year.

Merel Ligtelijn is a freelance writer, entrepreneur and co-founder of the Foundation ‘Amsterdam Ondergronds’. Christine van Royen has an artistic research practice with a focus on Aesthetics of Death of Plants and Animals. We share an interest in the relational, philosophical and aesthetic approach of the life and death of the rat in the city of Amsterdam. 

Act of killing

A dead rat was found on the Lijnbaansgracht. Passing by, people looked with disgust at this creature that had just been killed by a car and burst open, its insides spilling out. When picked up the rat felt warm and heavy, its little body still close to being alive, a living being. A dog or cat would have been picked up by the Animal Ambulance but not a rat. One throws it away or leaves it on the street where it is to be driven flat until its remains are dispersed and vanished. 
We think the rat a good example of an animal that is considered worthless by almost everybody and we resent the way how easily the death of a rat is dismissed. Almost needless to point out is the urge of humans to kill the rat without second thought. Overall, the rat is seen as a threat, a pest, a venom or just a bag full of enzymes to use in a laboratory.
Recently, the city of New York appointed a ‘rat Czar’ to destroy ‘public enemy number one of the New Yorkers’. Mayor Eric Adams has repeatedly publicly stated to ‘hate rats’. In Paris, 2019, people were fined 450 euro if they did not place rat poison and traps.                                                                                               Philosopher Vinciane Despret quotes biologist, philosopher and science historian Donna Haraway when she says that the most frequent form of human-animal relations is the act of killing. Rats are among the very killable beings. How did rats become so killable we wondered, and what sort of animal is the rat anyway? And could we think of another way to relate with that other animal so physically close to us? 

Some words on rats.
In the Netherlands live various rat species. City dwellers generally deal with the brown or black rat in and around the house and our focus is on these species. 
The rat does not belong to our northern spheres originally but comes from (Eur-)Asia, in a brown and a black variety. Today, the black rat, a rodent called Rattus rattus, is found mainly in the south of the Netherlands. This is the rat that once spread the pest. Fleas living on its skin transmit the plague bacterium from the rat to humans. The black rat has a longer tail, larger ears and a more pointed muzzle than the brown variety and is a very good climber that eats everything with a preference for fruit and vegetables. The black rat likes to live above the ground, preferably in attics and near water. Black rats are also regularly spotted in the urbanized area, at ports and grain transshipment. 

The brown rat, Rattus norvegicus, comes originally from (Eur-)Asia as well. This rat is bigger than the black rat and thrives in cities. The brown rat, carrier of a bacterium that causes Weil’s disease, likes, as a good swimmer, to settle nearby water and in sewers, in holes and cavity walls. It is an omnivore. This rat eats garbage and leftovers on the street and lives under houses and between walls. The rat digs corridors and creates nests. Brown rats are invasive exotics, that successfully repressed the black rat. However, little is known about the rats behavior before it came to Europe.

We think with Vinciane Despret, who asks: how do we create meaning of observing rat habits, how do we translate their behavior. The current knowledge about the rat and its social behavior and intelligence has often been assembled in order to learn more about the human animal, instead of producing knowledge about the rat itself. For example,the rat is famous as a fear-inducing animal as in Sigmund Freuds’ Rat Man, a patient of the famous psychiatrist who was afraid of man being eaten by rats through the anus. The rat also figured in multiple scientific studies as laboratory animal, but always within an anthropomorphic framework in which intelligence and rewards came in character with what Vinciane Despret calls ‘academicocentrism’, an attitude connected to predictable results confirming expectations related to human animal behavior. Another example is the maze that was meant to test the intelligence of the rat. Instead of their intelligence to run the maze, rats used their sense of smell, Despret says. People who worked closely with rats, such as biologist and writer about rats Maarten ‘t Hart and Edward Bronts, the recently retired called ‘pied piper’ of Amsterdam, greatly admire the rat for reasons as its intelligence and ingenuity. But many seem to fear the rat and not know it at all.

Killing rats and the effects on human animals

Relations between rats and humans could be renewed and retold to stop the rat being so killable. Not only shall that be good for the rat, but as well for the human animals that the rat lives with and could possibly live with in a kinship that might arise between the human animals and rats. Of this relation both rats and human animals might benefit. 

Killing rats is introducing the concept of killing and extermination in our thoughts, actions, habits and surroundings. Deleuze and Guattari said in What is Philosophy: ‘The agony of the rat or the slaughter of a calf remains present in thought not through pity but as the zone of exchange between man and animal in which something of one passes into the other’. Deleuze and Guattari do not think there are clear boundaries or territories between human animals and other animals. Animals are not separated from each other by clear definitions. Human animals and rats share zones of exchange. In this overlapping zone of shared being, human animals share the agony and the fear of the rat when being killed. Killing rats thus has effects on the thoughts and feelings of human animals. 

As relations between rats and human animals become ultimately acute in large cities as Amsterdam, we search for another approach of living together with rats. We try to share a new story, and we follow Donna Haraway in writing new stories on relations with animals, that can be told and retold. 

Rat City

We aim to establish a relation in which the rat is treated as an animal that has rights to live in its own space in the city and is cared for in a response-able way. Also, we aim to introduce playfulness in the relation through proposing the idea for a Rat City, a parallel world built on thoughts and aesthetics of the seventies, by artist Constant Nieuwenhuys. ‘New Babylon’ was the name of the fictional city that Constant created after having gained international fame as a painter of the Cobra-group, an international avant-garde movement that ended itself in 1951. Constant Nieuwenhuys, who is in general referred to as Constant, redefined his position after Cobra by connecting to various other artists and disciplines. After meeting Guy Debord of the Situationist International, Constant started working on an ideal city, where men could live and play when machines would have taken over labor. Working on New Babylon, Constant played with romantic ideas about space, aesthetics of planes, wellbeing, freedom and fantastic forms of life. New Babylon offers only minimal conditions for a behavior that should remain as free as possible. Every limitation of movement, of the creation of mood and atmosphere should be inhibited. Everything should remain possible, everything should be able to happen. The environment is created by the activities of life not the other way around.’ In our concept of a Rat City, we will take that concept of a playful city and a fantastic form of life with growing and renewing relations where everything is possible. We aim to create a city model with rats and human animals in a playful relation in an imaginative or real space, where rats can live in freedom without fears of being killed. As rats in general like the spaces that human animals create, we suppose that a city designed by humans will accommodate the rats and make them comfortable. People could come and feed the rats and bring their bread and leftovers to the Rat City and watch the rats. A Rat Bag could become as usual as a Doggy Bag around Rat City. Human animals and rats could share their territories and the zone between them. 

There is a place for rats that has proven successful in improving relations between human animals and rats. This special place for rats is found in Karni Mata Rat Temple in India. The Hindu temple is dedicated to the deity Karni Mata and is found in Rajasthan. In this temple live numerous -around 20.000- black rats that are considered holy. Daily they are taken care of with food and shelter by people with whom they live in kinship in the temple. Visitors leave messages that although they were initially scared of rats, their relations with rats improved after meeting the rats in the temple. Rat City might therefore also improve relations between rats and human animals, like Rat Temple.

New relations 

How could human animals think of another way to relate to the rat and create a relation with the rat that is less focused on killing?

Concluding our thoughts, we think that Rat City will be an opportunity to rewrite the story of our relation with this beast, pest, venom or pet, and create response-ability between human animals and rats. Rat City will give rats a proper home, a place where they can live as they like in a new relation with human animals. There will be an overlapping zone where human animals and rats can share playfulness, which can be passed on instead of killing. Through the creation and execution of this project and this story that can be told and retold, many other human animals might be able to form new relations with rats. A true love for the rat might be born through Rat City`: Ratphilia. 

The Centre for Animal-Human Studies will have its next congress in November 2023 and we are planning a discussion at this congress on the subject of Rat City and the creation of Ratphilia. While we were working on this project, the city of Paris 

decided to change her attitude towards rats. No killing anymore: Paris is now looking for new ways rats and human animals can live together. There will be much to discuss, so please do join us at the Congres!


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