Not all rats are finks

My friend Lisa Goodyear-Prescott gets a wee bit uncomfortable around mice and rats. Actually, “wee bit uncomfortable” is a euphemism for “off-the-meter shrieking and off-the-charts, Freddy Krueger-is-in-the-house terror.” My sense is that even the Kia Party Rock gerbils give Lisa the jitters.

And, of course, she’s not alone – especially when it comes to rats. We don’t really like rats, in part because we know they carried the fleas that killed roughly a third of the human population of Europe in the fourteenth-century. You think it takes a while for someone to forgive you for posting a dorky photo of them on facebook? Well, just imagine how long it takes to live down the bad rap that comes with spreading the bubonic plague to a continent.

The result is that rats now desert sinking ships. We smell them when there is a waft of moral impropriety in the air. We have gutter rats, mall rats, and – for those few creatures that did not desert the aforementioned sinking ship – drowned rats.

The one exception to this? Someone thought it was a good idea for Michael Jackson to record a hauntingly beautiful but deeply disturbing ballad about the friendship between a boy and his rat in 1972, when Jackson was barely in middle school. The song, “Ben,” was part of the movie, “Ben,” the sequel to “Willard,” and would win the Golden Globe for “Best Song.” Among the lyrics:

“If you ever look behind and don’t like what you find,

There’s something you should know, you’ve got a place to go.”

Few people are going to peg the early 1970s as the pinnacle in pop music. Or, apparently, in movies.

In any case, the folks behind the song and the movie, “Ben,” may have been on to something. We may have been underestimating rodents all these centuries. Researchers at the University of Chicago last month unveiled a study that suggests rats may be considerably more empathetic than we realize. The study appeared first in the journal, “Science.” Essentially, what the scientists found was this: A free rat would rescue a trapped rat from a restrainer. A free rat would rescue the trapped one even when subsequent social contact was not possible. And when a free rat had to choose between chocolate and rescuing a trapped rat, the free rat would liberate the trapped rat and share the chocolate.

I first heard about this study on National Public Radio and shared it with Lisa Prescott when we were talking on Christmas Eve. I had forgotten that she views rats and mice as one step more terrifying than flesh-eating zombies with acid for blood. I went on and on about rats, sort of like those people who constantly tell pregnant women about their agonizingly difficult labors or that guy who can’t stop sharing his stories of turbulent flights with white-knuckle flyers. (Sadly, I am that guy.) She was patient and polite, but I had noticed she was growing a little pale as my wife gently reminded me that Lisa didn’t share my sudden interest in rats.

But this research fascinated me: It interested me because this might explain why my six cats have so little desire to track down and kill rodents. They must know that these smaller mammals are empathetic, too! Arguably, rats are more empathetic than some of my cats. (My cats might rescue a trapped peer over chocolate, but there is no way they would choose friendship over butter.)

But it also interested me as a person who believes that animals think and feel more deeply than we give them credit for. It is why, years ago, I became a vegetarian.

I still think the song, “Ben,” is creepy on just too many levels to recount here. But it’s reassuring to know that not all rats are finks.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on January 22, 2012. The movie based on his novel, “Secrets of Eden,” premieres on Lifetime Television on February 4.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.