Four years ago Quartet published Homeless Rats by the celebrated Libyan writer Ahmed Fagih.
We had previously published his award-winning trilogy of novels, Gardens of the Night.
Since Homeless Rats was published my view of rats has changed dramatically, for the concept of horror at the mere mention of the species altered to that of adulated sympathy.
So I wasn’t in the least surprised to read that scientists have found animals displaying great empathy, even forgoing selfish advantage to help others, this time in the kingdom of rats.
Not the human versions we’ve all come across, but the genuine article – the rodents better known for cunning and spreading plague.
Researchers of Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan put rats into a box divided into two halves, with a transparent partition. On one side rats were left to struggle in a pool of water; on the other, the rodents were put safely on a platform but could easily push open a door for their wet counterparts, allowing them to climb onto dry land.
The study, reported in the Journal of Animal Cognition, found that the dry rats regularly rescued the wet ones. But they didn’t open the door when the pool was dried out – showing that they were reacting to distress, rather than just seeking company.
And those that had themselves been soaked helped the fastest, suggesting empathy. The dry rats were even given a choice between showing mercy or getting chocolate and, mostly, they chose the selfless option.
So might they offer helping paws to colleagues who slip into the water when leaving sinking ships?
Back to Homeless Rats; although it is a novel, it does raise questions of solidarity among animals.
Under the intolerable mid-day sun a troupe of Bedouins set up camp on land previously ruled by desert creatures: Long-legged rats, who bury themselves in tunnels to escape the heat, snakes who lurk in the shade, wise old tortoises, wolves and armies of ants. As the humans begin to search for food, a battle for survival begins…
It tells a brilliant story and some of you, who follow my blog, might be tempted or seduced to purchase a copy. It’s still in print.