Leader of the pack rats

Country Life Every Week - - SPECTATOR -

IF the def­i­ni­tion in the Cam­bridge Dic­tionary is cor­rect —‘Some­one who col­lects things they do not need’—then we’re all pack rats. A few ex­tra cush­ions on your sofa, more knives for cook­ing than you use, a su­per­fluity of screw­drivers and, there you are: you’re a pack rat.

How­ever, most of us know peo­ple who are gen­uine, ded­i­cated, even ob­ses­sional pack rats. Peo­ple with books full of ex­otic stamps, nails in lit­tle jars and, in one in­stance I know, a man who’s filled a large hay barn with ‘un­con­sid­ered tri­fles’. I’m not com­plain­ing be­cause he is able to sup­ply our ev­ery need: some flex­i­ble rub­ber tub­ing, a sack bar­row, a 4in screw and a bi­cy­cle, along with dozens of tap wash­ers and as­sorted hard­ware.

Real pack rats—lim­ited, thank God, to Amer­ica—have the same habits. There are va­ri­eties from Nicaragua, Ari­zona and Al­legheny, with furry tails and white feet, but all like to make a den, whether at the bot­tom of the sort of cac­tus you see in cow­boy films or, worse, in your at­tic. This will have sev­eral nest­ing rooms, a larder and piles of de­bris.

Pack rats, say the ex­perts, are ‘vo­cal and bois­ter­ous’ and cre­ate noisy havoc, es­pe­cially at night. The same could be said for many hu­man pack rats, who are also noisy and most ac­tive at night.

These rat homes are, un­fairly in my view, known as mid­dens, some­thing we wouldn’t call our own homes, how­ever many ‘un­con­sid­ered tri­fles’ we’ve ac­cu­mu­lated on the tops of our chests of draw­ers and rarely opened draw­ers. Some have been found that are 50,000 years old, eas­ily beat­ing the Pan­theon in Rome and the Parthenon in Athens by thou­sands of years. Some are still in­hab­ited, which is more than you can say for ei­ther Clas­si­cal site. Ap­par­ently, this huge range of pe­ri­ods al­lows sci­en­tists to delve among the bits of plants, twigs and cac­tuses and work out how the climate has changed.

I don’t think that pack rats are ac­tu­ally rats—their clas­si­fi­ca­tion is ‘neotoma’. A shame, be­cause I have a grudg­ing re­spect for rats, who have a bad rep­u­ta­tion for spread­ing the Black Death and bubonic plague through­out Europe. Some peo­ple won’t even say the word, us­ing the eu­phemism ‘long tails’. This stigma is un­fair be­cause the rats died, too.

Black and brown rats— Rat­tus rat­tus and Rat­tus norvegi­cus—are clever as ro­dents go, pa­tient, de­ter­mined and brave. Hew tells of a thug who swag­gered into the cel­lar of the news­pa­per of­fice boast­ing of how he would kill a rat. He cor­nered one, but then things went wrong from his point of view. The rat, about 6in long, sprang up at the 6ft man and fas­tened its teeth in his ear. The thug screamed and ran. Rat one, thug nil.

As for pa­tience and de­ter­mi­na­tion, we have a 17th-cen­tury oak chest on which the rats have, day af­ter day, bit­ten their way through the lid. Pre­sum­ably the chest held some sort of grain which the rats lusted af­ter so, lit­tle by lit­tle, they widened the hole un­til they could slither in­side.

Per­haps I have a se­cret ad­mi­ra­tion for rats be­cause jour­nal­ists are known for their ‘rat-like cun­ning’. There are worse things in life than hav­ing rat-like cun­ning.

Then again, the red-top news­pa­pers la­bel any chap with an undis­ci­plined sex life as a ‘love rat’, which again seems un­fair be­cause the pack rat, at any rate, prefers a bach­e­lor ex­is­tence ex­cept when nest­ing. His hu­man ver­sion has the same ten­dency.

One pack rat, Dr John Kirk, amassed a col­lec­tion of more than 7,000 bygones by ac­cept­ing ob­jects from his pa­tients in­stead of fees. When this over­whelmed his home, he opened the York Cas­tle Mu­seum. More than 30 mil­lion peo­ple have vis­ited it, which has to prove that pack rats are a very good thing in­deed.

‘The rat sprang up at the 6ft man and fas­tened its teeth in his ear ’

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