Leader of the pack rats
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 ’