Rats get zero respect. If they're not stuck in research labs having gecko tails grown on their heads or trying out a new mascara line, they're out in the wild scraping together meager meals in sewers and bad restaurants. People are always trying to kill them with traps or poison. They suffer constant verbal abuse: What does one say when something goes awry? "Rats." What do we call a deposed tyrant hiding in a subterranean hovel? "A rat in a hole."
No, the indignities never end for these unfortunate rodents. But one Portland man aims to change that.
"Rats need spokespersons, too," says Roger Troen, founder and international coordinator of Rat Allies, a Portland-based advocacy group for the beleaguered rodents. "They're really super, super pets."
According to Troen, rats are the victims of a streak of "bad press," which began several hundred years ago.
"Rats get a bad reputation because of the plague," Troen explains, referring to the 14th-century epidemic that killed 25 million Europeans in five years. Historians believe the plague was spread by fleas who hitched rides on the backs of defenseless rats. Since then, Troen says, the media have conducted a massive smear campaign against the blameless rodents.
Just in the past couple of years, for example, three new films have emerged about rats who are somehow exposed to toxins that make them mutate and go on murderous rampages--Rodentz, Killer Rats and The Rats. (Adding injury to insult, all of these movies are terrible.)
Even within the rodent world, rats are often overshadowed by their colleagues. Look at some famous rodents. Stuart Little? Mouse. Rocky? Squirrel. In fact, the best-known fictional rat is probably Splinter, the wise martial-arts master from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and he's a giant mutant, too.
Troen, a 72-year-old former fifth-grade teacher, has long been an animal advocate. In 1986, he and several others broke into a laboratory at the University of Oregon and "liberated" more than 300 rats, cats and rabbits. Troen was the only one who was caught, but not before he helped load the critters onto the "animal underground railroad."
"You are only told what you need to know," he says of his experience with the liberators, one he paid for with three months' house arrest and a $35,000 fine. "You don't ask questions. Some people came, and I just put them all in a van."
Troen formed the Rat Allies group soon after, in response to the untimely demise of another group--the Rodent Alliance for Tolerance. He has more than 150 members from around the world on his books.
Rat Allies first came to WW's attention when Troen responded to an Oct. 29 Queer Window column, in which Byron Beck asked the seemingly rhetorical question, "Who gives a rat's ass?"
"I do!" replied Troen, who sent along an informational packet outlining his organization's activities.
Such letters are just one of the outreach efforts of Rat Allies. Troen also forwards a monthly newsletter called The Rat Report to members, the most recent edition of which includes the inspirational story of a woman who "had a vision of...a white rat on the shoulders of Our Lord Jesus Christ."
If Troen were to have an arch-nemesis, it would probably be Multnomah County Vector Control--the agency that exterminates local mosquitoes and rats.
"All rodents have the capacity to spread rodent-borne diseases," warns Vector Control director Chris Wirth, whose agency goes on more than 1,000 rat-extermination missions each year. When talking about rats, Wirth uses icy phrases like "abate the rodent problem" and "reduce rodent harborage," though he is careful to distinguish between wild and domestic rats. Domestic rats are mostly harmless, he says, but wild rats are dirty and dangerous and should be "abated" to death.
This is a contentious point for Troen, who lobbies to stop the use of inhumane rodent traps. Though his outreach efforts are mainly aimed at domestic and lab rats, he firmly believes that if wild rats must be killed, it should be done as humanely as possible.
"For instance, glue traps are a horrible way for animals to die," he says. "Rats and mice just pull themselves apart on this stuff. So if we hear about a store that's using glue traps, we get them to understand that there are a lot more humane traps that they can use."
According to Wirth, Vector Control uses old-fashioned snap traps baited with peanut butter for indoor infestations, and rat poison outdoors.
Troen winces at the thought of such things. The proud owner of 21 rats, he spends much of his time finding homes for rodents in trouble. Troen says the plucky rodents are the perfect pets, especially for city folk who lack the space for a dog or cat.
"Rats are so smart, so cute and so playful. And they're easy to take care of," Troen says. "People have no idea what they're missing. None."