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In Defense of the Rat

Suddenly, Franks realized she had one other meeting to get to, and here she was in a room filled with free-ranging rats. She couldn’t just open the door and leave—rats would surely escape. But catching each rat and putting it back into the hutch would take perpetually.

“I believe, you understand, we should always probably get them back within the cage,” Franks said.

“Oh, okay,” said the researcher.

She opened the cage door. The rats streamed back up the table legs and into confinement, where they continued to romp and play. Franks made it to her meeting.

It was an example of how constructing relationships and channels of communication with rats might allow us to come back to understandings with them. “Rats may be quite attentive to human interests that potentially will not be even in alignment with what the rats want,” said Franks. (It seems that this has been shown in laboratory experiments as well, where rats have been trained to take part in procedures they can not possibly enjoy, corresponding to tube-feeding.)

I admit, and so does Franks, that we’re entering unexplored territory here. What does it seem like to form social relationships with wild rats? Do we hire rat-catchers who tickle slightly than kill? Draw hard territorial lines where they’re most significant—in homes, offices, restaurants—while accepting rats on a downtown street or in a park in the identical way that we do a pigeon or some other commensal animal?

An concept that seems absurd is usually a truth that we haven’t yet accepted. Years after de Chasseneuz represented rats within the court of Autun, certainly one of the strangest animal prosecutions on record gave hints of how the famous lawyer might need fully defended the rats had their trial proceeded.

The case in query was launched against beetles of the species Rhynchites auratus—handsome golden-green weevils—in Saint-Julien, France, in 1587. As with the rats of Autun, the accused were charged with ravaging crops, this time the local vineyards. Again, counsel was appointed to defend the verminous pests.

The prosecution relied on Biblical passages that give humankind dominion over “every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth”: Since weevils surely creepeth, we were free to determine their fates. The defense, meanwhile, made the case that weevils were a component of divine creation, and God had made the earth fruitful “not solely for the sustenance of rational human beings.”

The trial lasted greater than eight months, and at one point the restless residents of Saint-Julien offered to mark out an insect reserve where the weevils could feed without harming the vineyards. The weevils’ advocates weren’t placated. They declared the land inadequate, turned down the offer and, as lawyers will, sought dismissal of the case cum expensis—that’s, with the accusers paying the weevils’ legal costs. No one today knows how the matter was finally decided, since the last page of the court record is broken. It appears to have been nibbled by rats or some form of beetle.

Preposterous? Absolutely. Yet by putting weevils on trial, each defense and prosecution got here to agree on one point that eludes us today: Creatures have a right to exist in accordance with their nature, even whether it is their nature to make trouble for humankind.

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