Ben Dantzer had spent several frustrating days trying to capture a single squirrel when the epiphany arrived. Dantzer, a rodent researcher at the University of Michigan, stood in the Canadian Yukon, peering at the uncooperative squirrel, which was perched high in a spruce tree. Then, all of a sudden, he felt like he was looking at an optical illusion: when he looked at the squirrel from one side, he saw a squirrel; when he saw it another way, he saw a rat. “I kind of think of squirrels as rats in suits,” he told me. “Like with a fur coat and dog nose from a costume store.” It’s true: the two rodents look remarkably alike. And yet, for all their similarities, they elicit wildly different reactions from humans. Squirrels-Oh. Rats-shit. Which give?
People have been thinking about this question for years. The absurd TV series Portlandia picks it up in a skit featuring three hipster rat puppets confused by the preferential treatment given to their bushy-tailed brethren. Christoph Waltz, playing a Nazi colonel, unfolds the riddle to justify the Holocaust in the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds. “You can’t befriend a squirrel,” says Sarah Jessica Parker on sex and the city. “Squirrels are just rats with cuter outfits.” Many Reddit threads and Quora posts have also laid the question in one form or another, arousing many enthusiasts (and sometimes implausible) hypotheses. The debates ensue. The gloves come off. Things become ad hominem – or rather, ad rongem.
Not everyone accepts the popular consensus about rats and squirrels. There are those who dismiss it on the grounds that rats are actually cute – “Just like small dogs!” they say. “The cutest little guys around.” Once, Juan Sanguinetti-Scheck, a rodent researcher at Harvard, stopped oncoming traffic to save an injured baby rat…on a date. (“She was very supportive,” he assured me.) Then there are those who argue that squirrels are actually rude — “tree rats,” they call them, who don’t care. distinguish them from their sewer cousins only by a few minor technicalities. These detractors note that squirrels are responsible for up to One out of five Power outages in the United States cause thousands house fires a year, and, from time to time, indiscriminately attack humans. “Squirrels”, a Redditer writing, “are total dicks.” Such antipathy is not new. In 1918, California enlisted children in a week of war against squirrels. “All lethal devices of modern warfare will be used in the effort to annihilate the squirrel army,” a local newspaper promised. “Including gas.”
But that’s not really the point. The thing is, most people seem to recognize that regardless of their personal feelings about these creatures (and don’t even start on mice, gerbils or capybaras), public opinion leans towards squirrels and anti -rats. The question is why.
Let’s start with the obvious: the tail. The squirrel’s is big and bushy, the rat’s is bare, scaly and worm-like. This tends to be the first thing that comes up in any conversation about our attitudes towards squirrels and rats. Look at a squirrel’s tail! “You have to admit”, a Quora commenter writing, “that’s damn cute.” A rat, not so much. And the underlying principle here seems to be true for all species, not just rats and squirrels. Name a fluffy animal that humans find disgusting… see? (The etymology lends credence to the idea that fluffy tails are possibly the essential characteristic of the squirrel: The scientific name of the American red squirrel, Tamiasciurus hudsonicustranslates to “the steward who sits in the shadow of his tail”.)
Working against rats is also where and when we typically encounter them – wrong place, wrong time. Unlike squirrels, which tend to be seen in daylight, rats are nocturnal. We encounter them in the dark, when we are most likely to be afraid, Sanguinetti-Scheck pointed out. “When we see a rat at night, we most often encounter it by accident, and it stuns us a bit,” he said. “It changes the way you look at an animal a lot.”
And while squirrels primarily cling to parks and wooded areas, rats permeate the entire urban landscape. (New York City alone has 2 million of them.) They rustle in garbage cans and take up residence in sewers, which feeds the false impression that they are basically filthy creatures. Worse still, they invade homes and other indoor spaces. Squirrels do it too – if they get the chance they will wreak havoc in your attic, but not as often. And if you are what you eat, then the squirrels (acorns, nuts, fruits, seeds) surely outweigh the rats (garbage, carrion, insects…you name it).
Another popular hypothesis is that squirrels simply run best public relations operation. In other words, their superior status is not innate but cultural, resulting from a long history of favorable media portrayals. They feature regularly in children’s books and movies, where they are usually portrayed as resourceful and industrious. Rats, on the other hand, are almost always cast as villains– okay, yes, with the notable exception of Ratatouille. Negative associations are so strong that the word itself has become pejorative for someone misleading Where unfair.
All of these theories probably have some truth to them, and that’s because they’re all intertwined. The underlying mechanism at the heart of our aversion to rats may be disease avoidance, told me Jakub Polák, a psychologist at Charles University in Prague who has studied the relative rudeness of different animals. Disgust, Polák said, evolved as a defense mechanism against dangerous pathogens — and rats are notorious transmitters of disease. They have long borne the weight of blame, deserved Where not, for bubonic plague. And they can also carry a number of other infectious diseases, including hantavirus, leptospirosis, lymphocytic choriomeningitis, tularemia and salmonella.
Squirrels can carry diseases too, Dantzer said, but they don’t seem to transmit them to humans on the same scale as rats. This does not mean that when people see a rat they consciously think, I better avoid this creature, given its past as a vector of disease. They don’t really think at all. They just recoil…or scream…or pass out.
Disease avoidance is therefore not so much an alternative as a basis for the above assumptions. Take rat tails: the reason they repel us, Polák posits, is that they remind us of other organisms we’ve evolved to find repellent for our own protection: snakes, worms, parasites. But in the squirrel versus rat mystery, the tail itself is a bit of a red herring, he says. It’s probably not the cause of our aversion; instead, we probably cling to it as a visual cue to justify our antipathy.
Even the public relations hypothesis, seemingly at odds with the idea that our attitudes toward rats and squirrels have an evolutionary origin, fits into this story. Disease avoidance helps explain how our anti-rat culture came about in the first place, University of Michigan psychologist Joshua Ackerman told me. And this culture in turn helps to ingrain the genetically inherited predisposition to find filthy rats.
Whether disease avoidance alone provides a complete explanation for our feelings about rats and squirrels is an open question. Polak thinks so. Paul Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and a pioneer of modern disgust research, isn’t so sure. As proof, he points to the fact that what is delicious in one place is nauseating in another. In many Asian countries, rats are just another source of protein; in some, the tail is a special delicacy. Disgust, according to Rozin, emerges from a complex combination of cultural and evolutionary forces – and perhaps even other factors we have yet to identify. “It’s a complicated world,” he told me.
The discussion in online forums on the rat-squirrel question certainly confirms this. “Since I love them,” wrote one Quora commenter, “I don’t really mind waking up to find a rat standing on my face.”