Look the other way, please.

There really are inconvenient truths, aren’t there? There are some things that seem to slip quietly under the radar -things that go unremarked until they  are brought our our attention. And even then, they are perhaps dismissed as unimportant -or worse, accepted and rationalized in an attempt to justify them as tools that enable the greater good of humanity. We, after all, are what it’s all about; our welfare is paramount, not to mention our survival. And when you frame it in those terms, there is little room for noblesse oblige. Survival of the fittest, quickly becomes survival of the ruthless -of the remorseless.

Perhaps I should explain. I live on a little hobby farm in the country, and when I was actively breeding sheep, chickens, and llamas, I was well acquainted with interested visitors, both two and four-legged. Everybody, it seemed, had or wanted, a stake in the game. Friends wanted eggs for their breakfasts, colleagues wanted lamb for their dinners, and I wanted an escape from the city. But, to share with some, was to share with all.

That’s how Life works, I suppose: word gets around, and soon there are all manner of uninvited guests -not all of whom knock, or ask permission. Some just appear -like carpenter ants- but some try not to advertise their arrival, and in fact seem to want to stay out of sight, if not out of mind. They’re the ones I used to worry about -if they’re in the barn, where else might they hide?

Of course I’m talking about rats -not so much the mice which kept my three cats busy in the night. No, the rats who hid in the engine of my pickup truck and ate the plastic off the wires to my distributor, or the battery wires in my car; the rats who patrolled the barn and left their distinctive trail through the uneaten bits of grain I fed the sheep; the rats who also holed up in the woodpile in my garage, and wherever else they could gather relatively undisturbed.

And yes, I declared war on them with spring traps baited with peanut butter, and put warfarin-like pellets in short, narrow little PVC pipes so the cats couldn’t get into them, but alas, the rats outlasted my efforts. Only when I retired and the chickens died in a well-fed old age, and only when I sold the sheep and llamas did the supply of grain eventually disappear -only then did the rats disappear. And I’ve never seen a rat, or droppings since. It reminded me of  the last stanza of Longfellow’s poem The Day is Done:

                                 And the night shall be filled with music,

                                      And the cares, that infest the day,

                                Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,

                                     And as silently steal away.

I know, I know -they’re only rats, but their leaving seemed so sudden; I came to think of them as having made a collective decision to move their troupe away to greener fields -sort of like the Travellers in Britain with their little trailers, able to leave when conditions are no longer hospitable for them. I suppose I Disneyfied them in my over-active imagination, and yet there was something about their migration that softened their attributes. I’ve never been fond of rats -especially their tails- but on the other hand I’ve always found it hard to believe all of the sinister lore attached to their sneaky habits. After all, they’ve lived with mankind and our middens from the beginning, I would imagine… and we’re both still here in spades. You have to assume a certain degree of intelligence to coexist with us for so long, despite our best efforts to exterminate them.

As these things happen, I tripped over a tantalizing essay co-written by Kristin Andrews, a professor of philosophy at York University in Toronto, and Susana Monsó, a post-doctoral fellow at the Messerli Research Institute in Vienna. https://aeon.co/essays/why-dont-rats-get-the-same-ethical-protections-as-primates

The first three sentences of the article hooked me: ‘In the late 1990s, Jaak Panksepp, the father of affective neuroscience, discovered that rats laugh. This fact had remained hidden because rats laugh in ultrasonic chirps that we can’t hear. It was only when Brian Knutson, a member of Panksepp’s lab, started to monitor their vocalisations during social play that he realised there was something that appeared unexpectedly similar to human laughter.’ And then, okay, they tickled them. ‘They found that the rats’ vocalisations more than doubled during tickling, and that rats bonded with the ticklers, approaching them more frequently for social play. The rats were enjoying themselves.’

Of course, there were some other features, that if further substantiated, we likely don’t want to hear: ‘We now know that rats don’t live merely in the present, but are capable of reliving memories of past experiences and mentally planning ahead the navigation route they will later follow. They reciprocally trade different kinds of goods with each other – and understand not only when they owe a favour to another rat, but also that the favour can be paid back in a different currency. When they make a wrong choice, they display something that appears very close to regret.’ I’ve left the links intact, for reference, in case the reader’s credulity level sinks to the Fake News level.

But, for me at least, ‘The most unexpected discovery, however, was that rats are capable of empathy…  It all began with a study in which the rats refused to press a lever to obtain food when that lever also delivered a shock to a fellow rat in an adjacent cage. The rats would rather starve than witness a rat suffering. Follow-up studies found that rats would press a lever to lower a rat who was suspended from a harness; that they would refuse to walk down a path in a maze if it resulted in a shock delivered to another rat; and that rats who had been shocked themselves were less likely to allow other rats to be shocked, having been through the discomfort themselves.’

The reason the essay intrigued me, I’m sure, is because it has long been a practice to utilize rats (and mice, of course) as mindless fodder for our experimental quandaries. And, there’s little question that it is better to experiment on an animal than on a human, and especially a time-honoured nuisance and villain like a rat rather than a chimpanzee, or whatever. I don’t think I would be prepared to argue their utility for this, nor that until we have devised non-living alternatives -cell cultures, or AI modelling, perhaps- some things will require validation in functioning organisms to advance our knowledge for the benefit of the rulers (us).

My hope, however, is to point out that our hubris may tend to blind us to the increasing likelihood that rats, are not mindless protoplasms living forever in the ‘now’ of their experiences. Are they sentient beings…? I suppose their sentience , like ours, is on a spectrum, isn’t it?

But if we are to continue to utilize them as unwitting research subjects, it seems to me that we should treat them with kindness and a degree of respect. Remember the words of Gloucester after he has been blinded by Cornwall, in Shakespeare’s King Lear: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.’ Let us not stoop to that…

A Plague on Both Your Houses

The plague –nothing conjures up death quite like that word -after all, the bubonic plague wiped out half of Europe in the 14th century. But there have been others of its ilk –and all probably caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium. Although the yet-unnamed infectious agent was identified in the 1890ies by the bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin -working at the time in the Pasteur Institute on plague samples from an outbreak in Hong Kong- the name was initially misattributed… Never work for somebody really famous when you discover something important. Personally, I preferred its previous name of Pasteurella pestis because that’s the name I was first taught and I liked the alliteration. But never mind.

The plague has three different presentations, depending upon the organs infected: bubonic plague, from infection of the lymphatic system and localized as buboes (swellings of infected lymph nodes which may become necrotic and turn black in their attempt to defend the body); pneumonic plague –infection of the lungs, presumably from aerosolized droplets from coughing or the like; and the rarest and likely most fatal of the three, septicaemic plague, which is an infection of the blood stream. All are carried by fleas, which are carried by rats, which then carry them to us.

Although we tend to associate the word ‘plague’ with the infamous ‘Black Death’ of European fame -not least because of the shock value of its name, I suspect- there have been several plagues throughout history. The first was originally thought to have been as early as 430 BCE in Athens, but a study published in the journal Cell in 2015 suggests that it began long before that –about 5,353 years before, actually. But perhaps a more assimilable article that outlines the background is found in a BBC news report, also in 2015: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-34603116

‘Samples taken from the teeth of seven bodies contained traces of the bacterial infection in the Bronze Age. They also showed it had, at the time, been unable to cause the bubonic form of plague or spread through fleas – abilities it evolved later.’ You have to love this kind of information, eh?

‘In its early days, it could cause only septicaemic or pneumonic plague – which is nearly always deadly and would have been passed on by coughing. By analysing the bacterium’s genetic code through history, the researchers estimate it took until 1000 BC for plague to evolve into its more familiar form. One mutation – acquiring the ymt gene – allowed the bacterium to survive inside the hostile environment of a flea’s gut. […]Developing a separate gene, called pla, allowed the infection to penetrate different tissues and cause bubonic plague.’

But all things change, don’t they? Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold, in the unforgettable words of Yeats. And yet why would a pathogen evolve to destroy the very hosts on which it depends? Why burn the hotel…?

I suppose an easy explanation might be that of a game in which each side –host/pathogen- continually attempts to outsmart the other. More virulence in the invader leads to more defensive mechanisms in the invaded –things as overt as quarantine or antibiotics, to the more subtle, but hopefully preventative development of immune resources by vaccination or over the longer term, adaptation of endogenous immune defenses: survival of the fittest.

But for me, the intriguingly unanswered question still remains: why kill your host? Why not coexist as, say, a parasite –or even a commensal- in the gut, or create a chronic condition that might weaken the owners, but not eliminate them? Of course, some pathogens are just evolutionary dead-ends – fireworks that illuminate the sky briefly and then disappear as suddenly as they appeared, or maybe finally settle into a desk-job and plod along just under the radar. But I suppose even germs want some time on the pedestal, though. Nothing ventured, nothing gained… Ecological opportunities beg for exploitation –leave a window unlocked, and something will find it.

Of course there are other ways of making a living: attack and retreat to fight again… While not strictly analogous, I am reminded of the Champawat tiger of Nepal (and later in the Kumaon district of India) in the late 19th century. She used to attack suddenly and then disappear before anybody could do anything about her. True, she was finally shot, but not before she’d managed to kill almost 450 people in different locations and instilled fear of her return for years. Fear is like that –especially fear of what Donald Rumsfeld (a once upon a time U.S. secretary of Defence, remember?) oxymoronically called the ‘known unknowns’.

The plague has managed a similar trick over the centuries, flaring up in one region, only to hide, then reappear in a totally different region later –often much later. ‘The most recent plague epidemics have been reported in India during the first half of the 20th century, and in Vietnam during wartime in the 1960s and 1970s. Plague is now commonly found in sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar, areas which now account for over 95% of reported cases (Stenseth, 2008)’ [https://www.cdc.gov/plague/history/index.html]

But, even those of us living in North America are not entirely safe -remember that Hong Kong plague that Yersin was studying in the 1890ies? A ship from there arrived in San Francisco in the summer of 1899 with plague found among some stowaways, two of whom escaped and drowned in the Bay. An epidemic of plague hit San Francisco nine months later. Whether it was from them or from rats that swam ashore, is not known, but the disease has been with us ever since.

http://www.livescience.com/51792-plague-united-states.html  ‘Plague cases occur sporadically in the United States — between 1970 and 2012, an average of seven plague cases occurred yearly […] But plague cases don’t show up everywhere. Rather, most occur in rural areas in western states […] the CDC says. One reason why cases of plague are restricted to the West is that the rodent populations there carry the disease […] “Prairie dogs are one of the major rodent species that serves as a reservoir for plague, and they tend to be west of the 100th meridian” in the United States. For this reason, this line of longitude is sometimes referred to as the “plague line”.’

What, will the line stretch out to th’ crack of doom? asks Macbeth. I suspect that he would have found it fascinating that any of us would think we might be immune from history. And yet, despite all its bad press and the terrifying epithet of ‘Black Death’, plague cases in North America are rare. They can occur when people visit rural areas, says, Dr. Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Health Security, although ‘people are more likely to be infected with tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease, than plague.’

Uhmm, I’d be careful with squirrels in California, though…