Animal rights are not a new idea; Buddhist monarch Asoka decreed legislation to prevent cruelty to animals and to set up wild animal preserves in the second century BCE (Before the Common Era). Buddhism believes in the sentient nature of all animals and that “empathy for all creatures is the true religion”.
It has been noted by animal rights groups and others that rats—or for that matter any vertebrate animal considered pests—are capable of feeling pain and suffering. Likewise it cannot be denied that every vertebrate can also feel at least basic emotions, including fear. If we claim ourselves to be superior beings based on our abilities to sense pain and have emotions, what right do we have to inflict agony and death on creatures not unlike ourselves?
Advocates for primate welfare have argued that killing and exploitation of these animals should not be allowed due to their similarities to humans, and very few people would argue otherwise. Yet, even fewer understand that on a genetic basis, humans have more in common with rats, mice and other rodents than they do other not only acceptable but beloved animal species, including dogs, cats, horses, birds and others. Human empathy for animals seems directly dependent on a “cuddliness factor” rather than genetic similarities and relationships.
Rats have even been observed exhibiting altruistic behavior and performing self-sacrificing acts.
Rats have been documented as saving one of their fellows from a cage rather than partake of food set out as a distraction. One rat kept as a pet alerted its owner family of a fire in their dwelling by climbing out to and up an outside wallpipe to alert a mother and her children a floor above his cage. If altruistic behavior is yet another indicator of the worthiness of a species for human compassion and empathy; rats might be viewed as being more deserving than some other species.
The animal rights movement has grown and gained more widespread acceptance in recent decades; many countries have enacted legislation against animal cruelty some of which control the means by which pest animals are dealt with, but just as many exclude rats from animal cruelty protections.
When does an animal become a pest?
Humankind’s turn away from the hunter/gatherer lifestyle towards agriculture made pests of any animal or organism that fed upon food and seed stores. Rats, which have a predilection for the same kinds of food as humans and which are drawn to areas of human population density in search of the same have been considered a pest species ever since this subsistence shift.The dictionary definition of “pest” is any troublesome or annoying person, animal or thing; a nuisance. In the parlance of the pest control industry a pest is any animal or insect which presents a hazard to human health, ecology or the economy.
Because rats seek out human habitations to scavenge food and water, they along with mice are most often in conflict with so-called civilized society. Their extermination –often with extreme prejudice—is regularly justified, even in an age of increased awareness of animal rights. As a society we allow rats and other “vermin” to be killed in gruesome and inhumane ways that would not be acceptable in any other context.
It is true that many pest animals present some hazards to human health. The rat has long been blamed for being responsible for the spread of bubonic plague, when in fact the disease is transmitted by fleas that infest rats, but can also spread into environments, onto pets and thereby infect humans with the dreaded disease. Bubonic plague has not been epidemic since the 1920s; modern antibiotics are effective in lowering the fatality rate of the scourge. Rabies is often cited as another risk of rat infestation, although rabies has seldom—if ever– been documented as being transmitted by a rat bite.
There are other diseases rats are implicated to spread to humans; likewise many animals we consider benign can infect us as well. Are health threats really the reason for the rat’s designation as “most wanted dead” pest animal?
Health or Money?
Whether or not humans consider an animal a pest; each living organism does have its place in the chain of life. Rats are scavengers, helping to dispose of dead animal and plant materials in the environment and in turn have their place in the food chain. Many species of birds and animals hunt rats and other rodents to survive. If humankind were ever successful in driving rats to extinction, the impact on the world ecology would be as significant as it would be tragic.While certainly of concern, it would appear that the economic impacts of rat infestation bear more weight in the pest animal debate. Rats and mice do cause millions of dollars of crop losses per year, they do inflict damage on human property and possessions, can even cause fires by chewing through electrical wiring. Society, especially American society takes threats to economic well being seriously, and uses these to justify the extermination of rat populations.
There are two considerations that govern the ethics of pest control in general and rat extermination in particular: is killing a pest animal necessary? Is killing a pest animal justified?
Is killing necessary?
And yet, other methods exist to deal with rodent problems, not all of which can dismissed as too expensive to be practicable.Killing any animal pest is usually considered the easiest, quickest and cheapest option; an entire industry has grown around the theory that all pests are better off dead. Millions of dollars in sales are generated in poisons, traps and other means of controlling pest animals. Pest control is one of the few industries seeing job growth in these times of economic hardship.
Rats are opportunistic animals, drawn to human population concentrations due to the ease with which they can satisfy their needs for food, water and shelter. That is less the fault of the rat than it is our own.
One of the most effective means of controlling rats is to not provide them with a tempting environment in the first place. This is as simple as engaging in hygienic practices including not allowing garbage and food waste to build up in structures or on properties; secure storage of foodstuffs; cleaning away trash and debris that offer nesting sites and eliminating water sources such as leaky pipes or standing water. Also hugely important is sealing off structures so that rats cannot enter them and keeping grasses and underbrush well away from buildings as rats do not travel in or across areas where they feel exposed.
Other alternative and highly effective methods include those of relocation, exclusion and utilization of repellents. Rats are territorial, but can be removed from a structure and set free outdoors, provided that what attracted them to homes and businesses is dealt with at the same time. Repellant technology has made great strides in recent years, and there are many natural means of driving rats away from a location. Part of the opportunistic nature of rats is that they will go where the food, water and shelter is the easiest to obtain. Make it difficult for them by whatever means and they can end up co-existing with humans in the general environment, virtually unseen.
Is Killing Justified?
The context of rat extermination is also important—disease prevention is usually the one contextual circumstance used to justify the practice of killing rats. And yet we are in more danger from disease transmission from our fellow humans who cannot be counted on to perform the single most effective disease prevention action: routinely and regularly washing their hands.Generally this determination comes down to a simple equation. When the benefit outweighs the harm, almost any action under consideration is deemed justified. Ethically, however, no real life situation is ever that simple, especially rat control. Other factors must be taken into consideration, including the effects of one choice or another on people, animals and environment, which are not only affected but interrelated.
There are several hazards to rat extermination that are not generally taken into serious consideration when killing is being deemed justified.
Rat poisons are not only fatal to rats, but also to other animal species and even humans. Small children encountering the bait are regularly sickened; some may die because of the lack access to affordable healthcare. This is particularly true in poor urban areas in the United States where a disproportionately large number of minority children are exposed to and harmed by poisonous baits.
Dogs and cats not only can accidentally ingest rat poison; they may be the victim of poisoning by proxy: eating living rats sickened by rodenticides or consuming the dead bodies of rats already poisoned to death.
This danger extends most tragically not only to pets, but also to wildlife, many species of which are already endangered. Traces of rodenticides have been detected in wild populations of coyotes and bobcats; owls and hawks are at special risk.
Given these impacts, the harms outbalance the benefits of the use of rat poisons. Even in agricultural settings where rodenticides are still fully legal at the same time their use is being banned in the consumer market. Natural methods of rodent control including introducing prey species to the agricultural environment by means of attracting the nesting of natural predators of rats; and vaccinating farm animals against some of the rodent transmitted diseases to which they are vulnerable have largely gone untried.
Some promise has been shown in the development of seed casings that are impervious to rodent species. Once a rat or mouse has learned that a seed cannot be easily consumed, it will move on to easier food items. This results in colony avoidance to plantings, the experience of one rat extending to entire populations.
Are “humane” killing methods ethical?
Snap traps are considered more humane than poisons; death is intended to be instantaneous when the trap mechanism strikes the rat in spine or head; except of course when it doesn’t. There are of course, methods of killing rats which do not require poisons, such as some types of traps.
Glue traps are incredibly inhumane, adhering the animals to their sticky surface until they die from asphyxiation, stress exhaustion or starvation.
Ethically speaking if one must kill a rat, it should be done in the most humane way possible. Poisons which take up to two weeks to kill and which inflict incredible suffering during that time are no longer seen as humane.
The fact is that killing rats is ultimately futile. Whether one eliminates a single rat or a colony of them, others will immediately fill the void created. When seen in this light, killing rats is not only unnecessary and unethical; ultimately it is not even productive.