Book Review: The Story of Rats, by S. Anthony Barnett

Review by Catherine Graf
From the RMCA web site, January 2003

The Story of Rats, by S. Anthony Barnett
(Allen & Unwin, 2001) 202 pp.

Do rats think? Do rats get bored? Do they consciously eat a balanced diet? Are rats really super-intelligent? Do rats get stressed or depressed? Do they welcome change or prefer their environments to remain the same? These are some of the questions posed by the author of The Story of Rats, a nonfiction work that explores the interaction of rats and humans throughout history. Barnett, a professor of zoology in Australia, first became interested in rats during the Second World War in England, where he worked in the public health sector. A few trips through the London sewers and he was hooked, and has been fascinated with rats, both wild and domesticated, ever since. Although the book begins with "Abominations and Horrors," this book is not an indictment of the rat, but a detailed exploration of its history.

The book is divided into three parts, Histories (who was really responsible for the infamous plagues in medieval times) Questions and Answers (what we still don't know about rats), and. The Blindness of Research (which may give you new arguments for buying products that aren't tested on animals). The author discusses rat species all over the world and their effects on the human population. Various chapters are devoted to how rats learn, how their societies are organized, how they can be domesticated and other behavioral tendencies.

The author debunks a lot of myths about rats in general. He also calls into question the usefulness of animal experimentation by such well-known personages as I.P. Pavlov and B.F. Skinner. If you took an undergraduate psych courses, you may be familiar with their research using animals. Barnett reveals that Pavlov's dog was forcibly strapped to a table, and a hungry rat was locked into the famous Skinner box to depress a lever, whereby he might get food or an electric shock, depending on the whim of the experimenter. Barnett points out that such experiments are misleading, mainly because animals are not mechanisms and the tests were conducted in an unnatural environment. No kidding. Although there was no indication that the author was an animal-rights advocate, he makes a powerful case.

There are a lot of great photos and drawings, but the one of the hooded rat in the Skinner box about broke my heart. (Sorry, he looked just like my late pet Rousseau.) The author appears to have a very positive attitude toward rats, whether wild or domesticated. Everything is well documented, with a glossary, index, and detailed bibliography at the end. Each chapter also has numerous sidebars addressing specific issues in more detail. These and the illustrations make it a fun and fast read, leaving you wanting to find out more.