There’s a lot of wildlife around at the moment. Over the spring and the summer just finished it’s seemed at times as if you couldn’t open your eyes in Eastern Australia without seeing some previously elusive animal. When I visited my parents’ holiday house just after Christmas I saw more wallabies and kangaroos there in two days than I had in a decade of visits combined. Just last week I saw two Tawny Frogmouths (Podargus strigoides), taking the total I’ve seen over the last year to five – on top of a total of one for the previous six years.
The only explanation I can come up with is the rain: there’s been so much rain over the last year and a half that plant life has grown with extraordinary vigour; following that, I suppose, the animals that feed on the plants have taken advantage of the conditions and bred in large numbers; following them, the animals that feed on other animals. Much of the country is flooding, but the rains have also leant an extraordinary abundance to the environment.
A week and a half ago I was walking home from the bus stop at about eleven o’clock in the morning. It was a cool, muggy morning, the humidity of summer gradually fading away in the face of the approaching autumn. As I was passing a railway embankment at the top of Hoddle Street, one of the busiest roads in Melbourne, I noticed a scattering of unexpected shapes in the grass. If I didn’t know better, I thought, I’d swear they were rats – but rats out in the open like that, in the morning, with cars and trains and people hurrying past? Surely not. But then they began to move.
Yet, even when they moved then they didn’t run away. They were near shelter, a small brick wall overgrown by grass and shrubbery, and although some of the rats – there were at least half a dozen of them – made for that cover, at least as many stayed where they were, retreating at most only a metre as I passed before settling again.
Rats are common in any city, but seeing them always comes as a surprise. Seeing them be so bold and unheeding of any threat is even more of a surprise. I pass by the location where I saw the rats regularly, nearly every day, but I hadn’t seen these rats previously. Everything about them suggested youth: their slender frames, their guileless behaviour. Curious to see if they’d still be there, that night I walked past the spot again – and sure enough, there they all were, grazing in the grass like cattle. They were there again the next day, and as I stopped to stare some of them actually came closer to me, as if unaware of my presence, until I could have reached out to touch them. The grass they were in looked short to me, but as I watched the rats – up to a dozen of them, this time – they dived into the grass, heads down and tails up like Ducks (Anatidae), and re-emerged with stubby tufts which they grasped between their forepaws. They nibbled eagerly on the roots of the grass and I could hear the sound of their chewing.
Since then I’ve walked past the spot whenever I’ve had the chance, and almost without fail I’ve seen the rats. The most I’ve ever seen at one time was a dozen; the fewest, four. I can only assume they’re all from the same nest. They’ve filled out slightly over the course of the last two weeks: the last time I saw them they were unmistakably bulkier, sturdier.
It’s fair to say I’ve taken them to heart. In my experience most people are shockingly unobservant of the world around them, and whenever I stop and stare in delight at the young rats I feel strangely proprietary of them.
This feeling was helped by the expectation that most other people who might notice the rats would have a rather different reaction to mine. Is there another animal which is so common and yet greeted with such revulsion? Cockroaches (Order Blattodea), perhaps – yet the disgust most people feel towards them is not accompanied by the mortal terror that is part of the typical human response to rats. I don’t wish to suggest that this fear is unfounded – when it comes to acting as disease vectors rats have far too much negative history to ignore, and it’s entirely reasonable to prefer not to have wild rats living in close proximity to us – yet at the same time I find it difficult not to take great joy from the presence of any animal, even such troublesome ones.
Getting such an unusually close and unhurried look at the rats, I found myself mesmerised by the simple mechanics of their tiny bodies: the way their shoulders dipped towards each other to form a cleft in the centre of each young rat’s back; the graceful curve of their musculature highlighted in the morning sun. Even the deep nut-brown of their fur, glossy with youth; initially, the slenderness of their bodies; latterly, the new solidity as the rats grow. The way the animals bound away from the footpath as I pass, taking exuberant leaps over the short grass – because in recent days they’ve become more cautious, more wary. Perhaps one or more of them has been killed; perhaps they have a mother somewhere, teaching them survival lessons in unknowable ways. There was something very endearing, very touching, about the rats’ youthful indifference to the possibility of danger, such a short time ago; now, as they grow up, there’s something sobering about the way their behaviour has changed in such a short time: we may fear rats, and yet we tolerate them – if nothing else, because we’re unable to do anything significant about their presence. The rats, I suspect, have much the same attitude to us. And they are, at the end of the day, wild animals, and no wild animal can remain carefree for long.
Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org