Friday, 29 June 2012

Possums versus Rats: how do we decide who to like and who to loathe?

Over the last couple of weeks I have been putting the finishing touches on the two papers I will take to Minding Animals Two, an international Human-Animal Studies conference commencing at the University of Utrecht on July 3rd.

I have already posted about one of my papers which is focused on the question of trespass

The other paper considers the ways in which we differentiate between possums and rats and the reasons we do so. Thinking about possums and rats and their lives in Melbourne, we argue that possums and rats are similar animals in many ways. Both are living in a highly altered environment and both thrive among modern humans. Yet for some reason we prefer possums to rats. 

The laws around possum control require that trapped possums be released close to the point of capture or be put down by a vet. By contrast rats can be killed by electric shock or left to die slowly, trapped on sticky tape.

It isn't clear to us why possums deserved a better death than rats.

In preparing the paper I asked PhD candidate Gonzalo Villanueva to have a look at how possums and rats fare in the research laboratory. Rats are of course commonly used for research purposes. He found that in Victoria in 2009, rats were used in 19,399 experiments compared to possums who were used 635 times. And in fact, possums may have been used less as they are counted along with gliders. That's the total for both species. 

So it really does pay to be born a possum and not a rat.

But why do we feel this way? Anecdotal evidence would suggest that it can be hard to know whether you are looking at a possum or a rat. Yet if we discover that the animal we are cooing over is a rat many people are immediately repulsed, whereas if the animal is a possum they are happy. Why? 

To understand this we looked to popular culture. What we found was that representations of possums are typically very positive.

But with rats, not so much.

It seems that the rat PR team aren't doing a very good job and those negative cultural attitudes are reflected in how we treat possums and rats in practice.

So what's the lesson for the day? If you are going to be born a nonhuman animal, and you can chose between coming into this world as either a possum or a rat, chose possum - your death will probably be much less painful.

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