Symbols matter. That’s why the time has come to replace the tired old bald eagle on the great seal of the United States and in other patriotic venues with a critter more in keeping with the lifestyle, values and morals of 21st-century America: The rat.
Not just any rat, mind you, but the incomparable Rattus norvegicus — aka the Brown Rat, the Norway Rat, the Hanover Rat, the Street Rat, the Wharf Rat, the Sewer Rat and the Common Rat.
None of these names do justice to this remarkable rodent. For openers, forget about Norway. Rattus norvegicus should really be called America’s Rat, or Rattus americanus, because, like no other critter save Homo sapiens, it has lived the American dream.
America is a nation of immigrants, and Rattus norvegicus is one of us. He arrived in North America around 1755, just in time to take part in the American Revolution (as dinner at Valley Forge) and then went west and grew up with the country.
Today he is found in all 50 states.
Indeed, Rattus norvegicus accompanies us everywhere we go. Judging by dogged loyalty alone, it is the rat, not the dog, that is man’s BFF.
Rattus norvegicus lives everywhere we do — even though we treat him like shit.
The bald eagle, on the other hand, prefers to live where we don’t — even though we treat him like royalty. He’s always getting in a snit over habitat destruction. Cut down a few thousand acres of trees and put up a subdivision, and he puts himself back on the endangered species list.
When Americans moved off farms and into cities and suburbs, rats moved with them and exuberantly embraced urban life. Estimates of the number of rats living in New York City alone range from “only” 250,000 to a high of a staggering 100 million, 12 times the human population of the city. They live everywhere from sewers to high-rises, from the Bronx to the Bowery, from Westchester to Wall Street. Some of them have been there for, say, 250 generations, which is about 240 more generations than any of Gotham’s Blue Bloods.
Contrast that with the eagle.
There’s been only one nesting pair seen in the city in recent memory (they settled in Harlem in 2010), and when they moved in, it was front-page news in every paper in town.
Rats bring a hard driving, can-do, entrepreneurial spirit to their pursuit of the American Dream. They will chew and claw their way through concrete walls and climb over the bodies of their fellow rats in pursuit of their goals. When the going gets tough, rats turn pro. Eagles go fishing.
Rats know how to cash in on their opportunities. Rattus norvegicus includes a relatively large proportion of albinos in its ranks. Many of these “geek” rats ended up going to college (admittedly not entirely voluntarily) and getting in on the ground floor of the life sciences revolution. Today lab rats are helping find cures for thousands of diseases and conditions.
They’ve helped save thousands of lives.
When was the last time you saw an eagle in a lab?
Like most Americans, rats thrive on junk food. They’ll eat anything from Doritos to Big Macs and fries to D-Con and keep coming back for more. The little dickens has a constitution like that of the American Republic itself — tough as steel cables but flexible enough to adapt to new conditions.
The eagle, in contrast, is a picky eater. His diet of choice is raw fish — sushi, in other words. What’s more, he can’t hold his DDT.
Granted, eagles embrace family values. They are monogamous, mate for life and both parents participate in raising the young, values that are highly admired by Americans — on paper — but which are so 20th century.
Rats are into the hook-up scene.
Like millions of American children, most rat pups are raised by single moms — usually in bunches of seven to 14, with a new litter arriving every two and a half months. Talk about super moms.
OK, when it comes to making whoopee, eagle nookie is in a class by itself. It involves elaborate aerial courtship dances during which the happy couple sometimes lock talons and plunge into a steep dive approaching speeds of 90 miles an hour. True, it’s hard to think of a more spectacular and romantic way to get it on, but is it really appropriate to have critters who put on such a bold and brassy show in broad daylight — carrying on like Miley Cyrus with a hang glider — as a national symbol?
Rats are generally more discreet.
All of these qualities argue for the rat replacing the eagle as national critter.
But what about the, uh, Black Death thing, you ask?
Well first of all, Rattus norvegicus has an alibi. The Black Death reached Europe (Constantinople, to be precise) in 1347. Rattus n. didn’t show up in Europe until about 200 years later at the earliest, and wasn’t reported in significant numbers until the 18th century. At the time of the Black Death, Europe’s main rat was the Black Rat, the ominously named Rattus rattus.
And strictly speaking, it wasn’t even the Black Rat that caused the Black Death. It was the Oriental Rat Flea, Xenopsylla cheopis, that Rattus rattus carried. And even more strictly speaking, it was the Yersinia pestis bacterium in the flea’s gut that spread to humans when the flea bit them.
All that aside, the last thing America needs today is an acrimonious, polarizing argument over what our ancestors did in Europe 650 years ago.
Besides, it was the prairie dogs that did it.
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