Make the Brown Rat D.C.’s Mascot
Taxation Without Rodential Representation
The case for D.C. statehood hinges on American citizens’ right to full voting representation in Congress, but there’s much more at stake if D.C. finally becomes a state. The new status comes with all sorts of perks: a state flower, a state song, and of course, a state animal. These symbols are a source of local pride and identity. And what animal is more suitable to represent Washington, D.C., than Rattus norvegicus, the brown rat? Admittedly, rats aren’t all good, but neither are any of the people living in this city. It’s about time we recognize this rodent for its redeeming qualities, specifically the way it embodies the D.C. spirit.
By Savannah Beck
Over my five-plus years as a resident in the District, I’ve lived in houses, apartments, and student dormitories in three different neighborhoods. My current residence, a basement apartment in Northwest Washington, opens into an alley. As far as alleys go, it’s a nice one — wide walkways, good sanitation, and very little trash. But it’s still an alley in D.C., which means rats are inevitable. The telltale signs are everywhere: rustling in the distance, darting shadows, and rat-sized holes in the trash bins. The rats are more sedate in the winter, but they’re never entirely dormant. And in the summertime, they’re inescapable. When I started biking to work, I saw the city in a new light, perceiving the minutiae of the neighborhoods I passed through — including the many flattened rats dotting the roadways. That’s one thing you can count on in every neighborhood of the capital: rats.
That brings me to my first point: Rats are consistent. If there are humans, chances are an established rodent colony lives nearby. Rattus norvegicus has claimed sewers and city blocks on every continent but Antarctica. Norway rats had already emigrated from Europe and settled on the East Coast by the time the American Revolution began, so our neighborhood rats are as native to the region as any of the human colonizers. Bobby Corrigan, an Urban Rodentologist and Pest Management Consultant, uses an ocean analogy to explain this relationship: “Rats are human parasites. They’re like the pilot fish that accompany whales.” Basically, they’re our shadows, following us around and making a meal of our messes. Very reliable, very economical.
Since the onset of COVID-19, there’s been an increase in roughly 1,000 rodent-related complaints per year to the D.C. Department of Health’s Rodent and Vector Control Division. Gerard Brown, who serves as Program Manager, attributes the sharp spike in complaints to a shift in lifestyle brought on by the pandemic. While the virus threatened the capital’s human population, the resulting changes only made our rodents stronger. While working from home, people in residential areas began generating more trash, including garbage from food delivery services like Grubhub and Uber Eats. Brown says that residents don’t usually realize they’re attracting rats when they order delivery. But since most people don’t wash out their food containers before throwing them away, vermin swoop in and dine on the scraps. Nowadays, each of Brown’s staff of 17 responds to up to 20 complaints a day in the District, mostly trash-related.
The fact that D.C.’s rats are such reliable constituents of the city — who also do not have full voting representation, by the way — is in large part due to the species’ incredible resilience. In 1971, scientists observed that brown rats in the United States had begun to develop a resistance to anticoagulants, a common form of rat poison that works by impeding the blood’s ability to clot. This wasn’t entirely novel news — scientists in Europe had noted this alarming evolutionary trait years earlier — but the study confirmed the worst. Norway rats in the United States were also becoming resistant to rat poisons. Somehow, everything seems to make Rattus norvegicus stronger, from poison to pandemics.
As a college student, I worked part-time as a host at an English-style pub downtown. The sanitation was typical of a busy restaurant, as evidenced by the healthy rat population that invaded our kitchen. After hours, the staff liked to play a game. The rules were simple: Shoot at the rats with a BB gun. Despite the humans’ superior intelligence and advanced weaponry, no rat ever lost the game. To an honorary D.C. local like myself, this was unsurprising — just another testament to the brown rat’s scrappiness.
Perhaps the most overlooked quality of the city rat is its intelligence. As Brown of D.C. Health astutely points out, “You don’t survive as long as they do by being dumb.” Because of their reasoning skills, people use rats for complex tasks like medical research and mine detection. Corrigan, who still conducts rodentology research himself, notes that rats even use tools like sticks to set off rat traps and steal the bait without getting injured in the process. In Rattus norvegicus’s urban habitat, its smarts allow it to quickly pick up on patterns like local trash schedules, Brown adds.
These animals are capable of much more than straightforward memorization, though. Matthew Frye, an educator in Integrated Pest Management, says that outsmarting rodents is both the most challenging and most rewarding part of the job. Exterminators rely heavily on technology to outwit their prey, setting up remote sensors and infrared cameras to determine when and where rats are active. Clearly, rats practice lifelong, continuing education to stay one step ahead of their predators. It’s only appropriate that so many of these clever pests settled in a highly educated city like D.C., where almost 60% of the population over the age of 25 has a bachelor’s degree.
Beyond their smarts, D.C. rats have a lot in common with the locals. They have a refined palate, favoring indulgent, high-calorie sweets. They can appreciate a moist strawberry cakecup from Baked & Wired or a scoop of creamy stracciatella from Dolcezza. Even if brown rats weren’t clever enough to avoid traps, their sophisticated taste would likely steer them away from peanut butter bait and towards the cities’ finest eateries.
In many ways, D.C.’s rodents are better than their human counterparts. Corrigan says he’s grown to admire rats for their emotional intelligence. In lab experiments, rats regularly perform acts of kindness, choosing to selflessly share food with their pals or otherwise do their friends a solid. And because rats are exceedingly courteous, they’ll remember the generosity and reciprocate the favor as soon as the opportunity presents itself. A free rat will break his friend out of an enclosure, prioritizing another’s well-being over a tasty snack sitting nearby. Once the rescue mission is completed, the free rat will even split his snack with his newly liberated companion. Maybe rats’ ability to experience “human” feelings like empathy can inspire us to reconnect with our own emotions.
Despite their many incredible traits, rats do not have an inflated ego. They’re humble, quick to acknowledge their shortcomings. Take their eyesight, for example. Corrigan says that rats have adapted to see well at night. This means that they’re very near-sighted, only able to see clearly about seven to ten feet ahead. On top of this, they can have trouble detecting motion unless it’s coming straight at them. When crossing the street, this combination can prove deadly. So sure, you can find roadkill rats easily enough in Washington, but most rats are wise enough to realize that they’re in no position to be crossing the street willy-nilly and have learned to avoid it over the years. Instead, Corrigan has observed them opting for a more familiar, subterranean route through the sewers, hopping into one drain and reemerging from another across the street, unscathed.
So really, what mascot is more fitting for our capital than the brown rat, a creature that exemplifies the Washingtonian lifestyle and gives us so much to aspire to? Benjamin Franklin was adamant that we got it wrong when we chose the bald eagle, a bird “of poor moral character,” as the emblem of our nation. But maybe when the District of Columbia finally achieves statehood, we can offset that error in judgment by naming the honorable Rattus norvegicus the official state animal — a symbol of empathy in a time of polarization and incessant crises. After all, D.C.’s rats aren’t going anywhere.