The latest addition to our backyard wildlife is a rat. We’ve only seen one, but we also know if there’s one, there are surely others. My first reaction was revulsion. That thought was immediately followed with the question, why do we love rabbits and hate rats? Blame centuries of western culture associating rats with disease and death. And while they do carry pathogens that can be transferred to humans, recent research has revealed that rats do not harbor any more infectious diseases than other mammals. They are also not likely to be the source of the next pandemic. In other words, our feelings about rats are prejudiced.

So while I watched my new neighbor from the window, I set aside my bias and decided it was kind of cute (though I’m still partial to the rabbits). Then I did a little research. Worldwide there are close to 60 different species of rats, including my brown rat. They live in a variety of habitats on every continent except Antarctica. Clearly they are adaptable. Rats are also both social and intelligent. Some species have been trained to sniff out diseases like tuberculosis in humans, and to find explosives. They’ve also been used to fight illegal wildlife trafficking. Rats can even be taught many of the same tricks we teach dogs. A group of rats is aptly named a mischief.

Those cute whiskers on a rat’s face are more sensitive than our fingertips. Rats use them for balance and to get a sense of their environment. Rats also have an excellent sense of smell, and their sense of hearing allows them to hear high-pitched sounds that humans cannot. Those ears also turn pink when they are happy. Like cats, rats lick themselves frequently to stay clean. In fact, they do not like being dirty. Research has also revealed that rats love to be tickled, and when they are, they giggle!

Not convinced? In Chinese culture rats are seen as symbols of wisdom and prosperity. Armed with a little science and a little perspective, I have a new appreciation for rats. I will say, though, I will not get close to it, and I am really hoping it stays outside.