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SYNAPSE Workshop 2015 | June 30 – July 4, 2015


25.03.15 | PROJECT: Blog | AUTHOR: Anna-Sophie Springer


Essay by Anna-Sophie Springer


It’s a sticky, humid night in Jakarta where I am spending February and half of March, both to prepare our upcoming exhibition 125,660 Specimens of Natural History and to launch the first two volumes of SYNAPSE’s new paginated exhibition series, intercalations, together with my collaborator and fellow SYNAPSE member, Etienne Turpin. On the terrace, in the unwanted company of mosquitoes feasting on my legs so relentlessly they burn, I am reading in the book Soul of the Tiger: Searching for Nature’s Answers in Exotic Southeast Asia written in the 70s and early 80s by two conservationists, Jeffrey A. McNeely and Paul Spencer Wachtel. “The only wild animals to really benefit from human progress in Southeast Asia are the rats, which eat people out of house and home. Are rats the wave of the future?” is the subtitle of one of the very last chapters, Gnawing Persistence.

A future Earth, uninhabitable for humans, but populated by giant rats? Like the geologist Jan Zalasiewicz talked about more recently, imagining a later stage of the Anthropocene?

If this prospect sounds dire, rats are not yet a homogeneous brood. Instead, there are currently so many different sub-species of rats that the genus makes up more than 10 percent of all the types of mammals known to science. Rattus is believed to have originated in Asia, but the travel story of those rats which we count as varmints is much more complicated. One of those species is referred to as the “Norway rat,” even though, since it originally came from Central Asia not Scandinavia—Russia’s Lake Baikal, actually—this name is wrong. While this “brown rat” (another name for the Rattus norvegicus) today is the most common city rat—it was spread around the world only relatively recently, not until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; first westward to Europe, then on to America.

Screen shot 2015-03-25 at 6.59.13 PM

“[R]atborne typhus,” I am told as I read on, “has altered human destiny more than any person whose name appears in the history books.” In other words, “the thirty or so human diseases carried by rats have taken more lives than all the wars and revolutions ever fought.” (McNeely/Wachtel, 295) But if the “Norway rat” didn’t show up in Europe until so late, the Bubonic Plague, which killed millions of Europeans in the mid-fourteenth century, must have been spread by a different type of the animal? Indeed, back then the so-called “black rat” or “roof rat,” which is endemic to Southeast Asia, transmitted the epidemic. This species had been introduced to Europe already much earlier, in the course of the Crusades. Two million, as calculates this “Selected List of Death Tolls of Wars, Massacres and Atrocities before the 20th Century,” perished in the Crusades. In contrast, one particularly fierce outbreak of the Black Plague in China is considered to have killed 35 million people.

Technically, it’s not necessarily the rats themselves that carry the disease, but some of their parasites might, the rat fleas especially, living in their furs. In the US, the last outbreak of the Black Plague happened in Los Angeles in 1925. But to be safe, in 2013 a group of entomologists spent ten months catching rats in NYC’s grubby subway tunnels to survey the “microbial diversity” thriving in the animals’ ratty pelts. While those scientists finally gave the “all-clear” regarding the pathogens of the Bubonic Plague, what they did confirm was that the “commensual” species (literally meaning, “sharing our table”) of the common city rat—somewhat ironically perhaps—can indeed cause various (and perhaps less rare) stomach illnesses in people.

The negative and positive “intra-actions” between species—especially through eating and being eaten—are graphically emphasized in another book. In his brilliant Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction the Australian environmental historian Thom van Dooren traces the endangerment of five different bird species in order to develop a philosophical response to questions of care, loss, and mourning for species that are bound to disappear. One species van Dooren focuses on are vultures, precisely, those Gyps species endemic to India. Like I would say about rats, van Dooren admits that also vultures “are a little bit gross” (van Dooren, 46). Nevertheless, he shows very clearly their important role in broader multispecies patterns:

“Consuming the dead is, of course, what vultures do. In taking up this role, they help to stem the spread of contamination and disease (such as anthrax, which is endemic in parts of India). When they live closely with people, especially in urban environments, they provide an incredibly valuable ‘service’ to human communities…. Understandably, this symbiotic exchange has provided an ideal situation for people and vultures to live side by side in India.” (van Dooren, 50).

So, while rats are considered transmitters of diseases, vultures, as scavengers of unburied carcasses, have developed a strong biological resistance against dangerous pathogens. They are naturally able to consume many things that would kill off other organisms and can be considered a natural cleaning agent. Whereas Southeast Asia has been a more hostile environment for vultures, for a long time India still used to provide highly favourable conditions including large quantities of cattle as a stable food base. According to estimates, 30 years ago one of the three main vulture species in India existed in such big numbers as to be considered “the most abundant large bird of prey in the world” (van Dooren, 49). Paradoxically however it is now due to a pharmaceutical that this very cattle today is esteemed toxic to the vultures. Diclofenac is a drug used to treat sick cows and vultures are fatally allergic to these chemicals. The result is the disappearance of 97 percent of all three species of vultures from the subcontinent.

The most philsophical point van Dooren makes in this chapter by bringing ideas by George Bataille, Jean-Luc Nancy and his mentor, the Environmental Humanities professor, Deborah Bird Rose, into his reflection is that through this recent dynamic of environmental change, vultures are drawn into a kind of “double death.” Whereas formerly they were able to “twist death back into life,” by dying out themselves, many of the symbiotic ecological connectivities break down. He writes, “[i]n addition to the creation of an environment in which dead bodies, en masse, fail to nourish but rather poison, the resulting absence of so many vultures has left a vast number of carcasses unscavenged—‘literally piling up corpses in the land of the living.’ … [T]he connectivities that make life possible in these places are unmade. As a result, a further ‘doubling’ of death has been set in motion in which all those whose lives and well-being are entangled with vultures are drawn into a process of intensified suffering and death.” (van Dooren, 55)

The other point, bringing us back to the rats, is that absent vultures make space for more rats. (And potentially more rat fleas.) That’s one step closer to those giant rats? In the opinion of Jan Zalasiewicz, for sure: “Particularly if there’s been epidemic extinction and ecospace opens up, rats may be best placed to take advantage of that. And we know that change in size can take place fairly quickly.” (Kolbert, 107) It is somewhat reassuring that as a palaeontologist Zalasiewicz is trained to think in unimaginably long time scales.


At our recent curatorial research visit to the zoological collections of the Indonesian Institute of Science I admired with some gleeful loathing shelves and shelves of rat and mice specimens preserved in jars. There was Rattus hoffmanni from Sulawesi—listed as “least concern.” Or, Tupaia gacilis, a shrew species from Borneo; listed also as “least concern.” Although the latter is affected by relentless habitat loss of old growth forests it’s been observed to have a strong adaptability to disturbed environments. So indeed, while the outlook of tigers, orang-utans, and rhinos to survive in a deforested Southeast Asia looks bleak, those little rodents could well make the cut.

“Theoretically, a pair of the most prolific [rat] species can produce 20 million baby rats in just three years,” write Wachtel and McNeely. (292) But a sudden thud disrupts my reading. Something has fallen into one of the plastic buckets in the outdoor laundry behind the kitchen. I get up quietly to sneak a peak. This sounded much heavier than the usual gecko getting trapped in a sink. As I switch on the lights, a fat specimen of rattus norvegicus scambles for escape. You see them at nights, scurrying along the streets and alleys…


Yes. Rats definitely are “a little bit gross.” Wanting to finish at least this chapter I go back to the book, but am distracted. At last, what catches my attention is a list of rather imaginative manoeuvres to diminish rat populations by inventing new cultural practices. One of the descriptions (which I didn’t verify any further) goes like this:

“Bridegrooms in Central Java have been ordered to produce a dowry of at least twenty-five dead rats before being allowed to marry. The town council of Pekalongan went one step further, declaring that not only must twenty-five dead rats be presented before marriage, but the same number was required to process a divorce.” (McNeely/Wachtel, 296)

And another:

“Traditional villagers in eastern Indonesia’s Kangean Archipelago go even further, hoping to get off easy by lavish symbolic bribery. The Dutch anthropologist J.L. van Gennep found that just after weekly prayers at the mosque are completed, four pairs of rats are solemnly united in marriage by a priest. Each pair is put in a miniature canoe, which is filled with wedding gifts of rice and other fruits of the earth. The wedding procession then escorts the rodent couples down to the shore, accompanied by the same singing and beating of drums that are used to announce a human wedding. With due respect and somewhat hypocritical wishes for a productive future, the honeymooners are launched on a one-way love-boat cruise out to the deep blue sea.” (McNeely/ Wachtel, 297)

But this one I like the most in its absurd simplicity:

“A Filipino entrepreneur tried, unsuccessfully, to market canned rat meat under the catchy brand name STAR, ‘RATS’ spelled backward.” (McNeely/ Wachtel, 298)

Done reading for tonight, I cross the quiet house and notice, again, a strange racket, this time coming from inside the ceiling above the kitchen. For some days now we’ve been watching this street cat carefully climbing the stairs to the roof. Could it be that she’s fighting with the rat who scurried away earlier? It does sound violent, eerie. So many species of animals co-inhabiting this house as theirs. I stand frozen in the dark trying to make out the sounds. And then, suddenly there’s another noise. Ever so faintly, a little chirping. Tiny, tiny meows. The cat has just given birth to a litter of kittens!

There is an Indian proverb, which says that “a cat is a lion in a jungle of bushes.” Screen shot 2015-03-25 at 6.53.38 PM


This short essay is going to be followed up next week by a conversation with the ethnographer Eben Kirskey, author of the book Freedom in Entangled Worlds on the political struggles in West Papua, Southeast Asia and editor of the book The Multispecies Salon accompanying or extending a series of curatorial and artistic project collaborations with humans and many other life forms. In this interview, Eben and I will talk more about rats, pharmaceuticals, and disrupted environments. But in contrast to my previous stories, Eben knows a lot of interesting stuff about more hopeful things such as adopting or even tickling rats, moments when poison can become a cure, or how to look at blasted landscapes as spaces bristling with possibility.

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