Rodentophobia and the Nature of Storytelling

By , , , and

Dateline: April 2, Carlson Hall?A rat was seen taking shelter from an early April rainstorm under a pine tree. A University of Utah student reported the incident to Salt Lake City Animal Control, which advised the student to call the University of Utah Police Department.

According to the student, a UUPD dispatcher told the student that nothing could be done.

At the end of every great endeavor, one wants to cap off the experience with something monumental and moving. To usher out my term as feature editor, my last story was going to be about the U?s rat problem. As it existed in my head, the piece included quotes from countless students who had seen rats slinking away from dumpsters, dark images of grotesque sewer rats scurrying along gutters, UUPD officers relating stories about capping diseased rodents in parking lots.

One thing prevented me from writing the article: There is no rat problem on campus.

To corroborate the student?s story, I called Sgt. Bradley Buckmiller of the UUPD.

?Students are complaining about a rat problem on campus, Sgt. Buckmiller; have you heard anything about this??

?A rat? An R-A-T, rat??

?Yes, a rat?

?Where??

?Carlson Hall?

?Carlson Hall, where?s that??

I fumbled for a map; I didn?t know where the hell Carlson Hall was?I still don?t. After Buckmiller called me on my deficiency in campus cartography, I told him that the rat was taking shelter from a storm under a tree.

?Smart rat,? he said, shortly following with, ?There is no rat problem on campus,? and then ?The UUPD doesn?t have rat traps or rat guns.?

During the 14th century the Bubonic Plague spread across Europe, wiping out two-thirds of the population. The cause: the Yersinia Pestis, a flea that contracts the fatal disease from rats and then transmits it to humans.

Today Mexico City, the world?s largest metropolis, hosts some 50 million wild rats.

Those are rat problems.

One campus sighting is just human interest.

It?s human interest the way a story about a U student who donates her time to charity is human interest?just like students Spring Breaking in Peru, or a 16 year-old college freshman, or a dozen other subjects that have appeared under the ?Student Life? banner this year. Engineering students who build toy bridges, that?s human interest too.

So if I couldn?t turn it into an enterprising article addressing a potential health concern, then I at least wanted to wax quasi philosophical about rat. Yet I couldn?t rise above my own rodentophobia.

I hate rats. They creep me out, make me squirm. And every time I talk or write about them I pull out hackneyed anecdotes like this one:

At age 17 I spent a frantic 10 days bussing around Mexico. In Mexico City while walking back to my hotel after dinner I spotted three children in the street playing with what I thought was a cat.

It wasn?t a cat.

But anyone can relate a crazy tale?anyone. I even have another up my sleeve:

I recently accompanied a friend to PetsMart. While she bought bedding for her dying hamster, I eyed the rats. Their black eyes looked off into space. Their nostrils pulsed in aggravating, perfect rhythm. So I kicked at the aquarium as hard as I could. The glass didn?t shatter until the third kick, but when it did, it splintered into large shards that hit the linoleum with a high-pitched crash. The rats bolted from the aquarium and hit the floor running.

See, even fake stories serve little purpose.

Certainly there?s more to rats than spectacle. Consider popular fiction. In the quirky cosmology of Douglas Adams? Hitchhiker?s Guide to the Galaxy, rats are the creators of the earth.

And really, it would actually be quite fitting to have a lot of these rodents on campus. After all, high rat populations are a hallmark of civilization. The Black Plague was essentially spread by heavy trading in the Mediterranean.

What is a university if not a concentration of all the best civilization has to offer?in philosophy, science and art?squeezed into the space of several blocks? Anthropologically speaking, campus should be teeming with rats.

But this is all forced, isn?t it? There?s nothing to read into the incident that happened in early April near Carlson Hall, there just isn?t.

A student saw a rat. Perhaps that?s enough.