Tale of Two Rodents

Very different lives of squirrels and rats in NYC

I grew up in the city Istanbul where it is very easy to find street dogs and cats on the street. Currently I live in New York City, where it is in contrast, almost impossible to find dogs and cats not owned by people. Here somehow to my surprise, they are replaced by squirrels and rats. They are the most iconic animals of NYC zoo. Squirrels settle down in city parks & greenery while rats hang around in subway tunnels and sewers. Although having very similar physical characteristics, these two rodents live in very different habitats due to a minor difference they have.

Both rats and squirrels are rodents with colorful fur and similar body structure. Visually the most striking difference is in their tails. Squirrels have furry, bushy and colorful tails which is quite similar in functionality to the tail of a monkey. Both monkeys and squirrels use their tails for balance in climbing trees. On the other hand, rats have hairless tails which resembles the tail of a lizard. Unlike squirrel’s tail, rat tail is very ugly and nauseating. The rat tail in the cover photo is out of focus on purpose. If you want to have a better look at rat tail, (you have been warned) click here. Hamster is also a popular rodent pet and not surprisingly they have a very short and cute tail.

Hamster and its tiny tail

So because of the differences in their tails, squirrels can climb up trees which helps them to evade predators. More importantly, in the case of their life in NYC and other urban areas, it makes them attractive and friendly to humans who not only tolerate their presence, but also sometimes feed them. Rats are however, viewed as disgusting and appalling animals. Most people freak out upon seeing a rat. They are also perceived as threat to human health and people set up traps to kill them. Could there be more reasons other than their tail that justifies the hate rats get? Rats are justifiably associated with diseases in the past. This could have developed an antipathy for them. The part that is mostly ignored however, is that why rats carry those diseases. Like in the case of NYC, rats had to hide from human eye in cities. Because they needed to find food, the easiest option was to wait for human waste to be dumped into sewers. Sewers also kept them safe from predators. Although sewers provide easy access to waste food, it is not a healthy environment. Being exposed to unhealthy waste for a long time might have caused urban rat populations to evolve into disease carrying animals, probably killing also a significant non-adaptive part of their own population.

So rats are not filthy animals by nature, it is just that they were forced to move to sewers or other inhabited habitats due to human aggression to them. Squirrels on the other hand, are not just allowed to co-exist with humans, but also loved, hand-fed and filmed by many people. In NYC, they are even an attraction for tourists in parks. If you pardon my slightly sexist language, it is hard not to think of this natural phenomena as beautiful girl getting all the love, attention, gifts, big house, rich husband and ugly girl getting the hate and contempt. Life seems to be unfair not to humans only, it is also unfair to animals.