Year of the Rat is Over!
Part 1 | Part 2
by N. Sivasothi
Figures by Kelvin Lim
since I can remember, there were rats in the lab. And 1990 appeared
to be the height of their indiscretion. Pounding on the aluminium
fittings that form the false ceiling, a thunderous sound would reverberate
through the room as they ran by, halting all conversation. Lab denizens
would wait patiently for the passing of the rodent horde, and then
resume their dialogue.
- any of over 500 groups of small rodents found worldwide in almost
all habitats. Most are herbivores and inoffensive. But the best known
are the black rat (Rattus rattus) and brown rat (Rattus
norvegicus), both of the family Muridae. They are prolific, aggressive,
and eat practically anything and carry many deadly diseases and destroy
or contaminate property and food. Both are of Asiatic origin, but
now live everywhere man does. Black rats are dark grey, under 8 in
(20 cm) long, weigh under 12 oz (350g), and have long tails and big
ears. Brown rats are slightly heavier and longer with shorter tails
and smaller ears. Most lab rats are albino strains of brown rats.
Random House Encyclopedia, 1990
Visitors, however, were unsettled by the vision of "Killer rats from hell
stamping through the nether realms" with which we dismissed the interruption,
with an airy wave of the hand.
When they first move in, there are subtle cues of their nocturnal activity
for things get knocked over. Specimen bottles, tissue boxes, books. Stuff
you pick up the next morning with nary a thought. Piecing together the
signs would actually reveal a network of their favourite runs through
the lab. It is this period during which they are "casing the joint". Once
we met with approval, discretion would soon be flung to the wind during
the period of their greatest industry - breeding season!
Oh! The happy occasion which brings little baby rats into the lab to further
plague our lives! Mom rats laboriously drag anything with nesting potential
back to their hidey-hole, or manufacture suitable material from the resources
the lab provides - books, papers and boxes. They also have a maniacal
habit (it drove us nuts!) of tasting everything in apparent preparation
of a food database for their post-Armageddon tea-party. A nibble here,
a tug there - nothing was left untouched - lid covers of specimen jars,
corners of books, drawers, etc.
Soon the air would be filled with the joyful squeaks of baby rats as mummy
scuttled towards them, back from a foraging expedition. Sometimes, we
could hear them chirp sleepily in the afternoons. On occasion, tragedy
would strike the happy family.
Diana discovered a dead baby rat perched by its head at the corner of
her table one morning. When a mite leap out at them from another dead
body, she and Cheryl fumigated the lab with Ridsect - while Prof and I
were still inside!
The thoughts of zoologists inevitably contemplated keeping pet pythons
or ferrets in the ceiling to rid us of the unholy plague. This, of course,
never materialised, and instead, the rat population waxed and waned according
to changing fortunes or the logistic equation. A long period followed
in 1995 during which we were relieved of their presence, or perhaps they
were merely quiet enough for us to ignore. Perhaps an ecological disaster
had struck rat city with a vengeance? In the meantime, the lab became
filled with new honours and postgraduate students. The food in the fridge,
which had hitherto been our only refuge from the flea-bearing foragers,
was now pitifully vulnerable to the indiscriminate foraging of a burping
bipedal rat by the name of Heok Hee, a third generation postgraduate of
of the Rat
The first generation postgrads of Peter's (Daphne, Cheryl, Diana and myself)
were never enthusiastic rat-catchers. We merely tried keeping the lab
clean with Tommy's help. We half-heartedly put out the occasional rat
trap, which the Estate Office provided.
even set free a piteously shivering, screaming rat that had been trapped
overnight in the cleaning lady's half-filled mop pail. It screamed rude
things at me, jumping as it staggered away, apparently blaming me for
it's night of abject suffering.
The effective elimination of vermin on the second level [S2-02], was instead
achieved by our neighbour, Koh Siang, who maintained a steady rate of
successful captures over many years. He shared with us the same rodent
population for all labs in the second floor, and in fact in the whole
building, is interconnected, via the ceilings and corridors.
This steady but conservative rate of elimination was dwarfed by the population
boom of 1996 - the year of the rat! We began to frequently see rats in
broad daylight! Where it had previously extended to the disappearing tail
of a lone individual, rats were now crossing our paths in the corridor,
a group was playing(!) next to the aquarium behind Block S2 and others
would cross the roof outside BioScience Centre. Unsuspecting individuals
would often yelp in surprise for they would be greeted by the apparition
of a flying rat. Warned by the sound of approaching footsteps, it would
leap from the litter bin, across the corridor, to scoot off into the clutter
of the washing area.
to Part 2...