July 2024


By Joe Shute
In the entertaining Stowaway, Joe Shute explores and exalts the resilient, cooperative, derided and, ultimately, misunderstood rat.
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“Rat stories are like ghost stories: everybody has one,” writes British author Joe Shute at the start of Stowaway: The Disreputable Exploits of the Rat. Shute’s own original rat story involves going to an alley to watch a ratcatcher and his trained dogs at work. The rats escaped down a sewer, sparing the author the carnage of a rat versus dog encounter. 

Still, it was unsettling. After all, as Shute points out, rats have long loomed as fearsome creatures in our imaginations. “We are obsessed as a society with the notion of rats mustering in the gloom and waiting to invade our lives,” he writes. That’s not surprising, given history. Although it’s now thought that the 14th-century bubonic plague was spread by lice and fleas, rats still shoulder the blame for the death of millions.  

To challenge his own biases and overcome his fears, the author purchased two dumbo rats, Molly and Ermintrude. In the early days of their relationship, Shute walked a “tightrope between disgust and fascination,” but as he continued his “rat therapy,” he was amazed by their social habits and how responsive the rats were to his touch. In fact, Shute interviewed a neuroscientist who, while exploring the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown and the loss of touch on humans, studied—wait for it—how tickling rats impacted their behavior and hormone levels. (Conclusion: Touch helps both humans and rats build resistance against stress.)

One fascinating section delves into how rats help humans in unexpected ways. Shute traveled to Tanzania to learn about Apopo, an organization that trains rats to detect landmines as well as tuberculosis. Magawa, an African giant pouched rat, was awarded a Dickin medal for sniffing out landmines in Cambodia. “Not for the first time,” writes Shute, “rats are cleaning up humanity’s mess.” And, of course, rats have been used since the 1800s in laboratories that study human diseases. That use has accelerated, in part because, as Shute points out, almost all human genes associated with disease have counterparts in the rat genome. 

Stowaway may not be an obvious choice as a gift for a family member who loves animals. But it will undoubtedly be enjoyed. Be prepared, though: You may end up with your own rat experiment. In Shute’s family, Molly and Ermintrude were joined by Aggy and Reyta, forming a rat colony. In getting to know the rat better, Shute did not find a creature with no redeeming qualities, but “empathy, cooperation, mischief, fun, loyalty and resilience.”

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By Joe Shute
Bloomsbury Wildlife
ISBN 9781399402507

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