At ZooLab, our Rangers meet people of all ages with phobias of one or more of our creatures. Over the next few months, Jessica will examine some of the most common animal fears that we encounter to debunk myths and help you see our extraordinary creatures in a whole new light.
What is a phobia?
Phobias are the overwhelming and debilitating fear of an object, place, situation, feeling or animal (NHS, 2018). Rationally, it is highly unlikely that something bad will happen. Phobias may develop from childhood experiences, environmental factors or association of ideas.
With 8.7 million species of animals out there, it is no surprise that zoophobia is one of the most common classes of phobia in the world! We know that tarantulas, snakes, rats and creepy crawlies strike fear in many adults (chances are you will know an a arachnophob or musophob) but our animal team are on hand to help turn a fear to love - or at least a tolerance. ZooLab workshops allow our presenters to address these fears through tackling common misconceptions with fact and participants meeting the creatures in a safe environment.
This month's phobia: Muriphobia
Muriphobia is the fear of rats (and mice). Rats tend to divide a ZooLab audience - while a lot of people see their cute faces and playful nature, others fear or dislike them for a few reasons that we will discuss below.
So what is it about rats?
Is it their appearance? Many people are weirded out by a rat tail. However, these play an important role for survival. Rats scaly tails have a thermoregulatory function - it helps regulate body temperature and stops overheating. It also helps them to balance while jumping and climbing.
Did you know? During play, rats make happy “laughing” sounds. Happy rats also boggle, their eyes move in and out of the eye sockets - this is the equivalent of purring (see video above).
Is it the number of rats? Myth: You are never more than 20 feet away from a rat!
This is impossible! Countrylife states, "If you were standing in any one spot in an urban environment, at worst you would be some 50 metres away from a rat."
Is it that when there is one rat there is likely to be another? Rats are incredibly sociable animals and do reproduce very quickly. Wild rats live within a community and in order to live a happy life need to be with others of their kind. For this reason, pet rats should be kept in a same-sex pair or in groups. Pet rats also love to socialise with humans too and form firm bonds. In contrast, wild rats are very shy and will tend to hide from humans.
Did you know? Rats are known to show compassion - they take care of sick and injured members of their group. After Lauren's rat Rosie suffered a stroke, she struggled to groom some parts of herself so Daisy helped her.
Is it that they live in sewers and/or are dirty? Rats actually clean themselves 20 times a day.
Did you know? Cats and dogs are MORE likely to catch and transmit parasites and viruses than a pet rat.
Is it their reputation? Through the ages rats have been associated with punishment, dirt and disease. In Roman times rats were used to torture people. The infamous Black Death which killed tens of millions of people in the mid-1300s was blamed on rats. However, this is yet another myth. It was not the rats that carried the disease but fleas that were carried on people.
Rats have been portrayed as vermin in literature,movies and TV shows. Beatrix Potter, George Orwell and James Herbert all depict rats as evil characters in their books. In the TV series ‘Game of Thrones’ and the movie ‘Fast and Furious’ victims are tortured by rats. However, it is time that this changed.
Rats are unsung heroes!
In recent years, due to their intelligence rats have gained a spot working alongside charities and medical staff - their extremely well developed sense of smell has been used to detect TNT in landmines and TB in patient’s saliva.
Look closely at a rat; they are fascinating and intelligent creatures with an unreasonable bad press.