When a human and rat meet, it really affects

Researchers from the universities of Helsinki and Tampere collected narratives on urban rat encounters. Rat encounters elicit many different emotions, but not all of them are negative, the study reveals

Rats are encountered in chipshop queue when dawn is breaking, they are marveled at the sauna, people get scared late at night by the trash cans and rats are admired on a summer day at a fairground park bench. Rats were often seen feeding in the back yards and street garbage cans or in the parks or jogging trails.

Venla Österdahl from the University of Tampere collected for her MSc thesis experiences of human-rat encounters with an online survey. Österdahl, Nina V. Nygren also from University of Tampere and Virpi Valtonen from the University of Helsinki set out to investigate what kind of emotions and affects are hidden in the 99 collected rat encounter narratives.

Encounters with rats evoked a wide variety of and sometimes even conflicting emotions. Stronger emotions, such as fear, disgust or anger were most common and about a third of the stories contained these. There were also joy, compassion or for example respectful curiosity in many stories. Similarly, many stories could be interpreted as completely or almost neutral. Conflicting emotions were also not rare: in these stories, the emotions were in some way fluctuating or changing or emotions were felt from one side to the other.

In the narratives, storytellers own affects were described as, among other things, fear, disgust and joy. There were embodied experiences or reactions, such restlessness, rage, freezing, running away, loss of appetite, curiosity and laughing. The affects were often influenced by what the context and how rat was perceived to behave.

In the encounters, the rat and the human were both affecting and been affected but the effects were shaped by, for example, situational, social and cultural factors and storytellers’ personal attitudes and perceptions. The affects of the encounters were thus sticky and complex.

Studying urban rat encounters and the affects that arise in them diversifies our understanding of the relationship between humans and rats and provides new knowledge about relationship with them. Multifaceted affects open up space to discuss how to treat urban rats and other liminal and troublesome inhabitants of our shared urban environment.

Peer-reviewed article Tahmeat rottakohtaamiset (in Finnish) was published in journal Trace in May 2023.