Excerpts from ‘Rats’. First published by Vigyan Prasar, India
Now at this time there was a great plague of rats in the London Docks. They were specially fierce rats, whose ancestors had come on steamers from Hong Kong along with tea and ginger and silk and rice. These rats ate all sorts of food which are brought to London in ships because we cannot grow enough food in England to feed all the people here. They are wheat from Canada and cheese from Holland, and mutton from New Zealand and beef from Argentina. They bit out pieces from the middle of Persian carpets to line their nests, and wiped their feet on silk coats from China.
Now the man who is at the head of all the docks in London is called the Chairman of the Port of London Authority, and he is a very big bug indeed…He was awfully angry about the rats, because he has to look after the cargoes that are brought in ships… He sent for the best rat-catchers in London. But they only caught a few hundred rats, because they were a very cunning kind of rat. They had a king who lived in a very deep hole, and the other rats brought him specially good food. They brought him chocolate that had come from Switzerland, bits of turkey from France, dates from Algiers, and so on. And he told the other rats what to do. If any rat got caught in a trap, he sent out special messengers to give warning of the danger. He had an army of ten thousand of the bravest young rats, and they used to fight any other animals that were sent against them. A terrier can easily kill one or two rats; but if a hundred rush at him all at once, he may kill three or four of them, but the others will kill him in the end. The rats with the toughest teeth were trained to be engineers, and used to bite through the wire of rat-traps to let prisoners out.
So in one month these rats killed a hundred and eighty-one cats, forty-nine dogs, and ninety-five ferrets. And they wounded a lot of others so badly that they ran away if they even smelt a rat, let alone saw one. And they let out seven hundred and forty-two prisoners from six hundred and eighteen ferrets and traps, and gave up the job in despair. The people in the docks sent round to the chemists’ shop for all sorts of rat poison, and sprinkled it about mixed with different sorts of bait. But the king rat gave orders that none of his subjects were to eat food unless it came straight out of a box or a barrel or a bag. So only a few disobedient rats got poisoned, and the others said it served them right. And the poison was no more of use than the dogs and ferrets and traps.
John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (1892 – 1964)
spent the last five years of his life in India and became an Indian citizen. A polymath in a real sense, Haldane’s best contributions are in the mathematical theory of evolution and he is one of the founders of population genetics.