By Mims Cushing

An article about rats was in the Nov. 11, 2016 edition of The New York Times on page A12, a research piece by James Gorman that jumped out at me. It was titled, “When Tickled, Rats Giggle and Leap, Researchers Find.” It was accompanied by a photograph of a researcher in Berlin, scratching the belly of a rat, with the rat’s head leaning against the researcher’s hand.

I was carefully taught by my mother that in our house, if we had to use the word “rat,” we must spell it backwards: “tar,” because that was more tolerable to her. I never saw any rats in or near our house, but living on Long Island Sound, I’ll bet she and Dad took a gander at a rat or two loping along the sea wall and it probably freaked her out.

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When I sing on two days in our rehearsal room for one choir, and on a third day, for another group, a medium-sized stuffed, pet rat sits in the front of the room on the conductor’s stand, underneath where the sheet music hangs out. I sing in the front row on Thursdays, and it is right in front of me, a couple of feet away, its eyes glaring at me. It’s been on the bottom lip of the music stand for a few years now and I need to make it lie down so I don’t have to look at it from where I sit in the alto section. I’ve considered becoming a soprano so I can sit on the far right, so I’m farther away from it, but my vocal range has been stuck on low for 73 years. So instead, gingerly, with my thumb and index finger, I put the rat on its side or sometimes I whisper to Susan who sits next to me in my Thursday practice “Umm, Susan, can you fix the rat?” And she, patiently, makes it lie down, out of my sight.

But the rat is righted the next time I sing! Who is doing that? Luckily, in my other singing group, the altos do sit far away from the rat on Wednesdays and Sundays, so I can’t see it on those days.

Author Gorman writes, “There’s just something about a rat jumping for joy when it’s been tickled that can change your whole outlook on rats.”

When I pat my dog, I can see her tail go berserk with joy, but a rat? No tail wagging, but apparently rats emit an ultrasonic sound that scientists have figured out is the beastie’s equivalent of laughter and they also “make joyful leaps when tickled.” Scientists also found, “When a rat is in a bad mood, you can’t tickle them; something that is also true of humans.” Isn’t research wonderful?

I am trying to convince myself that I like rats now that I know they giggle and leap for joy. In the meantime, I’m going to be late for song practice and I need to get Susan to make the rat lie down so I can’t see it.

P.S. I put up with Mother’s request and always said “tar” rather than “rat.” I’m glad I am not neurotically fearful of alligators, because I don’t think I could have gotten my kids to call an alligator a … rotagilla.

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