Yesterday was the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Rat. In China, the lunar New Year is as important as Christmas. Millions upon millions of people pack onto planes and trains and buses to visit the relatives for the season. This year's festival began on the lunar New Year's Eve (January 24) and will culminate after 15 days with the "Lantern Festival" (February 8).
A few years ago the Chinese New Year Festival (also called "The Spring Festival") was disrupted because of massive snowstorms. This year it is being disrupted by the deadly coronavirus. The Chinese government has restricted travel for at least 48 million people in an attempt to contain it. Over fifty people have died from it, as of this Sunday night writing. And about 2000 people around the world (but mostly in China) are sick from it. With everyone moving about the country and the world, especially because of the Spring Festival, it is hard to contain.
Even though millions of people (in China and around the world) are finding their plans disrupted, and even though it is painful to forego family reunions in many cases, festivals take on extra importance in times that are hard. They are a reminder of the strength and heritage of a people...and the love of a family...increasing and growing during hard times. A festival in the midst of a tribulation is a sign of hope and a reminder of our deepest values..
I want my hundreds of friends (and family) in China to know that I am thinking of them these days...and praying fervently for an end to this runaway virus.
This is the year of the rat. Who can escape the irony of that? The rat was once (erroneously) blamed for another runaway plague: the Black Death, one of the most deadly pandemics in history, killing between 75-200 million people in Europe and Asia between 1347 and 1351. It took 200 years for the world to recover its population total after that plague.
The rat doesn't have a very good reputation among westerners, in part because of that catastrophe. Thus, it gives me great pleasure to buck the trend and plead the case for this God-created rodent.
Let's begin with this: some rats are really smart. Even the average rat is usually able to outsmart the humans who are trying to control them.
We also know something about the intelligence of rats because rats and mice are the most tested animal in the world. About 80 million of them are tested in scientific laboratories each year in the U.S. They demonstrate powers of reasoning (helping them escape dangerous situations) and cooperation with each other. Rats are highly social, communicating information and affection with each other. They are ones of the cleaner animals, grooming themselves several times a day.
A skinny rat can wriggle its way through a hole the size of a quarter. Wild rats seldom weigh more than a pound. But a rat in a cage...or with access to a good garbage can... can grow 9-11 inches long (with a 7-9 inch tail.) A male rat is called a buck, an unmated female a doe, a pregnant or maternal rat is a dam, the babies are kittens or pups, and a group of rats is known as a mischief.
Rats reach sexual maturity at 6 weeks, social maturity at six months, and live about a year. It was actually the fleas that attach to rats (and other animals) that are believed to be the cause of the Black Death.
Rats can be a problem though, no doubt. They can carry diseases all the way from deadly plagues to minor irritants. And they destroy crops. About 15% of an average crop on the African continent is eaten by rats. And 200 million people in Asia could be fed with the rice that rats eat. Rats are an invasive species all over the world, particularly pernicious on islands, where half of all bird and reptile extinctions are due to rats eating eggs, hatchlings, and adults.
But the human race owes rats an overwhelming debt of gratitude for all the good health that has resulted from laboratory testing. Rats share 85% of their DNA with humans, including every gene that is known to be relevant to human diseases. Work with rats has helped us make progress in fighting Alzheimer's Disease, diabetes, heart failure, bacterial infections, high cholesterol, HIV, cancer, and autism.
In China, the rat is celebrated as a sign of wealth and surplus. In days when many children were wanted, the rat was admired for its reproduction abilities. If a litter of 9 rat pups is born January 1, (since they reach sexual maturity at 6 weeks) they could have 11,900 descendants by December 31 of the same year.
My daughter Alison was born in the year of the rat. So was George Washington. So was Richard Nixon, Rosa Parks, and Pope Francis. Those born in the year of the rat are said to be optimistic and energetic and liked by all. They are also said to be stubborn. Not a bad combination.
To all my Chinese friends: xin nian kuai le.
And to my English-only friends, come on...celebrate New Year's again. At this time of the year, we need more of a kick than just Ground Hog's Day.
I owe my information to wikipedia and to a newsfeed I get, Quartz.