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May 1995
Letter from the Editor: In the Year of the Rat, the Dog, and the Fish

By Martin Rowe

During the Cultural Revolution, Beijing had a “problem” with sparrow over-population. So Chairman Mao ordered all the citizens to leave their houses and literally clap the birds out of the sky. Too frightened by the noise to alight on the trees or buildings, millions of sparrows had to stay on the wing until they fell exhausted to their deaths.

Now, so the Associated Press reports (3/29/95), China has a rat problem. Apparently, an unusually large population of rats is eating up China’s rice — up to 7.7 million tons of it, or enough to feed 40 million people for a year. The amount of damage is up 50 percent since 1989, and instances of disease spread by rats are also on the rise. Nobody really knows why there are so many rats (in most areas of China there are two to five times as many rats as normal, and in some parts there has been a tenfold increase), but the Ministry of Agriculture has blamed the problem on officials who have not done enough in recent years and on people who kill snakes, weasels, owls, and other animals that prey on rats.

Now I don’t think it is good that enough food to feed forty million people for a year is being eaten by rats, although in the West it is something we do every year in feeding grain to animals and then eating them. But I am fearful of the solution the Chinese may come up with, given the experience with the sparrows and a poor record on human rights. Once more, what has been really glossed over is the killing of those animals who served to keep the rat (and sparrow) population under control: all those animals who have been ground down into aphrodisiacs or potions, or are generally considered “vermin” who eat “vermin.” Without a Pied Piper, soon all countries will just have to admit that there’s no better controller of Nature than Nature herself.

In Hebron, Israel the problem was not rats, but dogs. Apparently, so the Israeli army says, the dogs were potential or actual rabies carriers. Others, however, have suggested that the dogs were a potential threat only to soldiers stalking the villages, since the barking would draw attention to them and alert any nearby terrorists. So, they shot them — 150 shepherd dogs, domestic animals, and strays. And now Hebron is a little quieter (except for the bells on the unshepherded goats which ring throughout the town). Once more, a massacre has occurred in Hebron; and, once more, the causes and anxieties expressed in the act of killing have masked a lonely and unspeakable individual suffering. Certainly, the threat of terrorism hasn’t gone away, and nor are the chances for peace any better. In this case, however, the ones who died offered no complaint, committed no outrage, sired neither terrorist nor bigot, and have done nothing wrong except in being too close to human beings for their own good.

Meantime, in the mid-Atlantic a war is going on over fish stocks. The Spanish have been fishing where they shouldn’t have been — off the coast of Ireland and Newfoundland. This has caused a rift between Spain and the northern European Atlantic states who — all being members of the European Union — are meant to stick together in the face of the threat of NAFTA. But the vigorous action of the Canadian authorities — including boarding boats and fighting off invading trawlers — has conquered Euro-loyalty, and now Canadian flags fly on the jetties of Cornish fishing villages and Canadian ministers are warming the cockles of the fisherfolk’s hearts.

These are very different stories — but they all involve human beings fighting it out among themselves for their way of life, with animals as the victims. And there will be more and more such episodes as the numbers of humans get larger, and the animals in the way increase and the stocks of fish decrease. More and more for less and less would, you might think, make people in the Developed World at least stop and pause and wonder whether we should do something else — such as change the way we look at the world and its resources. Perhaps we could eat a little less, distribute a little more fairly, reproduce a little less often, and educate a little more broadly. While we can all, individually, make that decision by ourselves by becoming a vegetarian, using less raw material, recycling more, and reaching out to our neighbors, governments are a different matter. Do not be surprised if one day soon, we’re all dragged from our homes and told to clap loudly and long enough until all the problems just fall, silenced, from an empty sky.


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