Taking Rats Seriously

In 1967, as part of a plan to revitalize impoverished urban areas in his broader war on poverty, Lyndon Johnson proposed the Rat Extermination Act, a bill to provide $20 million for eliminating rats in a variety of neglected neighbourhoods across the country. Taking place amid a series of urban uprisings, the bill was derided by its opponents as the “Civil Rats” bill. The legal effort has been studied for its proximity to poverty programs, urban renewal, and race, but the one group that does not receive treatment as an equal agent in the historical narrative are rats themselves.

This is not surprising, but in a human world that is increasingly providing rights to animals, that is converting to veganism in record numbers, historical scholarship, too, has room to accommodate baseline assumptions about human speciesism and animal equality. A vegan-historical reading of the Rat Extermination Act looks very different when the agency and basic biological equality of rats is part of the paradigm. Food chains and orders of being, for example, are human creations, complete with implicit bias in favor of humans, but all animals, human and nonhuman, are thinking, feeling beings on a floating ball in the sky. Humans, with the evolutionary luck of reason and morality, have the ability to make choices that will either protect or harm their fellow animals. Many historians accept such statements implicitly in their private lives, but rarely apply them to their scholarship.[1]


Rats can be pets. My Templeton is an integral part of our family. But even when they aren’t pets, rats have been almost universally part of the human built environment for as long as a built environment existed. The two dominant species, Rattus norvegicus and Rattus rattus dispersed quickly throughout the globe, largely as a result of their ability to stow away on human ships. While rats can be found in almost every environment, the human built environment has historically been a comfortable place for the small animal to scavenge food and find shelter. When that built environment began to expand in the United States during the country’s late Industrial Revolution in the second half of the nineteenth century, the rat population expanded with it, surviving on the garbage generated by metastasizing urban citiscapes and the mass production that made much of it possible. The explosion in the rat population, in other words, was a direct result of the explosion in the human population. While rats were carriers for some diseases that affected humans, the dependence of those rats on humans and the human population’s propensity to generate refuse meant that there was no biological hostility of rats toward humans; there was no intent to harm.[2]

Still, rats have been stigmatized by humans throughout history. In the 1960s, for example, 62 percent of black families and 35 percent of white families lived in substandard housing, making them vulnerable to at least 14,000 rat bites in the decade, more than half of the victims under the age of two. Those bites could cause rash, vomiting, diarrhea, and other symptoms that needed to be cured with antibiotics.[3] When humans could not afford antibiotics or were left vulnerable to rats, the culprits were other humans and the imagined economies that created that imbalance. Rats, however, would be the ones to pay the price for those victims of human imagination.

Both rat and impoverished human populations were vulnerable, but only one was punished with mass extermination simply for existing. Still, that most vulnerable of populations does not receive the benefit of such comparisons because the effort would, based on that original vulnerability, stigmatize the impoverished human population even further, because assumptions about rats are so ubiquitous that such language–itself a human phenomenon–would only redound to diminish whatever human group was used as a comparison control in the effort. It is an understandable semantic dilemma, but the losers in that dilemma are unquestionably the rats themselves, the sentient beings struggling to survive in a world where the sources of sustenance are also the sources of death.

Thus it was that early in Lyndon Johnson’s administration, his Office of Equal Opportunity attempted a series of rat-killing programs under the title Operation Rat. But he wanted a more comprehensive “program to exterminate the rats in our ghettos throughout the country,” and thus he submitted in 1967 a massive rat eradication and prevention bill to protect vulnerable human families.[4]


Both civil rights leaders, who saw the rat bill as a race issue, and white conservative politicians, who saw rats as signposts of self-made urban decay, used the rat as the symbol of failure, making it impossible for anyone to see rats themselves–the ones being exterminated–as the victims.

In July, the House officially killed Johnson’s original “civil rats” bill, an act that came accompanied with joking language of “a high commissioner of rats” and “a rat bureaucracy.”[5] Frustrated proponents of the bill, however, also demonstrated an ingrained speciesism. Michigan Democratic representative Martha W. Griffiths argued, “If you’re going to spend $79-billion to kill off a few Vietcong, I’d spend $40-million to kill off the most devastating enemy that man has ever had.” Griffiths’ analysis was the broader American view in microcosm. There were levels to value of life. Vietcong humans had a lower value of life than American humans. Rats had a lower value than Vietcong. Added to her gradations of worth, Griffiths coded rats as overtly hostile to humans, their “most devastating enemy,” more dangerous than Vietcong and therefore more worthy of death.[6]

After a series of negotiations, Congress moved the rat measure to a health bill, and it passed in that form. It ultimately funded fifty-two killing and prevention projects in American cities.[7] Historical and social coding had turned rats into symbols of urban decay and racialized poverty in the mid-twentieth century. They were assumed by humans to have a lower value of life. So they were killed en masse. They are still killed en masse. There but for the grace of god goes Templeton.


This blog was written by Thomas Aiello, Associate Professor of History and African American Studies, Valdosta State University.

[1] Analysis through a vegan lens has thrived in legal studies, sociology, and literary theory, but is rarely applied to historical accounts. While historians have yet to represent a vegan position in their scholarship as in some disciplines, historians have been part of the growing field of animal studies and have conducted groundbreaking studies that have given agency to animals, rather than filtering their experience through a human lens. For some book-length examples that can serve as an introduction to the historical element of the field, see Dorothee Brantz, ed., Beastly Natures: Animals, Humans, and the Study of History (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010); Susan Nance, ed., The Historical Animal (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2015); NIgel Rothfels, Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008); and Frederick L. Brown, The City Is More Than Human: An Animal History of Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016). For a broader account of the growing discipline of Animal Studies, see Linda Kalof, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Animal Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).


[2] The common conflict in this regard is the bubonic plague, attributed to rats in the fourteenth century. Despite modern research that argues that gerbils, not rats, were carriers of plague in medieval Europe, the presence of rats was generated by a human presence and the disease that was carried by either gerbils or rats was a human disease. LIza Lentini and David Mouzon, “20 Things You Didn’t Know About…Rats,” Discover (December 2005): 28; Steven Belman, “Rats may be disgusting, but it’s people who have made the world they thrive in,” Guardian, 25 February 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/feb/25/rats-disgusting-people-world-thrive-mutually-dependent, accessed 28 December 2018; and Boris V. Schmid, Ulf Büntgen, W. Ryan Easterday, Christian Ginzler, Lars Walløe, Barbara Bramanti, and Nils Chr. Stenseth, “Climate-driven introduction of the Black Death and successive plague reintroductions into Europe,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112 (March 2015): 3020-3025.


[3] Biehler, Pests In the City, 107-109; Harold George Scott, “Rat Bite: Epidemiology and Control,” Journal of Environmental Health 27 (May-June 1965): 900-902; Andrew Hurley, “Floods, Rats, and Toxic Waste: Allocating Environmental Hazards since World War II,” in Common Fields: An Environmental History of St. Louis, ed. Andrew Hurley (Saint Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1997), 242–262; and James Clinton, “Rats in Urban America,” Public Health Reports 84 (January 1969): 1–7.


[4] Edward R. Schmitt, President of the Other America: Robert Kennedy and the Politics of Poverty (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010), 117, 120; “Herb Kramer memorandum for James Gaither, 16 August 1967,” “Operation Rat: a rat eradication program for the American People, 26 March 1965,” “William S. Gaud to Hayes Redmon, 1 October 1965,” “Joe Califano to Sarge Shriver, 23 August 1966,” “Robert C. Wood to H.R. Gross, 16 August 1967,” Subject Files, Agriculture, NAID 582583, AG 5-1, Pest Control, Box 8, White House Central Files, Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, Austin, Texas; Harold George Scott, Operation Rat: A Rat Eradication Program for the American People (US Public Health Service, Office of Equal Opportunity, 1965); and Lady Bird Johnson’s Daily Diary entry, 4/13/1966, Lady Bird Johnson’s White House Diary Collection, LBJ Presidential Library, accessed October 18, 2018, https://www.discoverlbj.org/item/ctjd-ctjdd-19660413.


[5] “Barefoot Sanders to Lyndon Johnson, 20 July 1967,” and “Barefoot Sanders to Lyndon Johnson, 21 July 1967,” Subject Files, Agriculture, NAID 582583, AG 5-1, Pest Control, Box 8, White House Central Files, Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, Austin, Texas; Boston Globe, 22 July 1967, 7; Washington Post, 30 July 1967, B7; Wall Street Journal, 10 August 1967, 12; and Califano, The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson, 212.


[6] New York Times, 21 July 1967, 1.


[7] “Memorandum for the Honorable S. Douglass Cater and Honorable H. Barefoot Sanders, Jr.,” Subject Files, Agriculture, NAID 582583, AG 5-1, Pest Control, Box 8, White House Central Files, Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, Austin, Texas; Oral history transcript, Sidney A. Saperstein, interview 2 (II), 6/28/1986, by Janet Kerr-Tener, LBJ Library Oral Histories, LBJ Presidential Library, accessed October 18, 2018, https://www.discoverlbj.org/item/oh-sapersteins-19860628-2-87-46; Biehler, Pests In the City, 113; and Los Angeles Times, 20 September 1967, 1.


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