In Chapter Eight of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Don Federico is an exterminator obsessed with destroying all rats, because he blames himself for allowing rats to eat his baby sister alive. So I decided to look on my phone to see if rats have ever been known to eat humans. They aren’t. Occasionally, they will bite sleeping people. This is probably because they are trying to eat food particles off people. Rats don’t see humans — or any creature — as prey. Rats will eat just about anything, but brown rats are known to prefer a diet much like mine. Favorite foods: “scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese, and cooked corn kernels.” Least favorite foods: “raw beets, peaches, and raw celery.” But I doubt they were ever offered my excellent peach pie. They are also known to like chocolate.
But all this research brought me to the story of the rat flood — once thought to be a mythical periodical deluge of rats in eastern India. From time to time, the rats would just be everywhere and eat everything. Well, not everything. They didn’t eat the humans. But they might as well have, because it decimated the food crops and stores and caused a famine during those years. And then, just like Keyser Söze: poof, they’re gone. Scientists and political authorities didn’t think it was real, because hey, peasants. But it not only was real, it is.
This happens every 48 years. The Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur are roughly 30% covered in bamboo forest. It has a 48 year ecological cycle called the Mautam. So after the bamboo flowers, it dies and releases all its seeds. Rats like the bamboo seeds and suddenly, they are swimming in them. So they don’t have to spend a bunch of time finding food, so they eat and do that other evolutionarily important behavior: have sex. What’s more, studies indicate that female fertility goes up as does the litter size. Suddenly, eastern India is overflowing with rats.
Of course, it doesn’t matter at this time. The rats have their food supply and they are doing just dandy. It is the following year when there are huge numbers of rats and no more bamboo seeds. So they “head into town” and eat the food of the humans. And there isn’t a lot that the humans can do. This is why it is referred to as the “rat flood.” We have records of this happening in 1862, 1911, 1959, and 2006.
The people of these regions are getting better at dealing with the problem. In 2006, the Indian government sent in the army to help out. They used little bitty guns. No, just kidding. They were there mostly to provide education on how to deal with the coming hordes. Interestingly, as I mentioned above, rats have different food tastes. And there are things they really don’t like. Apparently, they don’t like the smells of turmeric and ginger.
In addition to being a human tragedy — although one we could eliminate if we wanted to with a simple application of resources — it is also a rat tragedy. Because of the excessive food supply, the following year is necessarily a famine of unheard of proportions. And there is really nothing that can be done to stop it. God really is evil.