CRAIG BROWN: You dirty rats – stop eating our tortoises!


One day you’re a hero; the next you’re a villain. In these topsy-turvy days, which of us would be a rat?

Four days ago, we were asked to raise our glasses to Magawa, a seven-year-old African rat who had been awarded what the BBC described as ‘a prestigious gold medal’ for his work in detecting landmines in Cambodia.

Magawa was pictured with his shiny gold medal around his neck. Some might say he looked a little smug, but he had good reason. 

The essence of bravery is to be aware of danger, and to confront it without fear. Can any rat truly be described as ‘brave’ if he is unaware of any jeopardy?

After all, he had just been awarded his medal for ‘animal gallantry and devotion to duty’. Furthermore, he was the first rat ever to receive this august honour.

Plaudits abounded. Never has a rat been more highly praised. One of his handlers described him as ‘a real character’ and ‘a bundle of energy’.

The CEO of the charity that trained Magawa hailed him as ‘one of our best rats’ and praised his get-up-and-go. 

‘When you put him in the cage,’ he said, ‘he takes a quick nap then is ready to work again.’

So Magawa can be forgiven for looking a touch big-headed as he posed for his photograph.

While Magawa is being serenaded, his distant cousins in Fareham and Glamorgan are being attacked for tucking into tortoises [File photo]

While Magawa is being serenaded, his distant cousins in Fareham and Glamorgan are being attacked for tucking into tortoises [File photo]

Up to now, the rat community has faced many years of systemic abuse and vilification. My Dictionary Of Invective explains that ‘rat’ has been used as a term of abuse since the reign of King Richard III. It stands for ‘a despicable person, a sneaky, dishonest one, especially a police informer’.

So Magawa’s award must have come as a breath of fresh to the wider rat community, who would have been greatly cheered by this celebration of one of their own. But then, just three days later, it was back to square one.

‘Pet tortoises gnawed by packs of ravenous restaurant rats’ read a chilling newspaper headline on Sunday. 

The accompanying report could not have been more damaging to the worldwide reputation of rats. Apparently, tortoises are being attacked by rats deprived of the food they normally find outside restaurants.

Being slowcoaches, tortoises are easily outpaced by rats, who grab them with their incisors and ‘just keep chewing and chewing’.

‘The rats are out and about in force and they are attacking tortoises,’ reported Celia Claypole, 60, who works at a tortoise sanctuary in Glamorgan.

In Fareham, Hants, a 70-year-old tortoise called Freda had to have her leg bandaged after being bitten by a rat. 

Happily, ‘after painkillers and skin cream’, Freda is recovering in a heated cabin kindly provided by the Hampshire Tortoise Society. The next time I am bitten by a rat in Hampshire, I will definitely slip into a tortoise costume before summoning help.

Who bit Freda? Clearly, the tortoise lovers of Fareham will not rest until they have tracked the ratty villain down. Once they have him in custody, he will doubtless face a barrage of photographers as he is escorted, possibly with a tiny little rug over his head, into a secure van.

Apparently, tortoises are being attacked by rats deprived of the food they normally find outside restaurants. Being slowcoaches, tortoises are easily outpaced by rats, who grab them with their incisors and ¿just keep chewing and chewing¿ [File photo]

Apparently, tortoises are being attacked by rats deprived of the food they normally find outside restaurants. Being slowcoaches, tortoises are easily outpaced by rats, who grab them with their incisors and ‘just keep chewing and chewing’ [File photo]

All well and good, but what of Magawa? Is he really quite the hero they are saying he is? There is no denying that he has sniffed out a huge number of landmines, but is his motivation entirely philanthropic?

From an early age — just four weeks old — he was trained to sniff out the chemical compound within explosives. Each time he alerts his minders to the presence of a bomb, he is rewarded with a tasty nibble.

For all the talk of his ‘dedication, skill and bravery,’ it’s clear that Magawa’s sole motivation is the prospect of a tuck-in. Any do-goodery is ruled by his tummy. 

Were his handlers to stop rewarding him, he would down tools, or even apply to work for the enemy, putting all his undoubted energy into helping them distribute landmines.

The essence of bravery is to be aware of danger, and to confront it without fear. Can any rat truly be described as ‘brave’ if he is unaware of any jeopardy?

And while Magawa is being serenaded, his distant cousins in Fareham and Glamorgan are being attacked for tucking into tortoises.

Is this fair? It is perfectly possible that their motives are entirely altruistic. After all, it’s easy to confuse a tortoise and a landmine: they look pretty much the same. 

So is it a rat’s fault if he does his best to defuse a tortoise? I pray the rats’ barrister puts this point to the jury when their case comes to trial.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk