A thunderstorm has burst on the common rat. Its complicity in the spread of the plague, which has been proved up to the hilt, has filled the cup of its iniquities to overflowing, and we have awakened to the fact that it is and always has been an arch-enemy of mankind. Simultaneously, in widely separated parts of the world, a "pogrom" has been proclaimed, and the accounts of the massacre which come to us from great cities like Calcutta and Bombay are appalling and almost incredible. They would move to pity the most callous heart, if pity could be associated with the rat. But it cannot.
The wild rat deserves that humane consideration to which all our natural fellow-creatures on this earth are entitled; but the domestic rat (I use this term advisedly, for though man has not domesticated it, it has thoroughly domesticated itself) cannot justify its existence. It is a fungus of civilisation. If it confined itself to its natural food, the farmer's grain, the tax which it levies on the country would still be such as no free people ought to endure. But it confines itself to nothing. As Waterton says: "After dining on carrion in the filthiest sink, it will often manage to sup on the choicest dainties of the larder, where like Celoeno of old vestigia foeda relinquit." It kills chickens, plunders the nests of little birds, devouring mother, eggs and young, murders and feeds on its brothers and sisters and even its own offspring, and not infrequently tastes even man when it finds him asleep. The bite of a rat is sometimes very poisonous, and I have had to give three months' sick leave to a clerk who had been bitten by one. Add to this that the rat multiplies at a rate which is simply criminal, rearing a family of perhaps a dozen every two or three months, and no further argument is needed to justify the war which has been declared against it. Every engine of war will, no doubt, be brought into use, traps of many kinds, poisons, cats, the professional rat-catcher, and a rat bacillus which, if once it gets a footing, is expected to originate a fearful epidemic.
But I need not linger any more among rats, which are not my subject. I am writing in the hope that this may be an opportune time to put in a plea for a much persecuted native of this and many other countries, whose principal function in the economy of nature is to kill rats and mice. The barn, or screech, owl, which is found over a great part of Europe and Asia and also in America, was once very common in Britain, inhabiting every "ivy-mantled tower," church steeple, barn loft, hollow tree, or dovecot, in which it could get a lodging. But it was never welcome. Like the Jews in the days of King John it has been relentlessly persecuted by superstition, ignorance and avarice. Avarice, instigated by ladies and milliners, has looked with covetous eye on its downy and beautiful plumes; while ignorance and superstition have feared and hated the owl in all countries and all ages. In ancient Rome it was a bird of evil omen.
Foedaque fit volucris venturi nuncia luctus,
Ignavus bubo, dirum mortalibus omen.
In India, to-day, if an owl sits on the house-top, the occupants dare scarcely lie down to sleep, for they know that the devil is walking the rooms and marking someone for death. Lady Macbeth, when about the murder of Duncan, starts and whispers,
Hark! Peace! It was the owl that shrieked,
The fatal bellman.
And even as late as the nineteenth century, Waterton's aged housekeeper "knew full well what sorrow it had brought into other houses when she was a young woman," Witches, like modern ladies of fashion, set great value on its wings. The latter stick them on their hats, the witches in Macbeth threw them into their boiling cauldron. Horace's Canidia could not complete her recipe without
"Plumamque nocturnae strigis."
We may suppose that in Britain these superstitions are gone for ever, killed and buried by board schools and compulsory education. If they are (there is room for an if) they have been succeeded by a worse, the superstition of gamekeepers and farmers. It is worse in effect, because these men have guns, which their predecessors had not. And it is more wicked, because it is founded on an ignorance for which there is no excuse. How little harm the barn owl is likely to do game may be inferred from the fact that, when it makes its lodging in a dovecot, the pigeons suffer no concern! Waterton (and no better authority could be quoted) scouts the idea, common among farmers, that its business there is to eat the pigeons' eggs. "They lay the saddle," he says, "on the wrong horse. They ought to put it on the rat." His predecessor in the estate had allowed the owls to be destroyed and the rats to multiply, and there were few young pigeons in the dovecot. Waterton took strong measures to exterminate the rats, but built breeding places for the owls, and the dovecot, which they constantly frequented, became prolific again.