Dogs, rats and predjudice
When I was 6 years old, my parents got a dog. I was the last to know, and can still vividly remember walking into the lounge room, to see my older brother pop up from behind an armchair with a little white ball of fluff; our new puppy.
Biscuit was an epic dog for children to be around. She loved endless games of fetch, and lived for moments when we would sneak her food under the table. On a couple of occasions, I sat on my brother’s skateboard and held Biscuit’s leash during our walks. Biscuit would quite happily pull me along the path on the skateboard, until she discovered that this gave HER the ability to dictate our speed.
When Biscuit got a little older, she figured out how to crack open the hazelnuts that fell from our trees. She would make a pile in the grass, lie down and proceed to crack open and devour each nut one-by-one. Since my job was harvesting the hazelnuts, this got me in quite a bit of trouble.
Biscuit was so loyal it became a problem in summer, when mum cooled off by spending hours in the water. Biscuit couldn’t swim that long, but wouldn’t leave mum. The compromise was teaching our dog to use a boogie board as a raft to keep herself afloat.
Biscuit was a poodle.
Poodles have a reputation for being prissy, proud, spoiled dogs with ridiculous haircuts.
Poodles are one of the oldest breeds of dog. They are an excellent gun dog, working to retrieve birds. There has recently been a resurgence of interest in using poodles for hunting, especially in America where the hunting culture remains strong.
The haircut is invariably one of the biggest criticisms of poodles, but they do not have to look that way. Poodles do need to be groomed regularly; they don’t shed, so without regular haircuts their hair gets too long for them to see and starts to matt. But poodles can be groomed to look like normal dogs, and keeping them closely clipped was always my preference, as they are just as prone to rolling in cow pats as any other breed.
Poodles are ranked just second in trainability, behind the Border collie. They are often champions in obedience competitions. This is a double-edged sword, as they may have a little more initiative than most owners will enjoy during their puppy years.
Poodles ARE proud; once my stepdad gave Biscuit a silly haircut to get the hair out of her eyes and made her look like a Womble (If you don’t know what a Womble is, you’re missing out). When we laughed at her, she got embarrassed and hid under the dining room table for the rest of the day.
Many of the traits of poodles are desirable to us; ease of training, lack of shedding, and the proud, cheeky personality that results in hilarious behaviours. Given that 40% of homes in Australia have dogs, you might expect poodles to be quite popular. Instead, we have developed an obsession with breeding other dogs with poodles. Laboradoodles are basically their own breed now, but there are also spoodles, cavoodles, cockapoos, moodles and groodles to name a few.
Obviously, we like the poodle, but don’t want to be associated with that pesky p-word and a silly haircut. The word ‘Poodle’ has power; people have been taught to associate it with an undesirable dog.
Clearly I’m a sucker for punishment; as well as being a supporter of the poodle, I study and am a fan of rats. If poodles are unpopular, than rats are really unpopular.
I can spend half an hour telling my best rat stories. I can explain that there are 613 species of rat in the world, most of which are critically important parts of their ecosystems, and need protecting, conservation and care to survive. I can point out that some native Australian rats really don’t look or act that differently from Bandicoots, and we love bandicoots! No matter how hard I work at convincing people rats are cool, most often what I get is a, ‘But their tails are just so gross’.
Last year, there was a lot of media coverage about the mosaic-tailed rat going extinct from a small island called Bramble-Cay, due to increasing sea levels and increasing severity and frequency of storms. The media wanted people to care about this rat, so they didn’t call it a rat. They used part of its Latin name, and referred to it as the bramble-cay Melomys.
We interact with the world based on the labels we assign to things. Whilst these labels are generally useful in helping us to make quick decisions, what do we do when they represent a concept we are encouraged to dislike? Do we change the name, or attempt some sort of cultural rebranding? What do we do when the letters R-A-T strike disinterest and disgust into the heart, but rats form a critical part of a healthy planet?
I can win people over to poodles with stories about hazelnuts and silly haircuts, because at the end of the day a poodle is a dog, and people love dogs. When a label becomes almost irreconcilably negative, how do we win people over?