Someone told me recently that rats pair off for life and that male rats are closely involved in the care of their young. The term ‘love-rat’ turns out to be poorly chosen. Rats are faithful husbands and conscientious dads.
Another animal I’ve always thought we’ve got wrong is the wolf. Countless fairytales have encouraged us to think of wolves as dark, sinister, uncontrollably violent. We use the words wolfish, vulpine. And when we imagine wolves in human form they are savage and murderous.
But why? On what evidence?
I’ve sometimes thought of writing a story in which a real wolf-man is created with the body and intelligence of a human, but the instincts and drives of a wild wolf. To everyone’s disappointment, he turns out to be a mild-mannered, comformist creature, anxious to please, concerned about his social standing and willing to do what he’s told.
Wolves are social, hierarchical creatures, after all. Their desires and priorities are like our own. It’s not a coincidence that they’re the ancestors of our best-loved pet. With added intelligence and a human body, wolf-man is pretty much an average bloke.
But in my story there’s also a bear-man, and he’s another thing entirely. Having the instincts of a solitary hunter, he has no need for company of any kind, except for occasional sex, and cares nothing at all for what people think of him. In my story, bear-man is capable of calculation and learning, and so assumes some sort of veneer of human-ness because he perceives it to be in his interests to do so, but beneath it he remains utterly unreachable and entirely cold. A truly scary being.
Oddly enough, though, the bear is much more positive figure in human culture than the wolf. Think of Winnie the Pooh, Paddington, Baloo, Yogi, and try and find even one wolf equivalent. Bears are seldom the villain in stories, in spite of the fact that killings of humans by bears, unlike killings by wolves, really do quite regularly occur.
Is it their very similarity to us that makes wolves our animal of choice when we want to project our violent impulses onto some other creature?
(We’ve got more than a little in common with rats too: versatile omnivores which have managed to spread themselves across most of the planet.)