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Misunderstood: Why the Humble Rat May Be Your Best Pet Ever


Misunderstood: Why the Humble Rat May Be Your Best Pet Ever

MISUNDERSTOOD is Rachel Toor’s extensive tribute to the domesticated rat (Rattus norvegicus), which is arguably the most underrated companion pet of all time.
This nonfiction book ponders the seemingly simple question: why exactly do rats have such a bad reputation? Answering this question turns out to be quite complicated. Toor attempts to explore every potential avenue, drawing from history, psychology and several areas of biology. She considers the significance of shape, color, mannerisms and various cultural factors, while providing fun facts about the adaptive nature of these traits. Toor adds additional credibility to her case by paying homage to some of the most endearing scientific findings regarding rats (e.g., they laugh when they are tickled and are likely to rescue a friend in need). Broader topics of cuteness, domestication and media portrayal are also touched upon.

"MISUNDERSTOOD exemplifies the concepts of being empathic and curious about those who are seemingly different from us."

MISUNDERSTOOD provides a strong argument in favor of these sophisticated rodents, not merely for its scientific rigor, but for its relatability. The book is infused with Toor’s autobiographical anecdotes regarding her former pet rat, Iris. She recounts Iris’s profound role in her professional, personal and social endeavors. The events she describes illustrate larger human (and non-human) themes of adventure, friendship, love, loss and everything in between. Although the book feels a bit tangential at times, Toor always manages to circle back to the central theme of why rats are at least on par with (if not superior to) your typical mammalian companion. Toward the end of the book, when Toor describes her current furry friend (Helen the dog), she is quick to point out: “I love that dog. But I really missed having a rat.”
It’s highly unlikely that the average rat-detesting reader won’t be nudged even the tiniest bit by MISUNDERSTOOD’s arguments. However, in the improbable case that, by the end of the book, the reader has not at least gained some respect (if not awe and affection) for the rat, then they can rest assured that they will have learned a plethora of intriguing facts. Even pre-existing rat experts are likely to gain a vast amount of new knowledge. Toor’s description of other rat lovers she has met along the way --- from photographers to rescuers to breeders to researchers --- are also likely to bring a smile to one’s face. Substantial focus is placed on the development of not just individual characters but the relationships that occur between them. Toor’s own interactions with Iris are meaningfully recounted. But perhaps the most rewarding relationship development occurs between Iris and Toor’s mother, who gradually form an unexpected healing bond.
Toor’s writing conveys a sense of humor, authenticity and enthusiasm. The reader can’t help but get roped into her often whimsical tales. Although there is no unified plot to the book (but rather, a broad theme or series of narratives), Toor’s direct language allows the reader to stay grounded in the meaning of her arguments. The slight irreverence that often creeps onto the page is likely to resonate particularly well with teens, although the book can easily be enjoyed by adults. The only times Toor’s irreverence is somewhat questionable is when she makes recurring (albeit joking) criticisms of other rodents. She seems to especially have it out for hamsters, who she refers to as, “porky terrorists from the Mideast who look cute and cuddly, but are short, nasty, and brutish creatures.” Although her point, that rats are often underrated compared to other rodents, is apparent, there is some irony in attempting to do justice to a historically misunderstood and criticized species of rodent at the expense of criticizing another species.

Overall, MISUNDERSTOOD exemplifies the concepts of being empathic and curious about those who are seemingly different from us. It has the potential to make a huge difference in the lives of young adults, even if they do not join rat fan clubs after reading the book (although how couldn’t they?).

Reviewed by Elizabeth Corley on June 24, 2016

Misunderstood: Why the Humble Rat May Be Your Best Pet Ever
by Rachel Toor

  • Publication Date: June 7, 2016
  • Genres: Animals , Nonfiction, Young Adult 12+
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
  • ISBN-10: 0374303088
  • ISBN-13: 9780374303082