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“Low down Dirty Rat”: Popular and Moral Responses to Possums and Rats in Melbourne

Siobhan O’Sullivan, Barbara Creed, Jenny Gray


Possums and rats are both found in large numbers in the city of Melbourne, Australia. The two species share much in common, including an ability to flourish among humans and a predisposition for building nests in houses and eating food and plants intended for humans. Yet despite numerous similarities possums and rats are afforded strikingly different levels of protection before the law. The death of a possum must be justified and carried out painlessly. The same does not apply to rats, who may be exterminated freely and in ways that are painful. Considered from the perspective of the principle of “unnecessary suffering” we find that such inconsistent treatment is difficult to justify. We find that the rat’s historical association with disease may account for some of our animosity towards the species. Popular culture, which accords favorable treatment to possums and adopts contradictory attitudes to rats, appears to influence our attitudes in important ways. Our study does not demonstrate one way or the other whether rats are often used to represent undesirable characteristics because many humans have an aversion to them, or whether we have an aversion to them because of the cultural messages that encourage us to perceive of rats as abject. Rather, our conclusion is that human cruelty to animals is contradictory and irrational and that when another species potentially threatens human lives and human self-interest we react brutally and without due consideration.


Possums, rats, animal welfare, ethics, law, popular culture, cruelty, disease, necessary suffering, Possum Magic

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.7358/rela-2014-002-osul

Copyright (©) 2018 Siobhan O’Sullivan, Barbara Creed, Jenny Gray – Editorial format and Graphical layout: copyright (©) LED Edizioni Universitarie

Relations. Beyond Anthropocentrism
Registered by Tribunale di Milano (04/05/2012 n. 211)
Online ISSN 2280-9643 - Print ISSN 2283-3196

Executive Editor: Francesco Allegri
Associate Editor: Matteo Andreozzi 
Review Editors: Sofia Bonicalzi - Eleonora Adorni
Editorial Board:
Ralph R. Acampora - Carol J. Adams - Vilma Baricalla - Luisella Battaglia - Rod Bennison - Matthew R. Calarco - Piergiorgio Donatelli - William Grove-Fanning - Serenella Iovino - Luigi Lombardi Vallauri - Christoph Lumer - Joel MacClellan - Dario Martinelli - Roberto Marchesini - Alma Massaro - Serpil Oppermann - Simone Pollo - Paola Sobbrio - Kim Stallwood - Sabrina Tonutti - Jessica Ullrich - Federico Zuolo

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