In early August of this year, my partner and I took a much needed vacation to South Padre Island. While visiting, we decided to go snorkeling in Laguna Madre, one of only six hypersaline lagoons in the world. We saw many small fish, lots of large black drums, maybe a barracuda, and tons of hermit crabs. However, one creature that we were not expecting to run into, more than a quarter mile from the shore was a rat.
As we were snorkeling, head down, and focused on the aquatic wildlife, I heard my partner call out. I heard what she said but my brain would not acknowledge the logic of it. “There’s a rat!” I heard her call out to me. I quickly swam over to see what this “rat” business was all about, sure that I simply misheard what she was saying through her snorkel.
Lo and behold, there was a young rat struggling to stay above the water, periodically sinking back in before struggling back up to the surface. I immediately decided that I had to help this little rat and so I dove to the bottom of the lagoon and grabbed a disused scallop shell. I situated the rat on the shell, holding them above water, and swimming towards the nearest shore, a quarter mile away.
The little rat sat on the shell, holding on to the edge while I swam my hardest towards the shore. While swimming, I had to contend with the sea grass that populates the lagoon. Laguna Madre is home to 80% of the sea grass in Texas and is protected. Much of the lagoon is quite shallow and so I got to a point where I could no longer swim without scraping the bottom. This was also a good opportunity to rest.
As I was resting the little rat began to doze off on the shell and at one point, decided it would be a good idea to climb up my arm. I reminded the rat that this was not part of the agreement and relocated them back to the shell.
As an aside, I could not help but think of the little rat as Ariel from the Little Mermaid as it rode on a scallop shell.
My partner offered to take over some of the swim since she was able to continue swimming despite the lack of depth. Of course, only a few meters past where I stopped, the water got deeper again.
Nonetheless, my partner completed the swim, returning the rat to the shore. They sat, exhausted on the shore for several minutes, cleaning themselves. I made them a little shelter out of palm bark that had washed up on the shore and the rat escaped the heat of the sun in their new, temporary home. Of course, I have no idea what became of the rat and have often thought of them since their ordeal.
As an anthropologist who specializes in multispecies relations, I think that the experience illustrates the importance of participating in the more-than-human world. There is an abundance of historical rhetoric that paints rats as villains. Lady and the Tramp (to keep with the Disney theme) comes to mind immediately but rats were central figures in Black Death (the second plague pandemic) as hosts to the fleas that spread the microbe.
Certainly the rat posed more immediate danger as I could have been bitten by the rat, potentially causing all sorts of problems. However, the moment presented a moral quandary where I had to chose between letting the rat drown and thus die, or find a way to assist the rat and prevent their immediate death. I obviously chose the latter and found a way to adopt some risk while mitigating it as much as I could given the circumstances.
Through my actions, I was able to communicate that I was there to help in a way that the rat could comprehend. To participate in a more-than-human world means accepting the myriad of ways that other beings communicate and understand the world and attempting to meet them on their terms. Doing so requires a certain attentiveness that situates the actor within an assemblage of other subjects. I am glad to have helped this little rat and hope it lives a long, fruitful life in the South Padre paradise.