What is “cute”?


The other day, a visiting friend gasped when he saw a rat run across a corner of the suburban Connecticut yard where I garden during the week.  I shuddered when he told me.  I could guess what had drawn the creature:  we have a henhouse full of geriatric chickens who are not the neatest of creatures.  Indeed, I found the mouth of a burrow in one end of their run, and I took measures to evict the burrower.  I didn’t hesitate; I know that if the rat proliferates, the neighbors rightfully will complain and the chickens will have to go.

Yet later, as I was pondering this visitation, I spotted a chipmunk sitting in the crotch of the sourwood tree (Oxydendron  arboreum) that tops the tangle of bare-knuckled perennials my wife and I grow in front of our house.  And the unfairness of the situation struck me.  Why is it that the chipmunk, also a rodent, passes as cute, while rats are almost universally hated?

In fact, most of the charges leveled at rats also apply to chipmunks.  For example, chipmunks are disease vectors:  out west they are carriers of plague and here in the east they are among the most dangerous reservoirs of Lyme disease.  Depending on where you live, they may also host leptospirosis, salmonella, hantavirus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, encephalitis, and, of course, rabies.

Chipmunks are less prone to invade our houses, it is true, though they will occasionally gnaw their way into attics.  If cornered, chipmunks, like rats, will bite.

What’s sure is that chipmunks are far more serious than rats as garden pests.  Chipmunks, along with squirrels, are demons for looting new plantings of small bulbs such as crocuses, and like rats, chipmunks are burrowers, creating tunnels that may damage the roots of desirable plants.

When I posed this question to my wife (a level-headed scientist), she responded that chipmunks are cute and that rats, with their pointy noses and hairless tails, are creepy.  That, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.  I had a girlfriend once (yes, before I was married) who was also a scientist and who had adopted a retired laboratory rat.  She adored this creature, who was smart and playful and clearly was attached to her.  I must admit, though, that I never took to it.

I have a neighbor, a retired college professor, whose backyard is shaded by a row of enormous Norway spruces.  One of these became the favored roosting spot for a flock of black vultures.  The vultures were also messy, covering the terrace below the tree with excrement; I think that the professor, a man in his 80’s also found the constant scrutiny of scavengers ominous.  At any rate, he began to annoy the birds with a BB gun, persisting until, after several months, they moved on to another, distant tree.  Would the college professor have responded the same way had his visitors been a flock of bald eagles?

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Thomas Christopher

My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 35 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, which is a tour of the lessons to be learned from that great public garden.  I’m currently focusing on my new podcast (at thomaschristophergardens.com) which features weekly interviews with leaders of environmentally-informed gardening.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.


Contact Tom by email


  1. I love this post! You hit 2 nerves with me: chipmunks and vultures. This year, we have a huge increase in chipmunks on our property. They are cute, but annoying, for all the reasons you said. But they also seem to have partially displaced the ground squirrels that plague our space, which are sooo much more destructive. So yeah, I’ll take the chipmunks over the squirrels, and they are much cuter.

    As for the vultures, specifically turkey vultures, I love those birds. I can watch them soar in the sky forever. They mate for life; I’ve seen them strike Horaltic poses in the early morning sunshine in order to warm their wings, quite a sight. They have an extremely important place in the food chain and cycle of life. Bald eagles are quite a sight too, though.

    Rats? I think they are definitely an acquired taste! Not mine, certainly. but they go wherever humans go.

  2. HA! I once kept a white rat as a pet, which totally creeped out my mom. She particularly disliked the way the hairless tail wrapped around my wrist when I held Plain Jane. I battle rabbits and woodchucks in my garden, and now I think a chipmunk is living under the garden shed. My backyard is a half-hearted wildlife habitat but sometimes the wildlife is a problem.

  3. https://mobile.twitter.com/Interior/status/886968247169536000

    Funny, as the DOI has a picture of some “cute” I just saw, adorable baby peregrine falcons as they put it, and someone has been telling me about some magpies in their neighbors tree pooping messily in their yard.

    Well I think Chipmunks are cute but I have rarely seen them and that rats are not and that the professor would not have responded the same way to bald eagles.

  4. Readers might want to check out the book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals

  5. As someone who lives in a small urban area and learned the hard way about the need for rat-proof compost bins, a big difference between the rat and the chipmunk is the rat’s sociability. It can achieve population densities that are unthinkable for chipmunks. But what’s not cute about a rat? I know there’s the scurrying-about-in-the-dark, living-in-the-sewers thing. But a well-groomed rate is otherwise a furry ball of cuteness.

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