Sewer talk

Son of ferret takes on the unkilled.

There’s an interesting post over on Erik Dams’ blog about a trip of his through the Brussels sewers in the company of two rat catchers, who leave a colleague above-ground in case of emergency. Mobiles don’t work in such a damp environment, so how does Mr Fragrant keep in touch with Messrs Smelly?

“If they’re away for too long I tap with a metal object three times on the manhole cover, a signal they always hear because of the echo in the sewers. It’s also different from the noise made by a passing car, which only touches the cover twice. If everything’s OK then my colleagues also reply with three taps.”
Does he use other signals?
“If there’s a storm then they have to come up as fast as possible. In that case I keep hitting the cover until I’m sure they’re on their way.”

I imagine this to be a dumbo version of how bats communicate with one another, so it’s pleasing to be able to record that names here for “bat” often reflect the notion–usually untrue–that they hunt rats and mice, rather than the standard Latin -> Castilian Mus muris (mouse) + caecus (blind) = murciĆ©lago (bat). The most frequent addition to bat names in Spanish is “ratonero”, which I think means “mouse-hunter” rather than “mouse-like”, and which is sometimes expressed more explicitly as “cat” or (literally) as “mouse-hunter” (translation (cazaratones (PDF)) from Latin in critical edition of Liber contra venena et animalia venenosa, which recommends the same remedies for bats as for cats).
Although Tunisia plays host to at least one mouse hunter, I have never met a rat catcher in Spain or in any other part of the Mediterranean. The environment here is probably too dry to support anything more than mammoth cockroaches, and more interesting examples of these craftsmen at work are to be found in damp, northern Europe (with the exception of Brussels, where nobody does anything).
I’ve already noted that English bats go pork hunting, and here is a rather superior letter from an 18th century rat catcher to one of his clients:

W.m Robertson Esqu Ladikirk Sir This day I re.d yours by reson of not being at Home when hit Came to my hous, and your desire is to Come emmedeately, which is not of my Power to do, for this winter I have been unable to do any kind of wark, and this is the first job I have takin in hand which is some new houses to thach which must be amideatly done and my ferrets are all dead but one young one, so iff it is posable that you Can Let the Rats be unkiled till I be done with this present wark I am now with, I emmedetly will Come and Kill them Sir I am your most obedent Humble Servent George Humble Wooler April 9.th 1796

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