WOODY: Mole rats need love

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A while back there was a story about a gaggle of animal activists who were up in arms over the plight of baby fur seals.

It seems that in certain remote parts of the world, indigenous people don't look at a baby fur seal and see a cute, cuddly little hug-muffin with big, soulful eyes.

They see lunch.

I'm not down on baby fur seals, understand, but I find it interesting that animal activists tend to operate on some sort of cute-o-meter. The cuter the critter, the more angst from the activists.

How come, for example, they don't go equally gaga over the African mole rat?

The African mole rat could use some hugs.  It is one ugly little dude.

It is born naked and hairless and stays that way through life. It has a flat nose and pink wrinkled skin. It has big curved front teeth that it uses for digging, and since it spends its life in underground burrows it has tiny, squinty eyes.

I found a photo of an African mole rat on the internet and it reminded me of the time when I was a little kid and accidentally walked into the bathroom just as my grandmother was getting out of the shower. At least granny could grab a bathrobe. The mole rat can't.

The African mole rat is hardly the Kim Kardashian of the world. It will never have its own show on Animal Planet, or a booth at the Petting Zoo.

We won't see Paris Hilton sashaying down Rodeo Drive with an African mole rat cuddled in her arms. It is not a designer-accessory critter.

But it's a fascinating little fellow, when you get past first impressions.

For example, the mole rat's society is structured along the lines of ants, termites and bees. Only one female, the queen, gets to reproduce, assisted by to one-to-three designated Richard Gere-type guy rats.

The rest of the colony functions as workers. All the workers are sterile (to make sure they don't get any big ideas when serving the queen her tea).

The larger workers serve as guard-rats and the smaller ones are assigned to gather food, maintain the nest, take out the garbage, repair the cable and so on.

Life is hardly a bowl of peaches for any African mole rat, but if you're a sterile little runt worker-rat you're REALLY at the bottom of the totem pole.

If you're the queen I suppose it's an OK life, relatively speaking. The Queen Rat gets to lie around the burrow all day nibbling on worms and grubs and occasionally going to the prom with one of the colony's lucky breeder rats.

And the soldier rats get to march off to battle now and then, gnaw up a neighbor, and hang out at the local EM Club and VFW Hall.

Meanwhile the poor little worker rat trudges through the dark tunnels, bringing the queen grub-worms, emptying the Royal Bedpan, and knowing it'll never get a kiss.

If animal activists really want to come to the aid of a down-trodden species, forget those baby fur seals and adopt African mole rats as their standard-bearer.

They won't do it, of course, because the African mole rat is - let's put it bluntly - ugly.

Even the babies are homely. A species has to be awfully ugly not to at least have cute babies. But African mole rats are born ugly and get uglier with age.

They're not at all like those darling little fur seals, bobbing on ice flows and melting the hearts of animal activists. Don't expect any rat-love from the seal-huggers.

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