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Imagine from birth you are taught that all life matters, no matter how small. From the enormous elephants to the tiny mice, it is immoral to harm them. A person of this culture would rather die to a wild bear or wolf pack than to take an animal's life. They believe that humans are mere observers and scientists of the world and that their purpose does not include the murder of any multi-cellular organism outside of nutritional needs.

But, like all people, they need to eat. And to eat in winter means to store food. And where there is stored food, there will always be something trying to eat it, like rats. The problem is, they can't kill the rats. No poison, no traps, nothing even remotely harmful. But while a person could not morally kill the rats, the rats have no problem eating all of the food and starving a village.

So how would a person of this culture get rid of the rats? Could they export them to wild sanctuaries? Keep them as pets? Train the wild rats to eat special rat food instead of human food?

The solution cannot involve any environmental damage or organismal damage. So you can't take the rats out of their natural habitat. Any ideas?

Clarifications:

  • Morally grey answers are ok. For example, keeping food away from rats could also starve them. However, this is all part of nature, so it is fine
  • Some animals are allowed to live within a city, like a cat, because they can help control pest populations. However, they are not pets and move freely between the city and the wilds
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    $\begingroup$ Ask a group of moral vegetarians (people who refuse to eat meat because they don't like to kill). We have them in the real world. Also, naturalist used to be a synonym for nudist, which would redefine your question. :) $\endgroup$
    – NomadMaker
    Jan 22, 2021 at 17:38
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    $\begingroup$ would it be immoral for these people to let other animals kill the rats? Crazy-cat-lady-village-style? $\endgroup$ Jan 22, 2021 at 17:45
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    $\begingroup$ A naturalist is, usually, a person who studies nature; for example, Charles Darwin was a naturalist. The word does not mean "superstitious person who believes all life is holy", ever. A naturalist society is either a scientific society dedicated to the study of nature, or a charity dedicated to conservation of natural environments and education; for example, the famous Audubon Naturalist Society in the USA. (And anyway, the question states that they are allowed to kill the rats on condition they eat them; and roasted rat is good to eat.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 22, 2021 at 18:01
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    $\begingroup$ What is the technology level? In the modern era I have no need to kill rats and crows to keep them breaking into my fridge and cupboards. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Jan 22, 2021 at 18:10
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    $\begingroup$ Envieronmentalists does not mean "opposed to killing." Lots of environment management programs involve killing invasive species or to reduce the population of native species that have become too large(outsideonline.com/2262681/…). I suggest that you use a better term. $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Jan 22, 2021 at 19:28

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As others have mentioned, you didn't specify the technology available to your "naturalists." Luckily, this is a problem with many non-lethal solutions and we need only look to history to find them. Even at a very low tech level there are a several options.

Hang It Up

Just hang your food in wooden crates (or other hard-walled containers) by ropes, cables or chains. If you have trouble with rats climbing your supports, grease the poles and the rope/cable/chain. This is akin to real-life safe food storage while camping and works for critters of all sizes.

Use Scent

Store your food in an area with something that smells repulsive to rats, just like how we use mothballs (naphtha) for deterring moths from eating wool and linen. Or, if you have the ability to manufacture airtight storage, it will drastically reduce the chances the rats ever find your food to begin with.

Use Taste

Store your food in a sack inside a wood crate coated with a strong (non-toxic) bitterant. Even wood that rats can chew through can be stored on the ground with this treatment, because they will not want to touch the stuff. Works for larger critters, too.

Use Materials

Just build metal chests to store your food in. Lock it with a padlock. No more rat problem. If metal is scarce, you can use stone boxes or simple clay pots with heavy lids, as people have done for millennia. Image c/o Art Institute of Chicago.

Ancient Greek Amphora

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    $\begingroup$ Note rats can still gnaw through pottery. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 22, 2021 at 19:08
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The way I see it, you have several options.

Let nature do the work

This may not be an option for the villagers, as they might consider it immoral. If they don't, then getting pets such as cats, dogs, or hunting birds would be a semi-safe solution to the problem. However, pets may not be a thing in their culture, as it would go beyond "observing" the world, and especially hunting birds would likely not be domesticated.

Store the food inaccessible to the rats

This means either a solid locked room with metal boxes or the like. You could also fortify your storage building, such as by building a trench or a wall around it. Notably, rats (at least some species) can swim, and they're good climbers. Thus, the trench would need to have very smooth walls (such as glass), which the rats wouldn't be able to climb. Of course, this would require cleaning the wall regular so that it stays smooth, and it may be tricky depending on the village's level of technology. Do bear in mind that rats can also dig, so a mere wall would likely not stop them, as they'd just burrow beneath.

A trench with half a meter of water or more (burrowing underwater should at least be more difficult), and a smooth wall on the storage room's side should be fairly effective at preventing rats from getting in.

Illustration (the slanted side is to make sure the rats don't drown, which would likely violate the villagers' beliefs):

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ rats can still get in however humans are getting in. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 22, 2021 at 19:06
  • $\begingroup$ @John I'd like to see rats operate a drawbridge or something like that ^^ Unless the rat from Ratatouille is around, that's going to prove difficult. $\endgroup$ Jan 23, 2021 at 0:20
  • $\begingroup$ Good answer; you could also add things like bear bags (hang food from trees, with unclimbable ropes as are used to squirrel-proof bird feeders. $\endgroup$
    – arp
    Jan 23, 2021 at 1:52
  • $\begingroup$ @arp probably not great for protection against weather, though. $\endgroup$ Jan 23, 2021 at 2:42
  • $\begingroup$ @PixelMaster a rat does not need to operate a draw bridge to cross one. Consider how common rats were on ships $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 23, 2021 at 4:47
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It's all good if you eat the rats.

According to the question, humans' purpose "does not include the murder of any multi-cellular organism outside of nutritional needs". It seems that the murder of multicellular plants is just fine, though, so long as it is done to satisfy nutritional needs. By the same logic, killing rats is OK, so long as you eat them afterwards. This doesn't really work if there's a hierarchy of life that puts animals above plants, but if all multicellular life is truly created equal, killing a rat and eating it is morally equivalent to killing a stalk of wheat and eating it.

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    $\begingroup$ "From the enormous elephants to the tiny mice, it is immoral to harm them. A person of this culture would rather die to a wild bear or wolf pack than to take an animal's life." I think the "nutritional needs" part was badly phrased, I don't think this society would kill animals for food. $\endgroup$ Jan 22, 2021 at 18:26
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    $\begingroup$ @PixelMaster The question also mentions that "all life matters" and that these beliefs extend to "any multicellular organism". I agree this may not be what the OP actually intended, but as written, I don't see a distinction that makes eating a rat any more taboo than eating an apple. Killing anything is immoral, whether it's a bug, a rat, a person, or a plant. $\endgroup$ Jan 22, 2021 at 18:34
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Cat Urine.

Spray real or synthesized cat urine around the food storage sites. The scent will keep rats out of your grain silos. I am sure other pests can be persuaded in similar ways.

Of course the easiest way to access a lot of cat urine is to own a lot of cats. Or just introduce cats into the area and let them run wild. Some cats will remain in the city to eat the rats that arrive to eat the people food. Nothing unnatural about the circle of life and all that.

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  1. They could use the nature to deal with them and let the nature do the work. Snakes and eagles and owls eat rats iirc.
  2. Build better storage for food. I don't know the level of technology you have on your world but there are other ways to avoid rats other than killing or harming them, if there's none, they probably should start thinking on developing something. Here are some ways to deal with rats without poison
  3. Train dogs to keep rats away
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Option 1-use traps: just like there are traps that kill rats, there are traps that...trap them. Trap the rats, put them in a carriage and send them away....except taking them anywhere other than their own habitat is against your rules, plus can you imagine how expensive it'd be to maintain a rat sanctuary? If you're taking care of them like that you might as well make enough food for them and yourself and just invest on storage compartments which rats can't invade.

"but there's way too many rats and/or we have nowhere to take them because it goes against our laws, what will we do?" well my friend, that calls for population control, and if you can't kill someone or something yourself, leave the job for someone who can. If you think this is immoral, you're forgetting that letting herbivores thrive without any kind of population control is how you tear a food web apart.

Option 2- cats and birds: several animals help control rodent population:cats, birds of prey, chickens and others. If you need the rats gone, just start raising a bunch of these animals and leave them roaming around, especially near places you know rats frequent the most. Even if they don't kill all the rats, the rats will learn that the supposed feast of a village they've been visiting is actually a place for other things to eat, and rat is on the menu. You can also just trap the rats and put them in places specifically made to contain your cats, chickens and/or falcons, they need to eat too after all.

"but we have no/don't want to use any animals that can help control the rat population and we can't kill them ourselves". Well, I'm afraid you're starting to run out of options which can be considered moral. Right now to reduce the rat population you either kill the rats yourself (rat traps, venom, biological warfare, no matter the method) or trap a bunch of them in a room until they solve the problem themselves with a desperate dietary change involving rat meat.

I don't know what you mean by "organismal damage", but if what you mean is "you can't do anything to the rat population which involves any of them dying in any way", then my friend there's only 1 option: let the people starve this winter and account for the rats when getting the food stored for next year's winter. Because at this point you might as well say that not feeding the rats risks allowing some to die during the winter, meaning making storage systems they can't invade can be seen as technically immoral to your people. it's also highly unlikely they'd be able to turn every single rat into a pet (aka capture every single wild rat), meaning population control via preventing them from breeding is also a no go.

Summing up: the more extreme you are on ensuring no animal dies, the less options you have. If they have no qualms with the differing nature (and diet) of other beings, make sure to have lots of animals that eat rats around and make storage compartments the rats can't get in. If they're extreme on keeping everything alive to the point of not allowing for their own animals to hunt other animals, just feed the rats. If someone starves because other animals ate all the food and you didn't stop them because of your beliefs, that's just paying the price of having extreme ideals.

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