At least eight firefighters peered down at the manhole. Two of them gripped its weighty metal cover, which had been pried open with heavy-duty tools. A man wearing a black tactical vest and thick gloves knelt on the ground, focused intently on the situation before him.
The emergency? A rotund rat that still hadn’t shed those pesky winter pounds was found Sunday afternoon in the German town of Bensheim firmly wedged in an opening in the manhole cover — and it was having a full-blown freakout.
Squeaking shrilly, the chunky critter tried everything it could to escape its unfortunate position, wriggling its furry brown body from side to side and furiously kicking its hind legs, but nothing appeared to work. The rat was stuck, and would probably remain that way unless it got some help.
Enter rescue workers from a local animal nonprofit, Berufstierrettung Rhein Neckar, and an entire group of volunteer firefighters.
The elaborate operation to free the rat — documented in more than 20 photos shared to Facebook and a five-minute YouTube video — has gone viral this week, making headlines worldwide as many have delighted in the compassion shown toward an animal usually regarded as a pest.
“We don’t make any difference between animals,” Andreas Steinbach, a spokesman for the animal rescue organization, told The Washington Post Wednesday. “We don’t kill animals, we rescue them.”
It began with a call. Children had discovered the distressed rat trapped in a manhole cover and two rescuers were dispatched to the scene, Steinbach said. But when they arrived at the town, located about 50 miles south of Frankfurt, the volunteers soon realized getting the rat unstuck was far more complex than simply pulling it out.
“The rat had quite a lot of winter fat and got stuck on its hips — nothing was going forward and nothing back,” Michael Sehr, one of the rescuers, told the German news agency DPA on Monday, according to Deutsche Welle.
Backup was needed.
In video of the rescue that had been watched more than 895,000 times as of early Wednesday, the rat’s cries pierce the air as it desperately tries to free itself.
“It’s okay, girl,” the person filming is heard saying in English. Moments later, about eight firefighters round the corner, striding purposefully toward the manhole.
After some brief discussion and an assessment of the situation, the group gets to work.
A pole with an adjustable loop at the end is used to secure the squirming rat. A firefighter equipped with a crowbar-like tool lifts the heavy manhole cover and two others place black blocks beneath it to keep it raised. All the while, the imprisoned animal continues screeching.
Several attempts are made to push the rat out from behind, but it hardly budges. Then, the cover is repositioned to be perpendicular to the ground, allowing the rescuer to come at the rat from a better angle.
More gentle maneuvering follows until, suddenly, the rat pops free, its full girth on display as it dangles from the pole.
Despite the harrowing liberation, which took approximately 30 minutes, the portly creature was completely unharmed, Steinbach said. He added that the rat was released back into the wild shortly after.
The mission’s success prompted the children who had made the initial call to present a token of appreciation to the rescuers: a drawing of a brown rat surrounded by hearts. “Danke!,” or thank you, a note on the illustration reads.
But Steinbach said the children weren’t the only grateful ones. Before scurrying off, the rat also appeared to take a moment to thank the group.
It “took a small look back,” Steinbach said, as if to “say thank you very much, and yes, I know I have to do a diet.”
On Facebook, the photos of the rescue had more than 4,500 reactions as of early Wednesday. Hundreds of commenters thanked the organization and the firefighters, praising them for showing so much kindness. The rescue soon became a trending moment on Twitter.
“So shines a good deed in a weary world,” one person wrote. “Thank you for the compassion.”
Another person commented: “Thank you for saving this little rat. Rats are misunderstood creatures. They are loving and intelligent.”
It didn’t take long for the plump rat to attract fans.
“We love a chubby queen,” a BuzzFeed News article proclaimed.
Others related to the rat’s predicament.
“We are all fat rat,” one Twitter user wrote.
Steinbach said he has no idea why this particular rescue — the organization made more than 2,500 in the past year — went viral.
“For us, it was a normal day,” he said.
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