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RATS Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants
By ROBERT SULLIVAN
BLOOMSBURY Copyright © 2004 Robert Sullivan
All right reserved. ISBN: 1-58234-385-3
Chapter One NATURE
WHEN I WROTE the following account of my experiences with rats, I lived in an apartment building on a block filled with other apartment buildings, amidst the approximately eight million people in New York City, and I paid rent to a landlord that I never actually met-though I did meet the superintendent, who was a very nice guy. At this moment, I am living out of the city, away from the masses, in a bucolic little village with about the same number of inhabitants as my former city block. I wouldn't normally delve into my own personal matters, except that when I mention my rat experiences to people, they sometimes think I took extraordinary measures to investigate them, and I didn't. All I did was stand in an alley-a filth-slicked little alley that is about as old as the city and secret the way alleys are secret and yet just a block or two from Wall Street, from Broadway, and from what used to be the World Trade Center. All I did was take a spot next to the trash and wait and watch, rain or no rain, night after night, and always at night, the time when, generally speaking, humans go to sleep and rats come alive.
Why rats? Why rats in an alley? Why anything at all in a place that is, let's face it, so disgusting? One answer is proximity. Rats live in the world precisely where man lives, which is, needless to say, where I live. Rats have conquered every continent that humans have conquered, mostly with the humans' aid, and the not-so-epic-seeming story of rats is close to one version of the epic story of man: when they arrive as immigrants to a newfound land, rats push out the creatures that have preceded them, multiply to such an extent as to stretch resources to the limit, consume their way toward famine-a point at which they decline, until, once again, they are forced to fight, wander, or die. Rats live in man's parallel universe, surviving on the effluvia of human society; they eat our garbage. I think of rats as our mirror species, reversed but similar, thriving or suffering in the very cities where we do the same. If the presence of a grizzly bear is the indicator of the wildness of an area, the range of unsettled habitat, then a rat is an indicator of the presence of man. And yet, despite their situation, rats are ignored or destroyed but rarely studied, disparaged but never described.
I see that I am like one person out alone in the woods when it comes to searching out the sublime as it applies to the rat in the city. Among my guidebooks to nature, there is no mention of the wild rat, and if there is, the humans that write the books call them invaders, despised, abhorred, disgusting-a creature that does not merit its own coffee-table book. Here is the author of a beautiful collection of photographs and prose joyously celebrating the mammals of North America as he writes about rats: "There comes a time when even the most energetic of animal lovers must part ways with the animal kingdom." He goes on: "No matter how much you like animals there is nothing good to say about these creatures ..." It is the very ostracism of the rat, its exclusion from the pantheon of natural wonders, that makes it appealing to me, because it begs the question: who are we to decide what is natural and what is not?
What makes me most interested in rats is what I think of as our common habitat-or the propensity that I share with rats toward areas where no cruise ships go, areas that have been deemed unenjoyable, aesthetically bankrupt, gross or vile. I am speaking of swamps and dumps and dumps that were and still are swamps and dark city basements that are close to the great hidden waters of the earth, waters that often smell or stink. I am speaking, of course, of alleys-or even any place or neighborhood that might have what is commonly referred to as a "rat problem," a problem that often has less to do with the rat and more to do with man. Rats will always be the problem. Rats command a perverse celebrity status-nature's mobsters, flora and fauna's serial killers-because of their situation, because of their species-destroying habits, and because of their disease-carrying ability-especially their ability to carry the plague, which, during the Black Death of the Middle Ages, killed a third of the human population of Europe, something people remember, even though at the time people didn't know that rats had anything to do with all the panic, fear, and death.
In fact, in New York City, the bulk of rats live in quiet desperation, hiding beneath the table of man, under stress, skittering in fear, under siege by larger rats. Which brings me to my experiment: I went to the rat-filled alley to see the life of a rat in the city, to describe its habits and its habitat, to know a little about the place where it makes its home and its relationship to the very nearby people. To know the rat is to know its habitat, and to know the habitat of the rat is to know the city. I passed four seasons in the alley, though it was not a typical year by any definition. As it happened, shortly after I went downtown, the World Trade Center was destroyed. That fall, New York itself became an organism, an entity attacked and off-balance, a system of millions of people, many of whom were scared and panicked-a city that itself was trying to adapt, to stay alive. Eventually, New York regained its balance, and I went about my attempt to see the city from the point of view of its least revered inhabitants. And in the end-after seeing the refuse streams, the rat-infested dwellings, after learning about the old rat fights and learning all that I could learn from rat exterminators and after briefly traveling off from my alley to hear about rats all over America-I believe this is what I saw.
For most of my life, however, my interest in rats had remained relatively idle, until the day I stumbled on a painting of rats by one of the patron saints of American naturalists, John James Audubon. Audubon famously documented the birds of North America in their natural habitat-drawn from nature was his trademark-and he next did the same for mammals, even the rat, or in this case several rats in a barn, stealing a chicken's egg. As I investigated the painting, I learned that Audubon had researched rats for months, and that in 1839 in New York City, where he lived during the last years of his life, he hunted rats along the waterfront. (He wrote the mayor and received permission "to shoot Rats at the Battery early in the morning, so as not to expose the inhabitants in the vicinity to danger ...") In other words, Audubon was not just a Representative Man out of the American past whose legacy inspired American conservationists and environmentalists, not just some Emersonian model, but also a guy who spent time in New York City walking around downtown looking for rats.
I read more about Audubon. I read that he was born in what is now the Dominican Republic. I read that he turned to painting late in life after failing as a businessman, and that after traveling all over the continent to finish The Birds of North America he moved to New York, living first downtown, then up on what is today 157th Street, in a neighborhood that is coincidentally now settled by people from the Dominican Republic-coincidence is the stuff of ratting! I read that he fished in the Hudson River. I read that his eyesight eventually went, that shortly thereafter he began singing a French children's song over and over and eventually died. His home was left to rot away and was finally paved over. The more I read of Audubon, the more I felt a desire to study the rat in its urban habitat, to draw the rat in nature.
One day, I got on the subway and took a trip uptown. I went to Trinity Cemetery on 155th Street and saw the tall, animal-covered Celtic cross on Audubon's grave, and then, with old maps, I tried to figure out where his house would have been. Finally, I found the lot, unmarked; it had apparently once been on a gentle hill sloping toward the river, but now it was a hole, a three-story-deep pit, surrounded by two tall apartment buildings, and an elevated highway. When I looked away from the hole, the view was breathtakingly panoramic and Hudson River-filled. And when I got my binoculars out and looked down into the site, I could see the dozens of tennis-ball-size burrows that are more commonly referred to as rat holes.
Chapter Two THE CITY RAT
BUT ENOUGH ABOUT YOU, I think I hear the reader protesting. What B about rats? And so, as I arise from my selfishness to describe the wild rat of New York City, the object of this nature experiment, I begin by noting that when it comes to rats, men and women labor under a lot of misinformation-errors inspired, it seems to me, by their own fears, by their own mental rat profiles rather than any earth-based facts. So, with this in mind, I offer a brief introductory sketch of the particular species of rat that runs wild in New York-Rattus norvegicus, aka the Norway or brown rat. I offer a portrait that is hysteria-free, that merely describes the rat as a rat.
A rat is a rodent, the most common mammal in the world. Rattus norvegicus is one of the approximately four hundred different kinds of rodents, and it is known by many names, each of which describes a trait or a perceived trait or sometimes a habitat: the earth rat, the roving rat, the barn rat, the field rat, the migratory rat, the house rat, the sewer rat, the water rat, the wharf rat, the alley rat, the gray rat, the brown rat, and the common rat. The average brown rat is large and stocky; it grows to be approximately sixteen inches long from its nose to its tail-the size of a large adult human male's foot-and weighs about a pound, though brown rats have been measured by scientists and exterminators at twenty inches and up to two pounds. The brown rat is sometimes confused with the black rat, or Rattus rattus, which is smaller and once inhabited New York City and all of the cities of America but, since Rattus norvegicus pushed it out, is now relegated to a minor role. (The two species still survive alongside each other in some Southern coastal cities and on the West Coast, in places like Los Angeles, for example, where the black rat lives in attics and palm trees.) The black rat is always a very dark gray, almost black, and the brown rat is gray or brown, with a belly that can be light gray, yellow, or even a pure-seeming white. One spring, beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, I saw a red-haired brown rat that had been run over by a car. Both pet rats and laboratory rats are Rattus norvegicus, but they are not wild and therefore, I would emphasize, not the subject of this book. Sometimes pet rats are called fancy rats. But if anyone has picked up this book to learn about fancy rats, then they should put this book down right away; none of the rats mentioned herein are at all fancy.
Rats are nocturnal, and out in the night the brown rat's eyes are small and black and shiny; when a flashlight shines into them in the dark, the eyes of a rat light up like the eyes of a deer. Though it forages in darkness, the brown rat has poor eyesight. It makes up for this with, first of all, an excellent sense of smell. Rats often bite young children and infants on the face because of the smell of food residues on the children. (Many of the approximately 50,000 people bitten by rats every year are children.) They have an excellent sense of taste, detecting the most minute amounts of poison, down to one part per million. A brown rat has strong feet, the two front paws each equipped with four clawlike nails, the rear paws even longer and stronger. It can run and climb with squirrel-like agility. It is an excellent swimmer, surviving in rivers and bays, in sewer streams and toilet bowls.
The brown rat's teeth are yellow, the front two incisors being especially long and sharp, like buckteeth. When the brown rat bites, its front two teeth spread apart. When it gnaws, a flap of skin plugs the space behind its incisors. Hence, when the rat gnaws on indigestible materials-concrete or steel, for example-the shavings don't go down the rat's throat and kill it. Its incisors grow at a rate of five inches per year. Rats always gnaw, and no one is certain why-there are few modern rat studies. It is sometimes erroneously stated that the rat gnaws solely to limit the length of its incisors, which would otherwise grow out of its head, but this is not the case: the incisors wear down naturally. In terms of hardness, the brown rat's teeth are stronger than aluminum, copper, lead, and iron. They are comparable to steel. With the alligator-like structure of their jaws, rats can exert a biting pressure of up to seven thousand pounds per square inch. Rats, like mice, seem to be attracted to wires-to utility wires, computer wires, wires in vehicles, in addition to gas and water pipes. One rat expert theorizes that wires may be attractive to rats because of their resemblance to vines and the stalks of plants; cables are the vines of the city. By one estimate, 26 percent of all electric-cable breaks and 18 percent of all phone-cable disruptions are caused by rats. According to one study, as many as 25 percent of all fires of unknown origin are rat-caused. Rats chew electrical cables. Sitting in a nest of tattered rags and newspapers, in the floorboards of an old tenement, a rat gnaws the head of a match-the lightning in the city forest.
When it is not gnawing or feeding on trash, the brown rat digs. Anywhere there is dirt in a city, brown rats are likely to be digging-in parks, in flowerbeds, in little dirt-poor backyards. They dig holes to enter buildings and to make nests. Rat nests can be in the floorboards of apartments, in the waste-stuffed corners of subway stations, in sewers, or beneath old furniture in basements. "Cluttered and unkempt alleyways in cities provide ideal rat habitat, especially those alleyways associated with food-serving establishments," writes Robert Corrigan in Rodent Control, a pest control manual. "Alley rats can forage safely within the shadows created by the alleyway, as well as quickly retreat to the safety of cover in these narrow channels." Often, rats burrow under concrete sidewalk slabs. Entrance to a typical under-the-sidewalk rat's nest is gained through a two-inch-wide hole-their skeletons collapse and they can squeeze into a hole as small as three quarters of an inch wide, the average width of their skull. This tunnel then travels about a foot down to where it widens into a nest or den. The den is lined with soft debris, often shredded plastic garbage or shopping bags, but sometimes even grasses or plants; some rat nests have been found stuffed with the gnawed shavings of the wood-based, spring-loaded snap traps that are used in attempts to kill them.
Excerpted from RATS by ROBERT SULLIVAN Copyright © 2004 by Robert Sullivan. Excerpted by permission.
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