Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants

Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants

by Robert Sullivan


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Thoreau went to Walden Pond to live simply in the wild and contemplate his own place in the world by observing nature. Robert Sullivan went to a disused, garbage-filled alley in lower Manhattan to contemplate the city and its lesser-known inhabitants -- by observing the rat. Rats live in the world precisely where humans do; they survive on the effluvia of human society; they eat our garbage. While dispensing gruesomely fascinating rat facts and strangely entertaining rat stories -- everyone has one, it turns out -- Sullivan gets to know not just the beast but its friends and foes: the exterminators, the sanitation workers, the agitators and activists who have played their part in the centuries-old war between human city dweller and wild city rat. With a notebook and night-vision gear, he sits in the streamlike flow of garbage and searches for fabled rat kings, sets out to trap a rat, and eventually travels to the Midwest to learn about rats in Chicago, Milwaukee, and other cities of America. With tales of rat fights in the Gangs of New York era and stories of Harlem rent strike leaders who used rats to win basic rights for tenants, Sullivan looks deep into the largely unrecorded history of the city and its masses -- its herd-of-rats-like mob. Funny, wise, sometimes disgusting yet always compulsively readable, Rats earns its unlikely place alongside the great classics of nature writing.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781582343853
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 04/03/2004
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.17(d)

About the Author

Robert Sullivan is the author of The Meadowlands and A Whale Hunt, both New York Times Notable Books of the Year. He is a contributing editor to Vogue and a longtime contributor to the New Yorker. He lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

Read an Excerpt


Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants


Copyright © 2004 Robert Sullivan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-58234-385-3

Chapter One


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


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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

2The City Rat5
3Where I Went to See Rats and Who Sent Me There15
4Edens Alley27
5Brute Neighbors34
7Unrepresented Man59
16Plague in America153
18Rat King184
19A Golden Hill194

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Rats; Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If rats truly disgust you, don't buy this book. However, if you are interested in the survival of a species through wars, plagues, and tragedy, this book provides historical perspective to not only rats perserverance but humans as well. The author does a great job of drawing correlations between humans everyday life and that of rat life (not exact correlations but quite close). The stories he tells I found to be entertaining and informative about the history, the people, and the city of New York. What was ironic was that I was reading his chapters about 9/11 this year around 9/11 and really took the time to think about the situation on another level. A great read, a book that I could put down but truly enjoyed picking up to read again and again.
DEMONTHE7TH More than 1 year ago
Wow some people really are retarded. What made some of the reviewers think that the author was out to exterminate or try to create a rat genocide? Nothing. Right off the bat you can tell the author begins to become interested in looking at rats as people and not a "problem." Maybe you should have read the first couple pages before you bought the book before you invested in something you completely ignored the whole time. This is a very well written book. Yes, rats aren't generally wanted in homes and that makes sense but when you look at things from the point of the rat, they're just like any other species (such as ourselves) trying to get buy in a dangerous and sometimes harsh environment. I've been a proud owner of a domesticated rat and I have to say they are extremely intelligent creatures. Good read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
What is most enjoyable about this book is that it's not written by a rat scientist (if there's ever such a specific profession), but by a regular joe-schmoe who's intrigued by an 'under belly' of society (i.e., the world of rats) and who happens to be a good writer as well. It's this writer sensibility that Sullivan wants to go beyond describing the natural behavior & habitat of rats, but to expand on why they've been around for so long (imagine, rats living so far under the earth that they may never have seen MAN before!). It's an enjoyable read -- Sullivan presents amusing rat parallels and iconic histories. If you want to learn more about the rat itself though, then look it up in the encyclopedia.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It isn't very often a book makes my skin crawl. I can't think of the last time that happened. This book is amazing. I have learned so much about rats, more then I ever really wanted to, actually. I couldn't put the book down, though trust me, i really, really wanted to more then a few times. This is a book that will stay with me for a long time. Just an incredible book about, lets face it, a scary critter... bluch...RATS!
annbury on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Engrossing and horrible book about the lives of the rats who live(d) in a specific downtown New York City alley. I learned far more than I wanted to know about our fellow city-dwellers, and a lot of it really icky. Nonetheless, I couldn't put it down until I finished it.
maggiereads on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of my favorite things to do as a reader on vacation is read a book with local flair. You may have noticed my lead to books: The Big Bam by Montville and Pigeons by Blechman. This trip I brought along, Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City¿s Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan, as our 2007 guidebook. Robert Sullivan, author of The Meadowlands and A Whale Hunt, is currently a contributing editor to Vogue and constant contributor to the New Yorker. In 2004, the year Rats was published, I heard Sullivan on NPR and as a guest of David Letterman. I remember thinking he sounds sane and looks normal, but what is wrong with this man. No one, in his right mind, willingly gives up a year of their life to observe rats in their natural habitat. I am happy to say, after reading Rats, author Sullivan is like most Americans. He still gets a little freaked-out working around and in proximity to rats, even after a year of ¿observing.¿ Let us start with the whys. Sullivan thought the rats of New York City, although a quarter to half a million strong, were mostly ignored by nature writers. If they appeared in print it was to shock newspaper buyers into full subscriptions. Yet, for all the potential diseases they carry, they have had little consequence on humans in the last eighty years. Throughout history, where humans created community, so too did rats. As our fictitious Hansel and Gretel skipped into the woods, it wasn¿t song birds but rather hungry rats that ate their bread crumbs. For America, it was the rattus norvegicus or Norway Rat, who arrived, ¿in the first year of the Revolution.¿ From which they ambled after the settlers into the country, as Sullivan quips, ¿a manifest infestation.¿ In the summer of 2001, Sullivan set up camp outside the entrance to Eden¿s Alley. In an L-shaped corridor connecting Gold Street and Fulton, the oldest section of Manhattan, he began his shift at five in the evening where he observed through a night-vision monocular until morning broke. The yearlong experiment included the tragic September 11th loss that fall, when volunteers worked to contain the rats and the pestilence they harbor from Americans. This is a fascinating read about a disgusting animal many humans would rather ignore. Would it surprise you, John James Audubon spent his later years walking the streets of lower Manhattan, similar to our neo-naturalist Sullivan, looking for rats.
pbirch01 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book sorely lacked any type of visual aid such as a map of New York or photographs of newspapers or even the rats themselves. Besides that, it was an interesting idea which showed how much history can be tied into one little alley.
timtom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If you've ever wondered what secret life all those creatures you see scurrying along subway tracks or around the garbage bags of any city in the world, then this book is for you. Even if you're not, actually. Because sure, rats are gross, disgusting animals. But as they are part of the daily life of many city dwellers worldwide, their history is quite close to that of the human being, and their behavior can tell a great deal about ours.Sullivan's book is full of informative facts, funny anecdotes and many forgotten bits of history; a very entertaining read.
jddunn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An interesting look into a world that's all around us, but that we rarely know how to see. Thorough, at times even bordering on the obsessive, but it works for the topic. Suffers a bit when he tries to get all high-flown and Thoreauvian. You can imitate Thoreau without "imitating Thoreau" if you know what I mean. But those parts are ignorable, and the substance of the book and the entertainingness of the stories it tells carry it through.
dickcraig on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I had expected a lot more from this book. I have had plenty of contact with rats over the years and it was good to know more about them. I had underestimated their reliance on man for so much of their food. It has led me to be more careful to not provide for them.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
And the rats died too. They died from the plague.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This book has it all. A bit about rats and a bit about the history of just about everything. Each chapter deals with a different topic, each bit of research spawned by the author's observation of rats. Does he tell you everything you ever wanted to know about rats? If you are a 'rat fanatic', probably not. But he never promises to, either. For those of us who enjoy just a peek into a lot of topics in an easy-to-read book, this is it. I learned a little about a lot and find myself interested in doing more reading. Definitely worth the read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I got this book because i already know a TON about domestic rats. I mostly learned everything that there is to know... and these nerds in my class go on about how nasty rats are i had to wonder.. what are the doing that for.. their nerds. I think they are mostly fed up because we voted on class pets and SNAKES were out voted over RATS. So i continued to wonder why rats are SO utterly discusting desies ridden pests? Why do ppl think that... i mean i uderstand why ppl think that and i know they are probrably right. So that is why i got this book.. and i LUV it it is very well written awesome!!! BTW fleas caused the plague... not rats!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Rats is, indeed, a very bad book. I found the book to be so light on content as to be laughable. If you live, or have lived in New York then you are familiar with rats. They are a part of the city as much as the hot dogs at Nathan¿s. I was looking for some particular insight the author might have gained by watching these animals. What quirks do they have, what makes them so resilient. Unfortunately, he seems to have not gained any insight. He preferred to not get close to his subject. Instead he chose to stand at a distance and assume what the rats were doing in areas beyond his sight. He did not develop any skill at trapping the animals, nor eradicating the vermin. He did not try any experiments. The most you can say the author learned is that rats are rats and behave like, well, rats. All this information for $23.95 - what a bargain.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Save your money and spend it on something else other than this horribly written book. You don't learn anything at all about rats or why they appeared in NYC and people can't seem to get rid of them. He does go over the extermination process, but doesn't give you much insight into it. All he seems to do is observe, the history and habitat written on rats is at its minimum. Spend your money elsewhere this book isn't worth it.