Rats, rats, rats and more rats -- which (almost) nobody can love

On Books

April 25, 2004|By Michael Pakenham

My white lab rats, way back in psychology days, seemed more rational than most of my fellow undergraduates. They had easier jobs, and did those well, though we never got really chummy. In contrast, I have had some experience with wild rats, all vilely unpleasant. Of God's creatures, the visible ones, anyway, I would be most happy to see rats in their entirety evaporated from Earth. Reading an irresistible saga of their breed did nothing to dispel that prejudice.

The book is Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants, by Robert Sullivan (Bloomsbury, 256 pages, $23.95) -- the only nonscientific volume I know of that is devoted entirely to the life and times of the Norway rat, Rattus norvegicus, also known as the brown rat, which is the most common in most cities of the world.

Among Sullivan's impressive accomplishments is to make the creatures compellingly interesting -- without ever falling to the temptation of silk-pursing the sow's ear. In truth, I -- and I believe most people -- would far rather share space with sows' ears, attached to the least imaginably polite sows, than with a single Rattus norvegicus. And they don't arrive singly -- they come in packs, droves, tribes, writhing masses.

Sullivan is a widely published magazine writer, with frequent contributions to the New Yorker, Vogue and the New York Times Magazine. He wrote previous nonfiction books, The Meadowlands, about the sprawling wetlands across the Hudson from New York City, and A Whale Hunt, a real-life arctic adventure. He turned to rats, more or less, as the climber to the mountain, because they are there. Or here.

He found surprisingly few modern rat studies. He quotes some estimates that say one-third of the world's food supply is destroyed by rats. They are almost unbelievably prolific. Gestation is 21 days. Litters are eight to 10. A female can produce up to 12 litters a year. Total population, worldwide or local, is virtually impossible to estimate accurately -- as quickly as eradication works, and it does, the survivors increase reproduction.

A mature rat weighs about a pound, and measures about 16 inches from nose to tip of tail, but can reach 24 total inches. Rats' skeletons are very flexible, allowing them to enter an opening that is only three-quarters of an inch in diameter. Most rats spend their lives within 65 feet of their nests. Tame rats and those bred for scientific research are the same basic animal, but since they are not wild they behave differently.

In an alley near his apartment house in southern Manhattan -- L-shaped, cobblestoned and enclosed in by brick walls -- Sullivan watched rats, at night, off and on for a year. Ironically designated Edens Alley, after its first settler in the 17th century, it was "an excellent natural rat habitat." He writes it "might be described as a symbol of the urban un-ideal, the not seemingly necessary evil: squalor and neglect, refuse and, of course vermin." It is equidistant from the waterfront, from Wall Street and from City Hall.

He interviewed legions of exterminators, public-health officials, zoologists and street people. He explored history -- plat maps, sewage lines, records of riots, skirmishes, successes and failures. He made a particular friend of a vagrant named Derrick, who lived in the alleys nearby Sullivan's, and from which he learned a great deal about the routine domesticities of the rodents.

"Rats live in the world precisely where man lives," he concluded. "When they arrive as immigrants to a new found land, rats proceed to push out the creatures that precede them, to multiply to such an extent as to stretch resources to the limit, to consume their way towards famine. ... Rats live in man's parallel universe, surviving on the effluvia of human society."

Sullivan calls David E. Davis "the founding father of modern rat studies." He did much of his work out of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He discovered, among other things, that when rat populations are methodically attacked, the survivors gain strength and become more fecund.

The whole rat tale is summed up on the grim side: "In the city, rats and men live in conflict, one side scurrying off from the other or perpetually destroying the other's habitat or constantly attempting to destroy the other -- an unending and brutish war."

The World Trade Center attack occurred midway in the period in which Sullivan was observing rats. After the disaster, Edens Alley was blockaded off and Sullivan was unable to go home for a considerable time. Lots of food had been donated to the rescue and reconstruction workers, and closed restaurants and food shops were abrim with edibles. The area was intensely scattered with rat-poison "bait stations."

When Sullivan was allowed to return, rats were still there, despite huge extermination efforts.

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