Animals in Translation
Walking through my daughter’s school not long ago I came upon a fourth-grader nuzzling a pet rat. “When I was a baby, a rat came into my crib and almost bit me,” the girl reported. “But that was in New York City.” The girl’s mother confirmed the rat in the crib story. Seeing that rat advancing on her sleeping daughter convinced her, she said, that it was time to quit the city.
There are rats in the country to be sure, but rats tend to prosper in more densely settled places where, among other things, they make a practice of biting infants in their cribs, probably because the babies’ faces bear traces of food; rats are nothing if not opportunistic.
“The rats of New York are quicker-witted than those on farms,” Joseph Mitchell claims in his classic brief on the urban rat, “Rats on the Waterfront,” first published in The New Yorker in 1944, “and they can outthink any man who has not made a study of their habits.” Such a man would not be Robert Sullivan, whose wonderfully discursive Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, takes over where Mitchell’s paean leaves off.
Sullivan, whose first book, The Meadowlands, established him as the Lewis and Clark of New Jersey’s most notorious landfill, appears to be making a career out of trash. Like the subject of this, his third book, he thrives among detritus. “What makes me most interested in rats,” he writes, explaining his motivation for the current project,
is…the propensity that I share with rats towards areas where no cruise ships go, areas that have been deemed unenjoyable, aesthetically bankrupt, gross or vile. I am speaking of swamps 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.
And so he sets out, in the quietly heroic tradition of the amateur naturalists before him, to spend a year among a mammal so generally loathed as to be ignored; he finds no mention of it in any of the field guides he consults.
Sullivan’s rats, like the rat in my daughter’s school, and like almost all the rats in New York as well as in North America at large (with the exception of the Canadian province of Alberta), are a species known formally as Rattus norvegicus—Norwegian rats. While this may suggest that the brown or gray rats we sometimes see rushing along the subway tracks or nosing around a restaurant dumpster—big rats about a foot long (not counting the tail) and a pound or so in weight—came from Norway, in fact they appear to have originated in Southeast Asia. From China they moved into Siberia, from Siberia into Russia, and from there across the Volga River and the Baltic Sea. By the sixteenth century the brown rat was in England, where it was thought to have arrived in Norwegian lumber ships and so named. More likely, Rattus norvegicus had come from Denmark, which at the time was a wholly owned subsidiary of Norway anyway, and the name stuck. Brown rats came across the Atlantic with the British around the time of the Revolution, but it was not till much later that they expanded their range to include every state in the union, finally establishing themselves in Montana in 1926.
One of the first places where the brown rat set foot was New York harbor, and it is here, in the bowels of the city, that Sullivan, following both the rats’ footsteps and Joe Mitchell’s, goes to get a good look at the wild (urban) rat in its natural (urban) habitat. He buys night-vision equipment—rats are mainly nocturnal—and a portable camping stool and sets up shop in a small, inconsequential piece of real estate known as Edens Alley—“a nowhere in the center of everything” whose “cobblestones look like bad teeth.” The alley, named for an early owner, Medcef Eden, a man whose country property is what we now call Times Square, is not far from the World Trade Center, which was still standing when Sullivan began his study. Because a Chinese restaurant, an Irish bar, and an upscale supermarket back onto the alley, it is prime rat realty. The denizens of Edens Alley dine well.
It was in Edens Alley that Sullivan first observed rats being “thigmophilic”—needing to be in touch, literally, with a wall as they moved about, always staying on the same side of the passageway as their food source. It was here, in an effort to determine how fast rats move, that Sullivan ran alongside them, clocking the rats at six miles per hour. It was here, using peanut butter, Vienna sausages, and sardines for bait, that he and some friends tried to trap a rat (for closer observation). It was near here, too, where a homeless man named Derrick, who was making his own study of rats, intentionally set what appeared to be about a hundred of them racing with such vehemence through the narrow channel where Sullivan stood watching with his friends that they instantly became thigmophilic themselves, or at least hugged the wall:
The rats moved in the shape of a mob, a herding mass, with rat trying feverishly to pass rat, some not passing, some falling back, some climbing past the others. Matt and Dave and I gathered close together, as if we were about to be burned at a stake, and we watched in panic-stricken amazement, deciding instinctively, I think, that it was better to stand very still than to run.
In addition to Derrick, Sullivan consulted legions of other rat experts, most of them exterminators, men whose workaday experiences may never again be so gloriously celebrated: “The Algonquin tribes consider the hunter to be their best man, and if I were an Algonquin I would see exterminators as the city’s best men….” It’s meant to be funny—at least I think it’s meant to be funny—yet Sullivan also makes it clear, if only from the goofy excerpts from his own “rat journal,” that a journalist is likely to learn a lot more from guys in Terminex uniforms than from sitting on a camping stool making his own observations:
5:24—I am sipping coffee, settling in for a few hours of observation, when I see it, the first rat of the night…. The rat circles behind the construction site and then comes back across the alley again to the garbage on the Irish bar and restaurant side. I try to maintain a certain rationality, or clinical aloofness, and yet (as is typical by now) I am mesmerized—first by the appearance of a rat, still a perverse miracle to me, and second, by a movement that is completely rat-like in its hugging of the wall….
6:03—More garbage comes up out of the bottom of the Irish bar. One bag lands on a rodent bait station that is ancient and destroyed. The garbage tide is rising. I am reminded of Coleridge, in Lycidas, “…ever to fresh woods and pastures new.” Though when I am reminded of the words woods and pastures they are replaced by trash.
The exterminators to whom Sullivan turns are, for the most part, more prosaic than he is, and probably more handsomely remunerated. This is because rat catchers are doomed to failure, and failure is what drives their business: eliminate the rat and you eliminate the need for the rat catcher. Don’t expect this to happen any time soon, though, for the math of rat reproduction mitigates against it:
If they are not eating, then rats are usually having sex. Most likely, if you are in New York while you are reading this sentence or even in any other major city in America, then you are in proximity to two or more rats having sex. Male and female rats may have sex twenty times a day, and a male rat will have sex with as many female rats as possible—according to one report, a dominant male rat may mate with up to twenty female rats in just six hours. (Male rats exiled from their nest by more aggressive male rats will also live in all-male rat colonies and have sex with the other male rats.)…One pair of rats has the potential of 15,000 descendants in a year.
While it is generally believed that as a consequence of all this rat sex, there is one rat for every person in New York City—a statistic that shows up in Mitchell’s article (attributed to “authorities”) as well as in more recent public health reports and United Nations documents—Sullivan digs up a study written by “rat guru” David Davis in 1949 putting the ratio around one rat to thirty-six people. What this suggests is that rats exert a greater force on the human imagination than sheer numbers might warrant. Rats scare us. No, they terrify us. They are brazen. They live in our houses and eat through our walls and bite our children. They carry diseases—diseases that themselves terrify us.
The most fearsome rat-borne disease is plague. Sullivan gives a capsule history of this disease, from the Bible onward, describing its etiology with a certain writerly exuberance:
When rats get the plague, they get it from fleas…. A flea injects its trunklike proboscis into the rat to suck blood. When a rat flea sucks in rat blood infected with plague bacteria, the plague bacteria multiplies and eventually clogs the guts of the flea; the flea starves to death. In the meantime…
Accurate as this is, one senses a bit of rat “spin” at work: rats are really taking the rap for fleas, Sullivan seems to be suggesting. When the fleas jump from rats to humans, setting up the conditions for an outbreak of plague, it is because the rats are already dead.
Plague, which has made numerous circumnavigations of the globe, first came to the United States in 1900, which happened to be the Chinese “Year of the Rat.” This was particularly significant because the first plague death occurred in a boardinghouse in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Fearing a violent backlash, Chinese- American leaders suppressed this intelligence and subverted public health officials. In this they were aided by the San Francisco business elite. Fearing a boycott of San Francisco goods, they paid doctors to lie, railroaded the newspapers into printing false information, and ran the country’s preeminent infectious disease specialist out of town.
The official response to a potential plague outbreak in New York City in 1943 was also secretive, though for a different reason. After a series of oversights, the ship Wyoming, fresh from North Africa, where plague was rampant, was allowed to dock in New York harbor and unload its cargo. Along with barrels of wine and tobacco, officials found rats that tested positive for the plague bacillus, though the boat was supposed to have been fumigated. Fearing that some infected rats may have gone ashore with the cargo, public health officials made a frantic, sub rosa, search among the rats of the waterfront in Manhattan, Staten Island, and Brooklyn—places where the ship had set anchor. “The trapping was done unobtrusively,” Dr. Robert Olesen of the Public Health Service, told Joseph Mitchell in 1944, revealing the near miss to the public for the first time. “We were afraid a newspaper might learn of the matter and start a plague scare.”