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City Folks


A plague scare, of course, is also a rat scare, and because rats are viscerally frightening to us, we may not recognize how much they and we share. Certainly we like the same food, though to be sure, the rat, whose jaws can exert seven thousand pounds of pressure per square inch, allowing it to snack on concrete and copper wire, has a more varied diet. (That said, a paper entitled “A Preliminary Analysis of Garbage As Food For the Norway Rat,” written by Martin Schein, a rat behaviorist, after he dumped sacks of trash on the ground and watched what the rats devoured and what they left behind, showed that rats were not too keen on raw beets, raw cauliflower, raw carrots, raw cabbage, and, like children everywhere, cooked spinach.) But our real connection is more basic. Rats were the first mammals to be domesticated for research on human disease. And as last month’s report on the sequence of the rat genome showed, rats and humans not only encode the same number of genes, but almost all human genes associated with disease have a functional equivalent in rats.1 Moreover, as Temple Grandin points out in the forthcoming Animals in Translation, humans and animals have the same neurons, “We’re using them differently, but the cells are the same.”

Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, and the person most responsible for making slaughterhouses in this country and around the world more “humane.” Beyond the world of feedlots, where she is considered something of a guru herself—the David Davis of industrial animal management—Grandin is best known as the author of a book about autism, Thinking in Pictures, and the subject of one of Oliver Sacks’s early essays on autism. Professor Grandin is herself autistic. This is not simply an interesting thing about her, it is the central thing, and it is crucial to her unique understanding of animals, and to her communion with them. (In his essay, Sacks recounts how, as a young woman, Grandin adapted a machine for calming cows as they went into the chute before they were slaughtered to still her own anxieties. Her empathy with animals was so strong that she was able, quite literally, to put herself in their place.)

Autism is a kind of way station on the road from animals to humans,” Grandin, along with her coauthor, Catherine Johnson, writes in their rich new book, “which puts autistic people like me in a perfect position to translate ‘animal talk’ into plain English. I can tell people why their animals are doing the things they do.” It is an audacious claim, but one that is backed up by her ability to look at an animal’s environment and see what is wrong with it in ways that no one else can—a white Styrofoam coffee cup left on the ground that’s spooking the cows, say, or a particular shadow at the entrance to a barn that’s causing the cows to stop in their tracks. She writes:

Animals and autistic people don’t see their ideas of things; they see the actual things themselves. We [autistic people] see the details that make up the world, while normal people blur all those details together into their general concept of the world.

It took Robert Sullivan weeks before he was able to sit in Edens Alley and discern the rats that he knew were there, and months before he could see them without his night-vision scope. Once he saw them, though, he kept seeing them; his brain, not his eyes, had been trained. In contrast, autistic people and animals “don’t have to be paying attention to something in order to see it.” The rats, surely, always had a fix on the writer in the alley.

Perceiving the physical world through her autistic brain has allowed Temple Grandin to posit rational explanations for animal behaviors that make so little sense to most of us that we say they are beyond the rational. We are so bound by our own senses that we fail to understand how limited and limiting our senses are, how much we don’t perceive. Dogs, for instance, may be able to smell our emotions.

Animals have emotional lives, too, Grandin argues (without lapsing into the gooey sentimentality of Jeffrey Masson’s latest offering, The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional World of Farm Animals2). Their feelings are similar to ours, but more defined, more concrete, less messy. This, apparently, is something animals and autistics share (“…One thing I appreciate about being autistic,” Grandin writes, “is that I don’t have to deal with all the emotional craziness my students do”), as well as a heightened, nearly global, sense of fear:

Our fear system is “turned on” in a way a normal person’s is not…. It seems likely that animals and autistic people both have “hyper-fear” systems in large part because their frontal lobes are less powerful compared to the frontal lobes in typical folks. The prefrontal cortex gives humans some freedom of action in life, including some freedom from fear. As a rule, normal people have more power to suppress fear, and to make decisions in the face of fear than animals or most autistic people.

In animals, though, an active sense of fear is not overwhelming or debilitating (as it is for an autistic person). Rather, hyper-fear allows animals to survive in a predatory world. Research on rats, for instance, has shown that fear activated by smelling even a single cat hair causes a rat to assume the cat may be coming back to that place and high-tail it out of there.

In New York City and other urban environments, a rat’s main enemy is man, and man is everywhere, which suggests that rats live in constant fear. It’s possible that a well-engaged limbic system may have made rats more intelligent. (In people the opposite seems to be true; cortisol, one of the chemicals released by stress, is known to suppress learning.) Certainly rats are able to avoid large numbers of bait traps, for instance, which keeps sending “pest control professionals” back to the drawing board again and again to build a better rat-trap. It would not surprise Temple Grandin that the best rat catchers are the ones who, in the tradition of horse whisperers, can think like rats, and that the very best are the ones who understand, perhaps on a primal level, the mind of a rat predator, too. Chief among these, according to Robert Sullivan, is a fellow named Bobby Corrigan, the author of a book called Rodent Control,3 and a columnist for Pest Control Technology, a man who also gardens intensively and writes poetry:

Reading Bobby Corrigan’s book, one immediately gets a sense of why he is the superstar of the rodent control industry. First of all—and most obviously—he knows all about rats. He has studied them with a careful patience…. Implicit in his work is the idea that there is no such thing as a monster rat. In Rodent Control, the rat is not evil. The rat is a rat.

Just as important, Sullivan points out, is Corrigan’s ability to understand

the man in the field, the guy with a can of roach poison on his back, who has been stuck in traffic all day…and is now looking down a toilet bowl as something rises up from the hole in the bottom. He writes of such a scene in the section entitled “A Rat in the Toilet Bowl,” and he counsels the exterminator to stay calm, but fully understands that he or she may not be able to do so.

A rat coming into our house through our toilet? Other animals are inherently more dangerous, but they do not live so close. Because rats do, their story is a foil to our own. A natural history of rats in their native environment is a natural history of rats in our native environment—in Sullivan’s particular case, New York City. Deftly, and with a surfeit of good cheer, Sullivan uses the rat as a narrative conduit to places and times that, like the rat itself, have been largely ignored or forgotten. He resurrects the rent strikes and sanitation worker strikes of the 1960s, events in which rats had crucial roles. (During the Harlem rent strike of 1963, after tenant organizer Jesse Gray urged strikers to “bring a rat to court,” people brought them dead and alive, rolled up in newspaper or held up by the tail; the rats are generally credited with ending the strike. No one needed to bring rats anywhere during the garbage strike five years later—they brought themselves to the mountains of trash piled high on the sidewalks, causing the mayor to declare a health emergency, the governor to demand an end to the strike, and the sanitation workers to get a raise.)

Sullivan also delaminates the physical city, finding lost layers of human experience under floorboards and cobblestones, and brings them to light. “People don’t realize the subterranean conditions out there,” a municipal exterminator named Larry Adams told him. “People don’t realize the levels. People don’t realize that we got things down there from the Revolution. A lot of people don’t realize that there’s just layers of settlers here, that things just get bricked off, covered up and all. They’re not accessible to people, but they are to rats.”

And so, too, to Robert Sullivan. Digging through the archives, pouring over old maps, he discovers, for instance, that Gold Street, which sits at the top of Edens Alley, is where the city’s first goldsmiths worked in the years after the Revolution. Nonetheless, Gold Street was not named for them but for the wheaten hummock that once rose there and shined so brightly under the sun that the Dutch called the place gouden bergh, Golden Hill. And it was at Golden Hill in January 1770—which is to say, at Edens Alley in the years just before the arrival of the brown rat and of Medcef Eden himself—that, according to Sullivan’s research, a skirmish erupted between members of the Sons of Liberty and a barracks of British soldiers—what he calls, in a charming stretch of the historical record—the first battle of the Revolution. “It was an unglorious blow, an animal-like action, and the first blow in a battle that led directly to the conception of America—as well as to the introduction into New York of the Rattus norvegicus. It’s an example of the circles of men and rats closing in on each other, to a point.”

At the start of his own year of the rat, Robert Sullivan traveled to upper Manhattan to visit the site where the painter, John James Audubon once lived. This was an homage, of sorts: Audubon, too, had made a study of rats. (He also had the mayor’s permission to shoot rats along the waterfront.) Audubon, Sullivan points out, was born in the Dominican Republic, and these days his old New York neighborhood is a Dominican enclave. It’s a small point, really, pretty much inconsequential, unless, under Robert Sullivan’s spell, you have come to understand that the essential human truth is not that everything is connected, but that everything is connected to rats.

  1. 1

    Genome Sequence of the Brown Norway Rat Yields Insights into Mammalian Evolution,” Nature, Vol. 428 (April 1, 2004), pp. 493–521.

  2. 2

    Ballantine, 2003.

  3. 3

    GIE Media, 2001.

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