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.”
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.
May 13, 2004