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…
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