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Sunday, August 6, 2006

Reading List: Rats

Sullivan, Robert. Rats. New York: Bloomsbury, [2004] 2005. ISBN 1-58234-477-9.
Here we have one of the rarest phenomena in publishing: a thoroughly delightful best-seller about a totally disgusting topic: rats. (Before legions of rat fanciers write to berate me for bad-mouthing their pets, let me state at the outset that this book is about wild rats, not pet and laboratory rats which have been bred for docility for a century and a half. The new afterword to this paperback edition relates the story of a Brooklyn couple who caught a juvenile Bedford-Stuyvesant street rat to fill the empty cage of their recently deceased pet and, as it it matured, came to regard it with such fear that they were afraid even to release it in a park lest it turn and attack them when the cage was opened—the author suggested they might consider the strategy of “open the cage and run like hell” [p. 225–226]. One of the pioneers in the use of rats in medical research in the early years of the 20th century tried to use wild rats and concluded “they proved too savage to maintain in the laboratory” [p. 231].)

In these pages are more than enough gritty rat facts to get yourself ejected from any polite company should you introduce them into a conversation. Many misconceptions about rats are debunked, including the oft-cited estimate that the rat and human population is about the same, which would lead to an estimate of about eight million rats in New York City—in fact, the most authoritative estimate (p. 20) puts the number at about 250,000 which is still a lot of rats, especially once you begin to appreciate what a single rat can do. (But rat exaggeration gets folks' attention: here is a politician claiming there are fifty-six million rats in New York!) “Rat stories are war stories” (p. 34), and this book teems with them, including The Rat that Came Up the Toilet, which is not an urban legend but a well-documented urban nightmare. (I'd be willing to bet that the incidence of people keeping the toilet lid closed with a brick on the top is significantly greater among readers of this book.)

It's common for naturalists who study an animal to develop sympathy for it and defend it against popular aversion: snakes and spiders, for example, have many apologists. But not rats: the author sums up by stating that he finds them “disgusting”, and he isn't alone. The great naturalist and wildlife artist John James Audubon, one of the rare painters ever to depict rats, amused himself during the last years of his life in New York City by prowling the waterfront hunting rats, having received permission from the mayor “to shoot Rats in the Battery” (p. 4).

If you want to really get to know an animal species, you have to immerse yourself in its natural habitat, and for the Brooklyn-based author, this involved no more than a subway ride to Edens Alley in downtown Manhattan, just a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, which was destroyed during the year he spent observing rats there. Along with rat stories and observations, he sketches the history of New York City from a ratty perspective, with tales of the arrival of the brown rat (possibly on ships carrying Hessian mercenaries to fight for the British during the War of American Independence), the rise and fall of rat fighting as popular entertainment in the city, the great garbage strike of 1968 which transformed the city into something close to heaven if you happened to be a rat, and the 1964 Harlem rent strike in which rats were presented to politicians by the strikers to acquaint them with the living conditions in their tenements.

People involved with rats tend to be outliers on the scale of human oddness, and the reader meets a variety of memorable characters, present-day and historical: rat fight impresarios, celebrity exterminators, Queen Victoria's rat-catcher, and many more. Among numerous fascinating items in this rat fact packed narrative is just how recent the arrival of the mis-named brown rat, Rattus norvegicus, is. (The species was named in England in 1769, having been believed to have stowed away on ships carrying lumber from Norway. In fact, it appears to have arrived in Britain before it reached Norway.) There were no brown rats in Europe at all until the 18th century (the rats which caused the Black Death were Rattus rattus, the black rat, which followed Crusaders returning from the Holy Land). First arriving in America around the time of the Revolution, the brown rat took until 1926 to spread to every state in the United States, displacing the black rat except for some remaining in the South and West. The Canadian province of Alberta remains essentially rat-free to this day, thanks to a vigorous and vigilant rat control programme.

The number of rats in an area depends almost entirely upon the food supply available to them. A single breeding pair of rats, with an unlimited food supply and no predation or other causes of mortality, can produce on the order of fifteen thousand descendants in a single year. That makes it pretty clear that a rat population will grow until all available food is being consumed by rats (and that natural selection will favour the most aggressive individuals in a food-constrained environment). Poison or trapping can knock down the rat population in the case of a severe infestation, but without limiting the availability of food, will produce only a temporary reduction in their numbers (while driving evolution to select for rats which are immune to the poison and/or more wary of the bait stations and traps).

Given this fact, which is completely noncontroversial among pest control professionals, it is startling that in New York City, which frets over and regulates public health threats like second-hand tobacco smoke while its denizens suffer more than 150 rat bites a year, many to children, smoke-free restaurants dump their offal into rat-infested alleys in thin plastic garbage bags, which are instantly penetrated by rats. How much could it cost to mandate, or even provide, rat-proof steel containers for organic waste, compared to the budget for rodent control and the damages and health hazards of a large rat population? Rats will always be around—in 1936, the president of the professional society for exterminators persuaded the organisation to change the name of the occupation from “exterminator” to “pest control operator”, not because the word “exterminator” was distasteful, but because he felt it over-promised what could actually be achieved for the client (p. 98). But why not take some simple, obvious steps to constrain the rat population?

The book contains more than twenty pages of notes in narrative form, which contain a great deal of additional information you don't want to miss, including the origin of giant inflatable rats for labour rallies, and even a poem by exterminator guru Bobby Corrigan. There is no index.

Posted at August 6, 2006 21:33