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Rethinking Rats: Taking a Closer Look - 2004-06-09

Scientists appreciate rats as laboratory animals. But for the rest of us, the rodents are pests that invade our space, gnaw through walls and pipes and electric wires, eat our food and spread disease. But a new book might give us a new appreciation for the rat. The author spent a year in a New York City alley observing the comings and goings of these ubiquitous creatures.

In 2001, author Robert Sullivan began a year-long project, spending night after night in an alley in New York City, observing rats. He's turned his observations into a book, called - what else? - Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants.

Speaking from New York, just a few blocks from his alley, Mr. Sullivan said that the rat population of an urban area is a reminder that nature is present, even in a sprawling, modern city.

"They live in our habitat. We don't want to think about it, but they live in a kind of mirror world,? he said. ?The grizzly bear is an indicator of wilderness. If there's a grizzly bear, it needs about 100 miles [160 km] [of undeveloped fields and forests], scientists always say, to exist, to have a habitat. A rat indicates people-ness, people in any place. There's farm rats and field rats and that means that there are people around. That proves a kind of naturalness about cities and people that we don't want to think is natural. [But] cities are organisms, too, that excrete and exude and have rejectamenta and all this sort of trash that rats live in. Garbage."

In the 1300s the Bubonic Plague killed about one-fourth of the population of Europe as it spread across the continent. But it wasn't until 1894 that scientists figured out that the "Black Death" was spread by fleas that lived in the fur of rats. In the Middle Ages, Mr. Sullivan says, people weren't looking at vermin as possible carriers of disease. And he wonders if in our modern scientific world view, we might not also be missing something.

"To me a fascinating thing about plague and rats and fleas, is that we kind of laugh today at doctors, at people helping plague victims in the Middle Ages,? he added. ?And we say, 'oh man, they didn't get it that the fleas were passing it on, that the rats were passing it on.' They thought it was in the air. How couldn't they know that, there were dead fleas and dead rats all around them. But they just didn't put it together. In their system of observation, those details didn't work. So you have to stop and say, 'wow, what are we missing now? What are we not seeing?' And really, looking at rats in an alley is an exercise in disgusting, yes, but close observation."

To write this book, Robert Sullivan spent night after night in a garbage-strewn alley in New York, equipped with military-style night vision equipment to better observe the rats' activities.

"They come out and they follow their paths, and they get the food and they go into these holes, and they come back out again. Kind of they way we do,? Mr. Sullivan said. ?And they need these routines, they follow these paths. Exterminators like to say that if you knock down the walls of an infested alley or an infested room, the next night, if everything was still the same, the rats would still take the same paths because of muscle memory."

Mr. Sullivan's rat alley is just a few blocks from the World Trade Center site, and in his book, he describes how the rat population soared after the attacks on September 11, 2001, a few hours after he had ended another routine night of rat watching. It didn't take long, he says, for city workers to begin a rat control offensive as the rodents took advantage of temporarily abandoned restaurants and uncollected garbage?

"They laid out a lot of poison in bait stations, as they are referred to,? Mr. Sullivan said. ?I can say that the New York City health department really worked to keep it from being an unbelievable rat explosion. But that's the thing with rat work: it's Sisyphean in that there's always more to do, and if you're at the bottom of the hill, everybody's shouting and saying, 'hey-hey, wait a minute, there's all these rats.' And if you're doing your work, everybody's saying, 'I'm sorry, do we need you?' That's kind of how it is with rat people."

And with rats, too. Rat control people don't call themselves "exterminators" any more. Even they admit that they'll never get rid of them all.