[Paleopsych] Guardian: In thrall to ratdom

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In thrall to ratdom

    Robert Sullivan spent a year on the trail of the common rat. But does
    he have enough content for an entire book, asks Christopher Priest
    Christopher Priest
    Saturday January 8, 2005

    Rats: A Year with New York's Most Unwanted Inhabitants
    by Robert Sullivan
    243pp, Granta, £12

    A few years ago the BBC wildlife department broadcast a documentary
    about the common rat: rattus rattus (black rat) or rattus norvegicus
    (brown, or Norway rat). The intention was avowedly to study the animal
    as wildlife, as if rats were the same kind of entity as meerkats or
    penguins or sea cucumbers or chipmunks. The programme contained the
    usual breathtaking close-up shots we are now so used to in TV wildlife
    films: habitat, feeding, mating, reproduction, rearing the young, and
    so on.

    The trouble was that this time the programme was about rats. In spite
    of one's valiant efforts to try to see the rodents as ordinary animals
    with, so to speak, a point of view, it remained inescapable that a
    rat's habitat is in drains, cellars and burrows, his food is our
    leftovers, and he and his mate's reproduction is, well, fast and
    furious. When you remember their verminous habits with droppings and
    urine, the obnoxious way they regurgitate stuff they can't digest but
    eat anyway, such as pieces of your dustbin liner, and their uninvited
    presence in every street in every town in the country, trying to think
    of them as a mammal with a rightful place in the evolutionary scheme
    of things becomes impossible. Miniature hamsters or koalas they are
    not. Even David Attenborough's commentary contained, as I recall,
    several audible shudders.

    Clearly rats represent more to us than their state of being just
    another animal. In short, they have for humans a symbolic or
    metaphorical life, a representative existence from which we may draw
    morals, awful warnings and some particularly hateful, if now
    over-familiar, terms of abuse.

    Robert Sullivan obviously shares this ambivalence, as do
    (interestingly) most of the vermin exterminators he comes across in
    his researches. Sullivan lives in New York City, a place where legend
    has it that there is one rat for every human being. Although he makes
    a good attempt to debunk this myth, it's obvious that the thrill this
    fear arouses is an unspoken constant in every New Yorker's life.
    Beneath the streets, in sewers and basements, another kind of
    city-dweller lives and swarms. In British towns and cities, they say
    you are never more than 15 feet away from the nearest rat, which
    actually doesn't bear thinking about if you fear and detest the
    animals, as most of us do.

    Sullivan says that he claimed no special interest in rats in the past,
    but one day stumbled across a painting of some of them by John James
    Audubon. The inspirational quality of this sent him on a quest to find
    out more about both Audubon and rats, and in turn this led to a new
    interest in the ubiquitous rodents. In the modern tradition of
    American literary journalism, the next stage clearly had to be a book
    on the subject, and this is it.

    Sullivan located an alley in lower Manhattan, not so far from Brooklyn
    Bridge, Wall Street and the World Trade Center. Edens Alley,
    connecting to Ryders Alley, runs between the backs of several
    businesses: a Chinese restaurant, a vitamin and health-supplement
    store, an Irish bar and restaurant, an apartment block with a souvenir
    shop on the ground floor, a gourmet supermarket, and several more
    anony mous buildings. When Sullivan first found Edens Alley it was
    littered with food waste, garbage, the smell of urine and many
    significant tennis ball-sized holes in the ground, paving stones and
    walls. There was also a single tree: an ailanthus, the tree of heaven,
    a deciduous city tree that will take root almost anywhere. Even where
    the ground is riddled with rat holes.

    Sullivan began to make regular nocturnal visits to Edens Alley. He
    took night-vision lenses, a camp stool and a thermos flask. His
    agenda: "I went to the rat-filled alley to see the life of a rat in
    the city, to describe its habits and its habitat, to know a little
    about the place where it makes its home and its relationship to the
    very nearby people. To know the rat is to know its habitat, and to
    know the habitat of the rat is to know the city." The symbolic nature
    of ratdom is therefore intrinsic to his researches, since his interest
    is clearly not purely ethological. Whatever he observes should contain
    some kind of meaning for the larger world.

    We are right to be fearful of rats, because they are verminous. They
    urinate and defecate in places where we keep food and clothes. They go
    out when it's dark. They swarm. They gnaw through electric mains
    cables and gas-pipes, usually with disastrous consequences for
    themselves, but if they do it beneath your house they put your
    property and life at risk. As many as a quarter of all fires of
    unknown origin are thought to be caused by rats. The teeth of a brown
    rat are stronger, harder, than aluminium, copper, lead and iron. (They
    also grow prodigiously: a rat's incisors grow five inches every year,
    so they don't worry too much about chipping and breaking their teeth.)

    Rats are known carriers of diseases that kill mankind: bubonic plague,
    famously, but also typhus, rabies, trichinosis, tularaemia and the
    horrific leptospirosis. They carry bacteria, mites, fleas, lice and

    They have sex-lives at which some of us can only marvel. "If you are
    in New York while you are reading this sentence," Sullivan says, "or
    even in any other major city... then you are in proximity to two or
    more rats having sex." Male rats can mate with 20 females in a few
    hours; the gestation period is just three weeks; the average litter is
    up to 20 pups.

    So fear and dislike of rats are rational, and as a result human beings
    deliberately cause the deaths of rats in their hundreds and thousands.
    Sullivan, to his credit, overcame much of this to be able to spend his
    long evenings in Edens Alley, although his investigations fell short
    of actually clambering down into the drains or underground passages.

    At intervals in the book, he cuts away from the rats themselves to
    divert into stories of the lives of various Americans who had some
    connection with the world of rats. In most cases the connections are
    tenuous to say the least: an organiser of a rent strike, a leader of
    sanitation workers, a revolutionary fighter against the British. After
    the first of these diversions, the reader realises what Sullivan
    himself presumably realised, that watching rats eat garbage does not,
    after all, provide enough material for an entire book. His encounters
    with exterminators, trappers and sanitation men are hardly more
    enlightening, as without exception they are businesslike rather than

    You can't help feeling that Sullivan has missed experiencing the true
    rat horror: infestation of one's home. From personal experience I can
    say that there are few moments more disgusting than when you find the
    new holes in the floor, the teeth marks in bread, chocolate and cereal
    boxes, and the penetrating smell of rodent urine.

    However, this is an interesting book, not without unconscious humour.
    The self-portrait of Sullivan shivering night after night in his
    alley, with his camp stool, binoculars and anorak, watching the rats
    swarming over plastic bags full of uneaten noodles, is at least

    Christopher Priest's The Separation is published by Gollancz.

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