I have most often seen them down on the subway tracks while waiting for a train. It is strictly taboo to throw trash down there, since it gives them food, but trash does get down there, and from time to time one will see a plump dark form scurry from shadow to shadow, one of the city’s two million – some would say millions more – rats.
While the term “rat” is hardly a compliment when applied to humans, Rattus norvegicus is a shrewd operator: a good digger, he swims well, has acute hearing and a good sniffer, and emits a high-pitched chirp that humans cannot hear, but that has been likened to laughter. Yet I would hardly call him handsome. Mice – pests though they are in the home – look cuddly and cute; rats look fat, menacing, and to most eyes, ugly. Rats have been blamed for the spread of bubonic plague in Europe, but the culprit in question wasn’t the brown rat but his cousin, Rattus rattus, the black rat, though even he has been absolved by recent research, which says the true culprit was a giant gerbil. Be that as it may, rats have always had a bad press and no doubt always will.
So what’s with rats in the city? First of all, there are an awful lot of them which is not surprising, since the females can bear five litters a year. And they aren’t just in the subway; every park at one time or another has signs warning that the area has been treated with rat poison. And they aren’t just in the parks either, since New York City is the perfect habitat for them, a densely populated site with aging infrastructure and abundant trash. Especially trash: they love it. A study of their diet concluded that they prefer scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese, and cooked corn kernels, but they will eat anything and everything, and have a chance to do so, since New Yorkers deposit trash on the sidewalk to await collection, and garbage cans often lack a lid.
Rats are social creatures, groupies; they live in colonies of 40 to 50 wherever they can burrow, in dirt or anything crumbly, close to a steady source of food, which usually means our trash. In the colony they groom each other, wrestle with each other, nuzzle each other, and huddle and sleep together, perhaps to conserve heat. But there is a hierarchy, and each rat has its place within it, with some dominant over others; scraps over dominance result. Encountering a strange rat, an interloper, they defend their turf, fluffing up their hair, hissing, squealing, and wagging their tails.
Rats love to burrow, creating many levels of tunnels in their mound-like homes and more than one exit the size of a silver dollar. The burrow is a safe, warm nesting site, a place to store food, and a refuge from a perceived threat such as a loud noise or the approach of an intruder, which of course could be us; they’d just as soon not meet Homo sapiens sapiens, that hostile towering monster, face to face. Far from roaming the city, they confine themselves to familiar, well-worn paths, and in their one-year life span rarely range more than 600 feet from their birthplace.
If you go looking for rats (but who would, except students of the species?), you may spot their lumpy mounds in parks or playgrounds or other open areas, often under a bush or near a trash can. Rats are nocturnal feeders, but with patience you may see one emerge in the daylight and approach any accessible bit of trash, especially discarded cooked food. If you see one scouting about and snapping up a loose crumb or morsel here or there, it’s probably an old one looking for scraps that younger, more successful ones have overlooked or discarded.
Fortunately, rats differ from mice in preferring to forage outside, and if they do invade a building, they usually remain in the basement and rarely venture upstairs. But if you find droppings bigger than coffee beans near the fridge or the stove, you’ve got a problem: it’s time to summon an exterminator. Killing them isn’t easy, since if one dies quickly from poison, or in a snap trap that isn’t promptly removed, his buddies get wise and avoid the bate or the traps. Don’t ever confront them; if cornered, they can bite. To keep them away, avoid clutter, get rid of garbage promptly, put food in tight containers, seal all cracks and holes … and pray.
|Dead rats on display in an exterminator's window in Paris. An international problem.|
Needless to say, the city authorities have little love for these residents who go looking for free eats everywhere and don’t pay taxes, and who carry disease-causing pathogens in their system, as well as fleas, lice, and mites rich in bacteria causing bubonic plague, typhus, and spotted fever. Mayor after mayor has declared war on rats, another of those wars that Americans love to declare (on cancer, drugs, poverty, etc.) but rarely win. Rats can bite and, being rife with pests, they can spread disease, but getting rid of them isn’t easy, as their discreet presence in the millions attests. There have been accounts of rats biting babies, and in 1979 a pack of rats reportedly attacked a woman in a Lower Manhattan alley, provoking Mayor Ed Koch to address the crisis. Years later Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, hearing constant complaints about rats at town hall meetings, created a “rodent task force” to deal with the problem; it still meets every week.
Mayor de Blasio’s administration today is no exception. In June 2015 the city passed a budget that included $2.9 million dedicated to reducing unwanted rodents. Subsequently, teams began ranging the city looking for signs of their presence: compressed grass, and, about an inch above the ground on walls beside sidewalks, marks left by an oil from their hair that rubs off and darkens the walls as they go feeling the walls with their whiskers. Then what? “Integrated pest management” comes into play. In suspect neighborhoods labeled “rat reservoirs,” rat sterilization products go into sidewalk cracks, under sewer grates, into tree hollows, and deep into thickets in parks. Traps are also set, and rodent-resistant trash cans installed.
Meanwhile a group of citizen vigilantes are setting out at night with terriers to attack the rats, a project that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) denounces as a blood sport masquerading as rat control, and illegal. These hunts have been recorded on video, with scenes of dogs gnashing captured rats viciously. The beaming smiles of the onlooking hunters do indeed suggest that PETA just might have a point. In New York City, nothing is ever simple.
Should Rattus norvegicus tremble in his burrows? Maybe. But in the words of one rodentologist, he is “diabolically clever,” “an opportunist, and not fussy.” Quite so. He’s happy to find a crumb or two from a pizza, an apple core, a discarded sandwich, a bit of wienie, since an ounce of food and water a day will sustain him. So yet another war on rats unfolds, and alas, rat complaints from citizens are soaring. But we have one ally in the fight: the red-tailed hawks that soar majestically high up in the sky; they are the greatest predator of rats. So three cheers for Buteo jamaicensis, an old friend of mine whom I have often seen soaring, or perched in trees in parks. We need all the help we can get.
But the phenomena of nature are rarely simple, and there are rats and rats. In July 2015 rats began appearing in a median between the West Side Highway and an exit lane onto West 57th Street, across from a Sanitation Department garage. First there were just a handful, then more, still more, until five hundred were scurrying about in the underbrush. How they got there is still a mystery. And these weren’t just plain old ordinary rats; these were albinos, white with pink eyes, cuddly little unratlike creatures that people adopt as pets or, more sinisterly, experiment with in labs or raise to feed to snakes.
|Could you resist these little dears? New Yorkers couldn't.|
There was no food or water for the rats on this little manmade island, so many of them, even though albino rats are mostly blind, ran out onto the ten-lane highway, making for the nearby Hudson River, and came to a grisly end. But “pity runneth soone in gentil herte” (Chaucer). When an article was published in which a biologist announced that the albinos were doomed, the good citizens of Gotham sprang to the rescue, coming at night with boxes and buckets and cat carriers to snatch up all the little rats they could.
But the story doesn’t end there, for the next day the Health Department, citing risks to public safety, set out poison; the rats indeed were doomed. But rat rescuers, furious at this injustice, rushed back again to scoop up still more of the critters, which are reputedly smarter than hamsters and guinea pigs, and quicker to bond with their keepers. A love fest followed in scores of apartments and homes citywide, as the good Samaritans bonded with their newfound pets who, when relaxed and happy, grind their incisors endearingly and bug their eyes rapidly in and out. One of the albinos even made it big, getting a role in a hit on Broadway.
This is a nice note to end on, but I’ll add one more happy thought. Some scientists believe that, in the next mass extinction of life on the planet, rats will be among the few animal species to survive. Let’s hope that, if any of them could ever write a memoir, at least a few of them would record some happy memories of vanished Homo sapiens sapiens.
Source note: For information on Rattus norvegicus in the city, I am indebted to various articles in the New York Times, especially one by Andy Newman on rescued albinos in the issue of January 24, 2016.
There is, of course, that other book, the naughty novel The Pleasuring of Men with a cover that has proven irresistible to a certain contingent of males and to some susceptible females as well. It is now visible on the Facebook page of the publisher, Gival Press. If morbid curiosity prompts you, go there and you'll see what I mean; click on the truncated version of the photo to get the whole thing. Who the sexy guy on the cover is and where he came from, I have no idea, though there could well be a story there; credit goes to my canny and resourceful publisher.
Coming soon: Toy locomotives and cloud-skirting aircraft, my Royal portable typewriter, Batman racing nimbly over the rooftops of Gotham, and wide-screen panoramic day and night views of New York to utterly inspire and dazzle -- all this and more in one of the best-kept secrets in the city.
© 2016 Clifford Browder