Excerpt of Rats by Robert Sullivan
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When it is not gnawing or feeding on trash, the brown rat digs. Anywhere there is dirt in a city, brown rats are likely to be digging-in parks, in flowerbeds, in little dirt-poor backyards. They dig holes to enter buildings and to make nests. Rat nests can be in the floorboards of apartments, in the waste-stuffed corners of subway stations, in sewers, or beneath old furniture in basements. "Cluttered and unkempt alleyways in cities provide ideal rat habitat, especially those alleyways associated with food-serving establishments," writes Robert Corrigan in Rodent Control, a pest control manual. "Alley rats can forage safely within the shadows created by the alleyway, as well as quickly retreat to the safety of cover in these narrow channels." Often, rats burrow under concrete sidewalk slabs. Entrance to a typical under-the-sidewalk rat's nest is gained through a two-inch-wide hole--their skeletons collapse and they can squeeze into a hole as small as three quarters of an inch wide, the average width of their skull. This tunnel then travels about a foot down to where it widens into a nest or den. The den is lined with soft debris, often shredded plastic garbage or shopping bags, but sometimes even grasses or plants; some rat nests have been found stuffed with the gnawed shavings of the wood-based, spring-loaded snap traps that are used in attempts to kill them. The back of the den then narrows into a long tunnel that opens up on another hole back on the street. This second hole is called a bolthole; it is an emergency exit. A bolthole is typically covered lightly with dirt or trash--camouflage. Sometimes there are networks of burrows, which can stretch beneath a few concrete squares on a sidewalk, or a number of backyards, or even an entire city block--when Rattus norvegirus first came to Selkirk, England, in 1776, there were so many burrows that people feared the town might sink. Rats can also nest in basements, sewers, manholes, abandoned pipes of any kind, floorboards, or any hole or depression. "Often," Robert Corrigan writes, " 'city rats' will live unbeknownst to people right beneath their feet."
Rats also inhabit subways, as most people in New York City and any city with a subway system are well aware. Every once in a while, there are reports of rats boarding trains, but for the most part rats stay on the tracks--subway workers I have talked to refer to rats as "track rabbits." People tend to think that the subways are filled with rats, but in fact rats are not everywhere in the system; they live in the subways according to the supply of discarded human food and sewer leaks. Sometimes, rats use the subway purely for nesting purposes; they find ways through the walls of the subway stations leading from the tracks to the restaurants and stores on the street--the vibrations of subway trains tend to create rat-size cracks and holes. Many subway rats tend to live near stations that are themselves near fast-food restaurants. At the various subway stations near Herald Square, for example, people come down from the streets and throw the food that they have not eaten onto the tracks, along with newspapers and soda bottles and, I have noticed, thousands of no-longer-charged AA batteries, waiting to leak acid. The rats eat freely from the waste and sit at the side of the little streams of creamy brown sewery water that flows between the rails. They sip the water the way rats do, either with their front paws or by scooping it up with their incisors.
DEATH COMES IN MANY FORMS for a brown rat living in the wilds of the city. A rat can be run over by a car or a bus or a cab. It can be beaten with a plunger as it climbs up through a sewer pipe and surfaces into an apartment's toilet bowl. Cats, while mice eaters, are not likely to attack adult rats; a rat will easily repeal an attack by a cat, though cats will kill young rats. In the city's less populated areas, or in the little patches of parkland and green, rats sometimes die quasi-wilderness deaths. In Brooklyn's Prospect Park, I once watched a large red-tailed hawk swoop down on a brown rat, an adult male that had been living in a burrow in a wooded area adjacent to an overstuffed garbage can. The hawk then flew into the upper branches of a maple tree, dangling the large, still-wriggling rat from its talons. People have confided rat shootings to me on numerous occasions; in fact, more people than I had ever imagined shoot rats in the city--using pellet guns or air rifles or even more potent rifles in alleys and in infested basements. And of course, rats also die when they are caught in snap traps, which is the trap sometimes referred to as a break-back trap, a rat-size version of the classic mousetrap. It is especially difficult to trap a rat with a snap trap. Generally speaking, rodents are wary of new things in their habitat, preferring routine to change; biologists refer to this trait as neophobia. Rats can be even more neophobic than mice. Thus, exterminators are likely to leave unset snap traps out for a few days before setting them, often baited, allowing the rats to become comfortable with traps. Some exterminators regularly treat snap traps with bacon grease.
>From Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants. Chapter 1, pages 1-14. Copyright Robert Sullivan 2004. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Bloomsbury.