Excerpt from Rats by Robert Sullivan, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants

By Robert Sullivan

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  • Hardcover: Apr 2004,
    256 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2005,
    256 pages.

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ONE OF THE THINGS I find most fascinating about rats is that they have a sense of where they are and of where they have been. This is explained by the fact that rats love to be touching things. Biologists refer to rats as thigmophilic, which means touch loving. Consequently, rats prefer to touch things as they travel. Their runways are often parallel to walls, tracks, and curbs; in infested basements, grease slicks parallel ceiling beams and the run of sewer pipes. Rats are thought to feel especially safe at comers, when they are simultaneously touching a wall and free to escape. As they travel again and again for food, as they escape oncoming trucks or, upon the return home of a drunk human apartment dweller, flee into the relative safety of garbage cans, rats develop a muscle memory, a kinesthetic sense that allows them to remember the turns, the route, the course of movement. As young rats follow older rats, the trails are repeated, passed on. Exterminators like to say that if the walls of an alley or a rat-infested block were somehow taken down without disturbing the rats, the rats would awaken the next evening, venture forth, and travel precisely the same routes as the night before, as if the walls were still there. They would remember the walls. Deep in their rat tendons, rats know history.

A rat phenomenon that is based only partly on fact is the Rat King, a kind of rat often mentioned in stories about rats. The Rat King is usually described as the rat that leads other rats when rats amass and herd. Policemen on late night patrols sometimes report seeing a Rat King lead a group of rats across a street. Drunks frequently report Rat King sightings. It is true that from time to time rats run in huge packs. I have seen them do so. Likewise, it is true that within a rat colony a dominant male rat emerges. However, it is not the case that one rat leads the others. Something that has inspired the notion of a mythical Rat King is the actual phenomenon of rats whose tails have become knotted together with other rats' tails in their nest. The resulting entanglement is called a Rat King. There have been Rat Kings ranging in size from three rats to thirty-two rats. Sometimes the rats die, sometimes they are fed by the other rats and stay alive for a time in the nest. In myths and stories about marauding rats and secret rat leagues, the Rat King sometimes sits in the center of tied-up rats' tails, the lesser rats his throne. But again, these are rat stories. An actual Rat King is really nothing more than a rat that takes advantage of his natural strengths and of other rats' natural weaknesses. A Rat King is just a big rat.

THE RAT IS A NEWCOMER to America, an immigrant, a settler, its ancient roots reaching to Southeast Asia. The black rat migrated south, while the brown rat migrated north, to China, along the Yangtze River, and then into Siberia near the present-day Lake Baikal. The black rat came to Europe ahead of the brown rat, with the Crusades. The brown rat did not appear in Europe until the beginning of the eighteenth century. There are accounts of brown rats crossing the Volga River in hordes in 1727, and more reports of brown rats proceeding across Russia to the Baltic Sea. Brown rats were reported in east Prussia, France, and Italy in 1750; they were reported in Norway in 1768 and in Sweden in 1790. Brown rats are thought to have been brought by ship from Russia to Copenhagen in 1716 and to Norway from Russia in 1768. Spain did not have brown rats until 1800. They arrived in England in 1728, and in 1769, in Outlines of the Natural History of Great Britain, John Berkenhout named the brown rat Rattus norvegicus. He most likely misnamed the rat. He believed that the rats had come to England via Norwegian lumber ships, when in fact they had probably come from Denmark, since at the time Norway rats had not yet settled in Norway.

>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.

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