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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  • First Published:
    Apr 2004, 256 pages
    Apr 2005, 256 pages

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Chapter Two

BUT ENOUGH ABOUT YOU, I think I hear the reader protesting. What B about rats? And so, as I arise from my selfishness to describe the wild rat of New York City, the object of this nature experiment, I begin by noting that when it comes to rats, men and women labor under a lot of misinformation--errors inspired, it seems to me, by their own fears, by their own mental rat profiles rather than any earth-based facts. So, with this in mind, I offer a brief introductory sketch of the particular species of rat that runs wild in New York--Rattus norvegicus, aka the Norway or brown rat. I offer a portrait that is hysteria-free, that merely describes the rat as a rat.

A rat is a rodent, the most common mammal in the world. Rattus norvegicus is one of the approximately four hundred different kinds of rodents, and it is known by many names, each of which describes a trait or a perceived trait or sometimes a habitat: the earth rat, the roving rat, the barn rat, the field rat, the migratory rat, the house rat, the sewer rat, the water rat, the wharf rat, the alley rat, the gray rat, the brown rat, and the common rat. The average brown rat is large and stocky; it grows to be approximately sixteen inches long from its nose to its tail-the size of a large adult human male's foot--and weighs about a pound, though brown rats have been measured by scientists and exterminators at twenty inches and up to two pounds. The brown rat is sometimes confused with the black rat, or Rattus rattus, which is smaller and once inhabited New York City and all of the cities of America but, since Rattus norvegicus pushed it out, is now relegated to a minor role. (The two species still survive alongside each other in some Southern coastal cities and on the West Coast, in places like Los Angeles, for example, where the black rat lives in attics and palm trees.) The black rat is always a very dark gray, almost black, and the brown rat is gray or brown, with a belly that can be light gray, yellow, or even a pure-seeming white. One spring, beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, I saw a red-haired brown rat that had been run over by a car. Both pet rats and laboratory rats are Rattus norvegicus, but they are not wild and therefore, I would emphasize, not the subject of this book. Sometimes pet rats are called fancy rats. But if anyone has picked up this book to learn about fancy rats, then they should put this book down right away; none of the rats mentioned herein are at all fancy.

Rats are nocturnal, and out in the night the brown rat's eyes are small and black and shiny; when a flashlight shines into them in the dark, the eyes of a rat light up like the eyes of a deer. Though it forages in darkness, the brown rat has poor eyesight. It makes up for this with, first of all, an excellent sense of smell. Rats often bite young children and infants on the face because of the smell of food residues on the children. (Many of the approximately 50,000 people bitten by rats every year are children.) They have an excellent sense of taste, detecting the most minute amounts of poison, down to one part per million. A brown rat has strong feet, the two front paws each equipped with four clawlike nails, the rear paws even longer and stronger. It can run and climb with squirrel-like agility. It is an excellent swimmer, surviving in rivers and bays, in sewer streams and toilet bowls.

The brown rat's teeth are yellow, the front two incisors being especially long and sharp, like buckteeth. When the brown rat bites, its front two teeth spread apart. When it gnaws, a flap of skin plugs the space behind its incisors. Hence, when the rat gnaws on indigestible materials-concrete or steel, for example-the shavings don't go down the rat's throat and kill it. Its incisors grow at a rate of five inches per year. Rats always gnaw, and no one is certain why-there are few modern rat studies. It is sometimes erroneously stated that the rat gnaws solely to limit the length of its incisors, which would otherwise grow out of its head, but this is not the case: the incisors wear down naturally. In terms of hardness, the brown rat's teeth are stronger than aluminum, copper, lead, and iron. They are comparable to steel. With the alligator-like structure of their jaws, rats can exert a biting pressure of up to seven thousand pounds per square inch. Rats, like mice, seem to be attracted to wires-to utility wires, computer wires, wires in vehicles, in addition to gas and water pipes. One rat expert theorizes that wires may be attractive to rats because of their resemblance to vines and the stalks of plants; cables are the vines of the city. By one estimate, 26 percent of all electric-cable breaks and 18 percent of all phone-cable disruptions are caused by rats. According to one study, as many as 25 percent of all fires of unknown origin are rat-caused. Rats chew electrical cables. Sitting in a nest of tattered rags and newspapers, in the floorboards of an old tenement, a rat gnaws the head of a match-the lightning in the city forest.

>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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