Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Rats: Observation on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants

I've often heard the old saying (that Robert Sullivan discredits in Rats) that there is one rat for every living human being and that that rat is a lot closer to each of us than we really want to know. So I picked up a copy of Rats to learn a little about my guy and what makes him tick.

Rats is filled with rat-facts, facts about their physical makeup and prowess, about their habitats, mating habits, food preferences, mental abilities, and the like. But it is much more than that because Sullivan uses the book also to give a short history of New York City, from its founding to the present day, while interweaving the city's history with the history of the invading rats themselves and that of those men who have dedicated their lives to killing them.

Sullivan, off and on for one year, sat at the entrance to one New York City alley and patiently watched the rat activity there as a steady flow of food-filled garbage bags from nearby restaurants was deposited there each night. Although his access to the alley was interrupted by the mass murders at the World Trade Center, he spent so many hours observing that particular rat colony that he came to feel a certain fondness and admiration for them. In fact, when the colony was eventually targeted by NYC exterminators, he had mixed feelings about the pending doom of "his" rats.

That is not to say that Sullivan did not also come to admire the men who made their livings by helping to control the vermin that threatens the health of all big city dwellers. He participated with some of the best in the business in trapping live rats for study and his stories about what he learned while working with these people are included in some of the best chapters in the book.

But "rat facts" are what the book promises to deliver and Sullivan did not disappoint me. These are some of the things I learned:
Rats, unless they lose their food source, live in confined areas, generally staying within 65 feet of their nest.

Male rats are more venturesome than females and will go farther from the nesting area.

City rats are often larger their country cousins.

Up to one third of the world's food supply is destroyed by rats.

If they are not eating or sleeping, rats are usually having sex (up to 20 times per day, in fact).

A healthy female rat can deliver 8-10 new rats every 21 days, meaning that one rat pair can produce 15,000 descendants in one year if enough food is available.

The teeth of the brown rat are harder than aluminum, copper, lead or iron and are more comparable to the strength of steel.

Near 25% of electric cable breaks and almost 20% of phone disruptions are the result of rats chewing on the cables that they find so attractive.
Rats is not a book for the squeamish reader but, if you have any curiosity about what might be happening outside your door in the early hours of the morning, this is a book you will enjoy. I can't say that I'll feel any more sympathetic toward my personal rat if I ever run into him after reading the book, however. In fact, I'll probably run just as fast as I can because this is one case where "knowledge" does nothing to temper fear.

Rated at: 3.5


  1. Yiiiii!

    Oddly, as much as the above facts make me go "AGH!", I now want to read this book even more. Straight onto the wish list it goes.

    Maybe it's the horror movie fiend in me... :)

  2. Sounds like an interesting book but probably one I will pass on.

    I read and loved "Death's Acre," and that kind of thing doesn't bother me but I don't want to know if rats are in close proximity to me or what they find when they swab public door handles. I am happier with my head in the sand. :)

  3. I had no idea rats had such a huge impact on the food supply. I assume much of this takes place in the developing world. Obviously we need to start sending them terriers!

  4. Heather, I found much of this book to be fascinating because it "humanized" the rats that the author observed. I'm not sure that I ever quite felt any sympathy for them, but I did come to understand them a great deal better. I think you'll enjoy the book for lots of reasons.

  5. I can understand why you feel that way, Amy. Like I said, if I ever find myself somehow having inadvertently cornered a rat, I'm running as fast as my feet can carry me. :-)

  6. I think that the bulk of the damage does occur in third world countries, Sylvia. It's a shame because of the food shortage problems they already have that the problem isn't better handled there.

  7. Looks very interesting! I'm going to have a look out for this one.

  8. Apparently they are not just after our granaries...

  9. Hi, Sam!

    Hope I inspired you to read this and I'm wondering about the 3.5 rating. It's not meant to be great lit cos it's non-fiction; therefore, are you possibly rating it too harshly?

    I'd give it 4.5 or maybe 5 for many reasons. I found it engaging. I could picture the alley, thanks to his description, and our recent visit to NYC was enhanced by the Eden Alley search. The facts just blew my mind! Who knew they had so much sex! Oh, and what about the rat fights?!? Men biting off heads of rats-YUCK! Also, Sullivan gives history of lower Manhattan and its inhabitants.

    Just wondering...

  10. Let me know what you think, John. It was fun to read because I'm always fascinated by guys who come up with something unique to write about.

  11. Sylvia, we have a crisis on our hands when the rats start stealing our chocolate chip cookies, that's for sure. :-)

  12. Maggie, I'm glad you asked. I could not remember where I saw a review of Rats but I knew it was on a blog someplace, so, yes, you inspired me to read this one. :-)

    I tend to be a little tough on my numeric ratings and I almost went with a "4" on this one. I finally decided to take off a half-point because I got a bit bogged down in some of the history toward the end of the book. To me it was sort of dryly written in comparison to the more personal parts of the book and I found myself wishing for less history and more observation. But I still recommend it as a book well worth reading.

    So, did you find the famous rat alley? I'll bet that NYC never expected THAT to become a tourist attraction.

  13. Found it Sam! Apparently, others have made the trek enough to demand a sign. In the book he mentions its hidden(ness) and slope. I took pictures and have been debating whether to have a show and tell. Another odd occurance, the Museum of Natural History had an exhibit of Audubon's Mammals Rumniants prints. So kewl!

  14. Very cool, Maggie. I'd love to see the pictures, BTW. :-)