Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants - Robert Sullivan (2005)

Chapter 13. TRAPPING

SOMETIMES, I CONFESS, as I sat in the alley late that summer and watched a rat emerge, as I studied its now predictable but still surprising path toward food, I felt an odd thrill of wild delight at the notion that I could perhaps myself catch that rat, trap it. It occurred to me that the rat catcher, spending his time in basements, dilapidated apartments, and alleys, is, in a strange way, a part of the rat's natural environment, more so than the average rat-avoiding citizen. Trapping would provide a means of observing a wild Rattus norvegicus rat up close. Not that I was anything of a trapper prior to my time in the alley, not that I had ever in my life hunted anything. In fact, I found the whole idea of rat trapping to be alternately exciting and horrific, appealing to both my lower and higher natures—though mostly to my lower, as my wife seemed to intuitively understand. Her first reaction was to utter, "Oh, God," followed, a short time later, by an admonition, "Just be careful," which I took as sagacious advice, and I also took as meaning that I should trap with a friend. Fishing is something that appeals to me; I have some experience in holding a rod, if less in bringing anything in. Thus, in ratting, I planned to utilize the catch-and-release method.

I'd spent some time on the telephone with a trap manufacturer discussing hypothetical rat trapping, trying to sound casual; I asked questions such as "If I was going to maybe have to trap rats, for example, what could I maybe use?" The saleswoman recommended chipmunk traps. Although I didn't say so, I felt that the rats in my alley would not fit in a chipmunk trap, much less get trapped in one. I couldn't decide if it was going to be easy to trap the rat and not necessitate buying a lot of stuff, or if it was even more difficult than I thought and I should buy a lot of stuff. In the catalog for Tomahawk animal traps, I found a lot of interesting trapping gear, such as Kevlar gloves, Kevlar sleeves, animal control poles, snake tongs and snake graspers, odor eliminators, Tomahawk Dura-Flex nets, telescoping syringe poles, dart guns, and even throw nets, all of which I could imagine being used in rat trapping. The goal would be twofold: (1) get the rat, and (2) stay the hell away from the rat. In the end, I bought a trap at my local hardware store. It was a toolbox-size rectangle with a tray in the middle intended to hold bait and a door on one end that dropped shut when the bait tray was disrupted. Manufactured by Havahart, it is designed for what are described as "nuisance animals." The motto on the box is "Caring Control for Small Mammals."

I FELT THE CONFIDENCE OF a cool night's air as I stepped outside with my trap, and after logging so many hours of observations, I felt as if I really knew the lay of the alley's land, as well as the alley's rats—as if trapping a rat was an actual possibility. I had arranged to meet with two friends, the artist and the poet who had been out ratting with me before. Matt, the poet, was going to pick up some bait at a deli on the way to the alley. I was meeting Dave, the artist, on the way there and he would carry my binoculars and notebooks and night-vision gear, while I carried the rat trap.

By 9 o'clock I was on the subway with Dave, carrying the large Havahart trap as well as the rope that I planned to rig to the cage to effect a release from a safe distance. On the way, we ran into an acquaintance, a guy whom we knew from high school who knew nothing of our rat endeavor—a central paradox of life in the city is that in the midst of several million people, each of whom seems to live life in complete anonymity, you can run into someone you know. As we greeted our friend, I moved the trap from my right hand to my left hand so that my right hand would be free to shake his. As I did this, I noticed that the guy looked down at the trap but didn't say anything. Then he looked up and said, "So what are you guys up to?"

I was practically bursting with my answer, of course. "We're going to try and trap rats," I said.

He looked me up and down and nodded hesitantly. Then he looked at Dave and said, "So, Dave, what are you up to?"

Dave and I came up out of the subway tunnel downtown, two blocks from the World Trade Center, which was still standing at that point. The weather was cool after a torrential rain, autumnally crisp. Near the alley, we met Matt, who had bought the bait as directed. In choosing the bait, I combined the expertise I had acquired while watching the rats eat garbage for a few months with a knowledge, culled from my rat readings, of foods that they have been reported to prefer—and then I just made some gut choices, so that in the end we ended up with sardines, Vienna sausages, and Kit Kat bars, all stuck together with peanut butter.

We were all excited to begin trapping. Yes, there were some unanswered questions. How would I release the rat after catching it? What would the rat do after I released it? Would the rat turn around and attack? Would we fall dead immediately from one of the many horrible diseases that rats can carry but do not always carry? And what was I thinking again, trying to catch a rat? Where was my self-respect, my instinct for self-preservation?

I was fortunate, however, in that Dave and Matt were a lot more relaxed about the whole operation. Though comforted by my relatively extensive rat knowledge, I am like the rat in the pack that is fine-tuned to smell fear. They encouraged me as I worked. "Put them all in there," Dave said, while Matt said, "That looks good enough." At last I had the trap set. I was ready.

THE ALLEY WAS ALIVE WITH rats that evening—rats streaking down the walls, from side to side, rats squabbling and screeching, rats eating trash. There were rats feeding on the Chinese-food side and rats feeding on the Irish-bar-food side. Rats were pulling themselves up through the holes in Edens Alley's cobblestones and racing around the corner and coming down the sidewalk. Watching the skitterings and the rat-happy spasms, I saw a nighttime symphony of movement, a chorus of disgustingness. From a rat's perspective, the alley was food-filled, maybe stress-free. I made a mental note to reestimate the population at some point—it seemed to have increased significantly.

With the baited trap in hand, I took a few steps into the alley. Immediately, I turned around and took a few steps back out. Then I collected my thoughts and tried walking into the alley once more, this time with Dave and Matt covering me—it felt good to have some backup, to have visitors in the alley. A few rats quickly scampered off as a result of our presence, but we were still and relatively quiet and many more rats stayed; several of the rats that were deep in the garbage bags continued foraging, as if we weren't even there. The rats who were en route from food to nest or vice versa returned to their nests for a few minutes but then resumed what appeared to be an abbreviated feeding pattern, which was roughly the same pattern only slightly more cautious. The rats seemed to be working around us.

I had some trouble rigging my safety release rope, the jury-rigged affair that I hoped would protect me when and if I caught one of the many rats scurrying around. I was kneeling on the ground in the rat alley, watching for rats around me in a paranoid fashion, and, as a result, spent a lot of time fumbling with my pocketknife. I was getting nervous about the whole thing—worrying about the flow of rats, worrying about jail, about death: rats can sometimes symbolize anxiety, for me, fear of the worst. Matt once again kindly suggested I relax. I looked up at Dave, who was smiling somewhat anxiously. I kept working, eventually choosing to place the trap at the highest part of the alley, a position that seemed to me at once out of view of the passersby on the streets and precisely in the course of the rats that were coming from Edens Alley down into the two trash areas to feed. I had seen a healthy amount of rat traffic along the wall, and in placing the trap in this path, I felt like a trained pest control technician, which, of course, I am not.

With my hands smelling like peanut buttery sardines (and with a savage urge to try one of the Vienna sausages), I left the alley and felt a surge of satisfaction. We all stood out in the street, near John DeLury Plaza, and looked into the alley with binoculars.

Ah, the excitement, the nail-biting and palpably semiwild thrill of ratting in the city!

The first rat to turn the corner from Edens Alley and head toward the trap elicited positive comments from all of us. We soon found ourselves talking to the rat, encouraging it, saying things like "Come on, rat" and "There you go, rat" and "Do you smell those sardines?" Unfortunately, the rat was extremely tentative; it took a step down the alley, seemed to notice the trap, then paused. As I have already stated, any pest control technician will tell you that rats are neophobic—i.e., fearful of anything new or different in their habitat. Matt and Dave and I watched excitedly as the rat made his decision and, after a few hopeful seconds, lurched and veered around the trap to head for the river of garbage, which, as a matter of fact, was growing, ever changing, ever the same.

It was spectacularly unclimactic as the next rat approached and repeated the maneuver, and in retrospect I feel ridiculous even thinking that a rat would choose my bait. This new rat made the same tentative investigation that had previously so tantalized us. And for rat after rat it was again the same: each rat seeming to note the trap, each rat perfectly avoiding the trap. They were proving precisely as wary, as sensitive to newness, as bait-shy, as reputed.

And yet there were so many rats in the alley and there was so much garbage—more bags had come out, more were coming—that I could not believe that not one would take our bait, despite knowing this hardened rat behavioral fact: when faced with a new food source, they will most likely stick with the old food source, until it runs out. Wasn't it possible that they would become acclimated to the presence of the trap in a few hours? Hoping for the best, I moved the trap to the other side of the alley, along the Chinese-restaurant-garbage side, in the midst of the Chinese food garbage. There was even more activity now. One rat seemed to climb up on top of the trap to investigate—or at least I think it did: it was difficult to see in the shadow of the long ridge of garbage bags. Notwithstanding, the result was the same.

In the hours around midnight we were serenaded by screeching cabs and sleepy-sounding garbage trucks, and at some point it occurred to me that rat trapping is not unlike fly-fishing—finding the perfect place in the streamlike alley and understanding the rats' garbage feeding preferences were both crucial. And as is the case for the fly fisherman when he stands in the cool, clear stream, our own sensory instincts heightened. We saw more clearly the flow of vermin and refuse, and I saw again—so much more so, in fact, that I was wondering how I hadn't noticed it before—that the alley was inclined, a hill. The source of this flow of rats, the stream of rodents, was a completely denuded peak, an alley-covered rise of the land.

IT TURNS OUT THAT LIKE trout, rats are incredibly skittish, wise-seeming, even, and hesitant to take a chance on the extraordinary sardine-juice-covered Vienna-sausage-and-Kit-Kat mix when a field of freshly discarded, partially eaten shrimp fried rice has already proven safe, and appears each night like the regular hatch of stone flies. After an hour or so, several juvenile rats were flirting with the trap, approaching it from the side, but then they too swam off to the plastic bags. The large, wary rats, meanwhile, seemed to grow even more suspicious: they paused, upwind, then stopped and started and finally raced past the trap and into the garbage. We were disappointed. Each time a rat checked out the trap, it still felt to us as if a rat could be trapped, would be trapped, just as each cast of the fisherman's fly rod brings new hope, fresh anticipation, until at last the fisherman becomes convinced that he is standing in the wrong spot or maybe fishing with the wrong fly.

So it was that at about one in the morning we collected the trap and broke up for the night. I felt I was close to understanding how to trap a rat, and yet I needed more studying and observing. As it turned out, though, I wouldn't be back down to see the rats in the alley for a while, because later that morning the World Trade Center would be destroyed—I can still remember looking up at the towers as we went down into the subway again. For the next few weeks, all of downtown was evacuated and blocked off.