Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants - Robert Sullivan (2005)
Chapter 17. CATCHING
AFTER THE WORLD Trade Center crumbled, the routine of the city worked like a tonic for my worries; in my view, the activities of a neighborhood corner were an opportunity for reassuringly cheerful monotony that caused me to marvel perhaps unduly, to rhapsodize, on the range of traits that man comprises. I do not know much about Freud, but I have a feeling that if a rat is indeed symbolic ofa fear, then trapping a rat is, in a Freudian sense, confronting that fear, or at least putting that fear in a cage, so that when I went trapping again, it was therapeutic as well. On my second attempt to trap rats, I went with some people I know over in the city health department. The outing turned out to be historic: the city was trapping rats alive for the first time in several decades.
The group hoping to trap rats included Dan Markowski and Anne Li. Dan, the Tennessee-born vector control officer who had worked on World Trade Center rat control, was wearing a health department windbreaker, and his ponytail stuck out from underneath his cowboy hat. Anne was also dressed in a health department windbreaker and jeans. Born in Brooklyn, Anne is tall, with a dry sense of humor, and as far as rat experts go, she has a complete nonaversion to rats. She is an epidemiologist with the health department. Most of her work with rats occurs in a lab. Like me, she had never trapped a Rattus norvegicus on the streets. Anne had a lot of complimentary things to say about rats, such as "I think rats are so underappreciated." At another point, she turned to me and said, "Rats are the smartest creatures."
We were picked up by Isaac Ruiz, an exterminator who works out of the Lower East Side extermination office. He lives in the Bronx. Issac, who was wearing a wool shirt and sunglasses, told me that, as opposed to Dan and Anne, he was not especially eager to see rats. He is used to laying out poison for rats when they are not around.
We were all in a van going rat trapping for two reasons. First, the health department wanted an indication of how well their own rodent control measures were working; at that time, Bushwick was a test area for the city's rodent control program. The other reason was a result of the fear-rich post disaster conditions that the city endured after the World Trade Center came down. The health department was trapping in Bushwick because of plague. At the time, the health department was working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was interested in knowing about the rat populations of several major cities and how those rat populations would react if they were infected with plague. The CDC was especially interested in rats after the World Trade Center was destroyed and, a short time later, after anthrax, a biological weapon, was sent through the mail. What if someone attempted to bring plague to the city? How would the rats react? How should New York rats handle rat-infected fleas? So Dan and Anne were out in Bushwick, practicing before the arrival of the federal biologist, a rat trapping dress rehearsal, a little homework inspired to quell governmental concerns about the possibility of New York City hosting the Black Death.
And so it was on a crisp, clear morning that we pulled out of the City Hall area and drove through Chinatown and into the Lower East Side and then got stuck in traffic until at last we climbed up to the crest of the Williamsburg Bridge, where, in a brief fermata-like moment that involved a lot of neck craning, we could see from the tall, tower like housing projects of lower Manhattan with the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building behind them, over into the quilt of tenement buildings and low industrial operations that characterized our destination, the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, where I had previously (as described above) been with the city's rodent control department as they attended to a young girl bitten by a rat. Into the wilds of Brooklyn!
BUSHWICK—FIRST SETTLED BY the Dutch, who, as one translator has it, called the area Boswijk, meaning "heavy woods," which probably were heavy until the woods quickly filled up with Germans, who had moved across the East River from their crowded German neighborhoods on the Lower East Side. The Germans opened up breweries and, in the mid-1800s, made Bushwick the beer capital of New York, at a time when men, women, and children drank an average of two barrels of beer or ale a year. It was subsequently settled by English, Irish, Russian, Polish, Italian, African-American, and Puerto Rican immigrants, and—after some of those people moved out—by people from the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Jamaica, Ecuador, India, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Bushwick was once filled with textile factories and textile workers, with breweries and brewery workers, but it was nearly destroyed in 1977. That was the year there of the blackout, a New York-wide power outage, and in Bushwick, after heavy looting—its main thoroughfare, Broadway, burned down almost completely—40 percent of the businesses closed up within the year. Still today, it is one of the poorest neighborhoods in N ew York, a place filled with abandoned lots, a place where 40 percent of the population is on government-assisted programs but where artists have just recently begun to sniff around and smell (relatively) cheap rent and lofts and other artists, a place where the city has very slowly begun to build subsidized housing.
In Bushwick, our van stopped alongside an abandoned lot underneath an elevated subway train. As the train thundered overhead, the light flickered on the street below: a children's flip-book scene of Myrtle Avenue would show the green and seemingly grayish green of a vacant lot filled with construction rubble and long-weathered paper trash, with crabgrass, dandelions, and thorny vines, with the raggedy-leaved mugwort that is a city relative of Western sagebrush. It was an abandoned lot of urban America, the outer-borough habitat of the North American wild rat.
In a few minutes, we were laying out traps. Dan joked that he was not permitted to describe the bait he was using: "We can't tell you the ingredients," Dan said.
I looked over him and he smiled. "It's peanut butter," he said.
"All you need is enough for them to smell," Anne said.
"Just a little dab'11 do ya," Dan sang.
Anne went on at knowledgeable length about rat populations: "The general consensus," Anne said, "is that if you see one, then there are ten, and if you see them during the day, then you don't know what you've got." She talked about the behavior of groups of rats, about how rats share their stress within a rat colony, how they pass it on, like a cold; when one rats enters a colony and is stressed for some reason—because of aggressive behavior it faces from a larger rat, because of a lack of food—the rest of the colony will soon be stressed too. This group behavior is thought to be regulated by pheromones, substances that when secreted influence the behavior of other animals of the same species. Anne said that this kind of behavior regulation is often true for humans as well, and she mentioned a study that one of her graduate school professors had conducted among rats, and then among women. The human experiment, conducted among a group of young women living in a Chicago dormitory, showed that pheromones helped regulate the menstrual cycles amongst the group. One of the women in the dorm was a future senator for Bushwick and for all of New York State, Hillary Clinton.
Anne motioned across the lot, to where she had just placed a trap, and said, "Frankly, one of those vines had rat piss on it, which will help. You know, some people ask, 'Do you have to use new traps?' And that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Even stressed-rat piss is good."
I watched them lay down traps for a while, looking for a secret or trick. They were merely watching for possible rat activity, for obvious along-the-wall corridors, for cozy rat places.
Issac also laid out a couple of traps. He was a little tentative. When he got toward the back of the lot, a broken fence opened on the backyard of an old tenement building. A dog was barking. "That sucker gets loose and I know I'm dead," said Isaac.
Two men walked by and shouted out, "What are you doing?"
We told them we were trapping rats.
"The whole place is full of rats," the first man said.
"I catch 'em behind the fridge," the other man said.
"We want them alive," Dan said.
"They're hard to catch alive," the first man said.
THE NEXT LOT WAS AN abandoned corner property, on a back street in Bushwick, adjacent to a caved-in apartment building, attached to a little roofless wooden garage, which contained a collection of car parts, construction debris, and household trash: old speakers and a baby stroller jutted out of the pile; malt liquor bottles floated on the top like buoys.
"This is a perfect spot for death and pestilence," Anne said. They set down ten traps.
The other lot that they trapped in was along Grove Street below the elevated subway line. It was a small, fenced-off triangle of sandy dirt, the locked fence maintained by a community group a few buildings down Grove Street. The community group, called Make the Road by Walking, brings in services to the neighborhood, stops sweatshops, and often attempts to help rid people or streets of rats.
We all walked down to the community center, where we saw photographs of people in Make the Road by Walking bringing a rat to City Hall—a dead rat nested on a plate full of lettuce. Make the Road by Walking only had one key for the lot, so Anne and I went out to get a copy made. We walked along Myrtle and down to an intersection that was full of little stores. I could smell barbecued chicken and peeked in a window at a flock of roasted chickens and a sign: POLLO A LA BRAS A. Some of the health department rodent-control field-workers say that a severe rat infestation depends on at least one good chicken place in a neighborhood; people buy chicken, take it out, and leave trails of chewed wings and bits of breasts.
In the hardware store, poison rat baits and traps for killing rats surrounded the cash register. The man at the counter said he had an excellent business in rat-killing products, a good sign for rat trappers, a bad sign for the neighborhood.
Back at the corner we entered the lot. I took a trap and was thinking about where to put it. So much of the lot seemed like good rat-trapping territory. The dirt there was perfect for burrowing, and rat holes were all along the fence where the abandoned lot bordered the sidewalk. Rat-wise, it was as the Great Plains must have been before white settlers killed all the buffalo.
As Isaac observed me, I looked for a place to lay my own trap—and finally chose a spot along the fence, near a burrow, a rat-traveled and rat-hopeful spot. I set my trap.
At some point, a rat ran out of a burrow and across the lot and down into a hole—a gray blur.
"Look!" somebody said.
Spotting a rat in the daylight made Dan confident. "It's only a matter of time," he said.
We locked the lot back up. The plan was to come back the next morning to see if we'd caught anything—it wasn't as exciting as the first time I went ratting, but this method seemed likely to produce better results. Isaac was going to drive us back to the city, after stopping in Brooklyn at a brand-new Russian bagel place for lunch. But just before we drove off, two men walked by and stopped at the fence; they looked into the abandoned lot and spoke with Isaac in Spanish. They told Isaac that they remembered when the lot was the site of an old wooden house that had become abandoned and filled with rats. They remembered the house being demolished and partially buried—the basement was still there, they said. They pointed to the ground, saying that the old home was still beneath it, still rat-infested.
The older of the two men shook his head. (<Las ratas, son el pan nuestro de cada dia," the man said. "The rats are part of everyday life."
AND THEN, AT LONG LAST, in a thrilling finale the very next morning, I caught a rat. What a heady feeling it was, to catch a rat! What a thrill to have briefly arrested one grimy twitch of the city's energy, to have isolated a note of the gray rat masses—to look a rat in the eye (even if it wouldn't look at me) and see it as a fact so ripe, as a city truth and a biting truth at that! The rat was there in my cage when we pulled up and I jumped out of the van with everyone else. We couldn't get into the lot because it was still locked, but we could see the rats in the traps through the fence. We were like children looking at unopened presents.
When we found the key, we all went to the traps that we had set, all of which held rats. The rats were testing the steel, pushing at the doors, then recoiling into the corners. The rats were not making any noise but they could be frantic. "These guys are mental in here!" Isaac said. Some of them had pulled in bits of plastic trash that they had shredded to create makeshift nests in the corners of their cages.
Anne picked up her trap and looked at her rat. She inspected it closely. "Look at this rat. This rat is beautiful!" she said.
I have to say that I felt my rat was one of the biggest, though I admit Isaac's could have been bigger. Hard to say, given how quickly they were moving back and forth in the cage. Especially in the setting—a scraggly lot, edges littered with garbage—these rats were the platonic form of wild.
Isaac looked at my rat and said, "It's pretty good, you know. But I went for the bigger hole." He winked. "I figure, the bigger the hole, the bigger the rat," he said.
We brought the cages from the edges of the lot into the center, where we took photos of the rats with the humans and then photos just of the rats. We placed the cages near each other and compared them. We covered each cage with a garbage bag to calm the rats and put the cages in the back of the van. Before my rat was packed into the van, I took a long look at him. The gray back fur on top, the lighter-and-almost-white fur below. The long, rat-yellow teeth, the startlingly dexterous pink paws with their long, thin, pink and prune-textured digits.
We got in the van. As we drove to the next lot, we could hear the rats jumping around in the back, which didn't seem to bother anyone but me.
"I can't get over how lovely they look," Anne said.
"Yup, very nice," Dan said. "And this is like the size I was expecting."
"They're beautiful," Anne said.
At the next lot, beneath the M train, we all marched into the field. "You got one here," Isaac said. "Dan got one." The other traps were empty except for one. One of the traps had caught a starling. The starling had apparently flown into the trap and attempted to eat the peanut butter. Dan released the starling.*
"What is the matter with this lot?" Anne asked. As the M train ran overhead, a mangy old cat appeared in the lot. "It can't be that old cat," Anne said.
Dan shrugged his shoulders as he used his knife to scrape peanut butter from the traps before packing them into the van.
IN MEETINGS BACK AT THE health department, the rat trapping team had debated releasing the rats after catching them. On the one hand, they didn't want to tamper with the rat population for the sake of the experiment. On the other hand, they didn't feel it was appropriate for the health department to be releasing rats into the community—the people of Bushwick would not like it. Therefore, the plan was to check the rats for parasites and then to study their blood. For a blood sample to be effective, the rats would have to be alive when the blood was drawn. As part of the dry run for the visit from the biologist from the Centers for Disease Control the following week, Dan was planning on drawing some rat blood for testing. Now, Dan looked for an out-of-the-way place to draw blood from the rats. He chose an abandoned shack next to the abandoned building.
Isaac brought the rats out of the van, then went back to the van and waited alongside it. The idea of watching Dan draw rat blood repulsed him. Anne, on the other hand, was eager to observe; she hoped to learn how to draw rat blood.
As they were setting up, Dan stopped for a moment to answer his cell phone, a call from people back at the health department. Hanging up, Dan said, "This is the thing people don't understand. It's hit-or-miss science. At the meetings, people are like, 'Have you set a goal for the number of rats you're going to catch?' And the answer is, we'll set the traps and we'll get what we get."
On the floor of the abandoned shed, they cleared away what appeared to be the debris of a crack addict and brought out several clean syringes, some blood containers, cotton swabs, and a bottle of halothane, an anesthetic gas. The wind was blowing hard; it was slamming a door on the abandoned shed, which repeatedly startled me. The scene seemed illicit somehow.
As we prepared to look closely at the rats, Dan cautioned me not to make too much of them; he seemed to be saying that I shouldn't get caught up in rat lore and rat mystique. They were only rats, he explained to me, easily sedated, easily worked with, even if they were wild. As he spoke, he opened the garbage bag covering one of the cages. Ann treated two cotton balls with halothane. She dropped the cotton balls into the garbage bag and twisted it shut tight, to put the rat to sleep.
In a few minutes Dan looked into the garbage bag at the rat. He shook his head as he closed the bag and looked a little incredulous: "He's livelier than he was before."
They increased the dosage of anesthetic, putting in three treated cotton swabs this time. The wind was picking up. They waited and looked in the bag again. The rat was still alert. Whereas Dan had begun this work by cautioning me to remember that a rat was nothing more than a rat, now his feelings about the rat seemed to have changed. "That rat's one tough bastard," Dan said.
Dan increased the dosage again.
Finally, the rat looked unconscious, its tail limp, though when Dan took it out of the cage, he quickly discovered that it was still awake. He held the rat down on the ground with his hands and placed a halothane-treated swab directly over the rat's nose, holding the cotton with tweezers. The rat was going from groggy to woozy to sleepy to asleep, and as this happened, I realized that the rat was a large female, measuring, as we later determined, about eleven inches long, not including the tail, which was close to another ten inches long and looked to me like something off an armadillo. At last the rat seemed at peace. Dan held the rat down on the ground and plunged the needle into its lightish chest fur, aiming for the rat's heart. He drew out the rat blood and bottled it; the blood was a deep and rich red and mammalian, the color of human blood. As this happened, I looked away, over at Isaac, who was still standing next to the van. Dan put the rat in a Ziploc freezer bag, with another dose of halothane. The halothane would kill the rat: from sleep to death.
On the second rat, they started with a larger dosage of halothane. The second rat was larger, a foot long. "He's very healthy," Anne said. "He's missing a little hair on his nose but I think that's because he was trying to get out of the cage."
"Anne, you want to bleed this one?" Dan asked.
"Okay," Anne said.
Two cotton balls soaked with halothane were not enough. They tried more. "This is what, four balls?" Dan asked. "Man, four balls after taking two balls already." Dan shook his head again and held a cotton ball to the rat's big nose. "We're underestimating these rats," Dan said.
Anne agreed. "These guys are fucking amazing."
She began to draw blood from the rat, but as she did it became clear that the rat was not asleep.
"Uh, he's still awake," Anne said.
Dan had already noticed this. He had seen the rat moving, seen it reviving and regaining consciousness, and it seemed to me that, rather than wasting precious rat-crisis time alerting us to the rat's movements, he was deep into securing the small abandoned lot, the rat-blood-drawing site, and in an impressively unfrantic way looking for a means to stop the rat, any way to secure the rat, in fact—so that finally he just stepped on the rat's tail. "Oh, you were just play asleep, weren't you?" Dan said. The rat rose up and seemed to slash at Dan; it snarled. In a minute, they had it anesthetized again.
The wind blew and the shed door slammed and I saw a white cat come out of the trash, emerging from behind a plastic replica of a Greek bust. In knocking out the third rat, Dan and Anne increased the halothane dosage significantly. When they thought the rat was asleep, they took it out of its cage. It too was a large, healthy rat, a foot long. Dan was beginning to bleed the rat. As he did, he happily noticed something on the rat's fur.
"What's that?" Dan said.
"It's a tick," Anne said.
Dan leaned into the rat. "It's a mite."
"Okay, Dan," Anne said. But as they were talking, the rat began to squiggle greatly.
This time, the rat's movement was more than just the groggy squiggling that the other rats had made; this time, even after a large dose of anesthetic, the rat was somehow recovering all its rat strength. Dan stopped drawing blood. He moved calmly but rapidly. He seemed to think about trying more halothane on the rat. Then the rat moved again—this time less rat on drugs and more wild rat. Dan put his foot down on the tail.
"Oh, that's it," Anne said. She backed away. Dan pulled up his foot. I was standing there too, right next to the rat, and I looked around to figure out where I could run, if necessary, then realized that I was between the rat and the abandoned house, trapped. So I just stood as still as possible as the rat lifted his big body up and first waddled, then walked, then wearily scampered off. I was trembling a little.
Dan was not trembling but he did seem as if he were in shock. "I'm using my foot," he said, speaking in the present tense, as if watching a replay, "but the rat still gets up and pulls himself away." Dan was really shaking his head now. In fact, he was no longer telling me to keep rats in perspective. "Rats are incredible, they really are," he said. "I mean, there aren't many animals you can bleed like that and that can take it."
"And the thing is, you're never going to beat them," Anne added. "They have something going for them that you don't, which is natural instinct. Like you don't instinctively get rats. You're not a cat. But they instinctively avoid death and the obstacles that we put in their way to kill them. Besides, I always say that if you killed every rat in New York City, you would have created new housing for sixty million rats."
"Let's put it like this," Dan said. "If you put that cat in that bag with the halothane, he'd be dead."
We all stood there and looked over at where the rat had returned to the wild.
"It's a New York City rat," Dan said.
PLAGUE HAS THREATENED NEW YORK CITY on several occasions. The first time was in 1899 when the SS J. W. Taylor, a British ship, traveled to New York from Santos in Brazil, where plague had broken out a few days before it sailed. The steward died on the boat and two men were sick when it arrived in port. The ship was quarantined. It was permitted to take on coal in New York Harbor, but the coal ship was ordered to stay fifteen feet away, to avoid the transfer of rats. A few days later, the ship sailed away, but a controversy erupted that fall when it was discovered that a shipment of coffee from the ship had made it ashore. (When asked if the coffee was ever drunk, the owner of the coffee company said, "I should hope so.") Once in 1948, the port discovered plague fleas on board the Wyoming, a ship traveling from a plague port in Morocco, but then the city secretly trapped the rats on the surrounding piers and in the surrounding neighborhoods and determined that plague had never gotten off the ship and out into the city. For decades, the port of New York constantly trapped rats and checked them for plague and plague fleas. They also fumigated incoming ships. Teams of exterminators were stationed out at Hoffman Island, a small man-made island that was built just off the shore of Staten Island in 1866, after rioters protested a quarantine station on Staten Island itself. In 1928, port exterminators were estimated to kill an average often thousand rats on ships every year. By 1952, a team of 14 men was exterminating rats, including Louis A. Lindecop, the port's chief sanitary inspector at the time. Lindecop once told a reporter he had seen rats go crazy for raw cucumbers but eat ship's grease if there was nothing else.
The Centers for Disease Control's concern with plague in New York City has to do with the use ofplague as a biological weapon, which stems in part from the Japanese's use of the disease as a biological weapon during World War II. At that time, Shiro Ishii, a general and a doctor, led a special biological warfare research unit, called Unit 731. Unit 731 worked in Manchuria, where outbreaks of plague had occurred in 1910, 1920, and 1927. The general was interested in plague as a weapon because of its ability to create casualties out of proportion with the amount of bacteria necessary to disseminate the disease. Also, plague could be used militarily in such a way as to make it appear like a natural-occurring outbreak. Initially, General Ishii's unit had difficulty devising a way to drop plague bacillus from airplanes; the bacillus died by the time it hit the ground because of air pressure and high temperatures. He next infected human fleas with the plague, in hopes that they would infect humans and even rats, so as to prolong the epidemic. He attempted to spray fleas from compressed-air containers, which was not successful. He eventually built clay bombs and filled them with infected fleas and dropped them, which worked. Eighty percent of the fleas survived. He experimented on humans, and in these experiments, Ishii determined that if ten healthy people are in a room infested with twenty plague-bearing fleas per square meter, four will die of plague. (Anthrax is more likely to kill someone, but the plague will infect more people.) It is thought that the Japanese used plague as a weapon several times in China during World War II. After a plane flew over Changde, a city in the Hunan province, people began dying of the plague. One of the clues that has led plague experts to believe that the outbreaks were caused by humans was that the rats only began dying in the city two months after humans began dying. After the war, Unit 731's human experiments were made public; members of the unit had practiced vivisection on humans. General Ishii was never tried for war crimes. On the contrary, a deal was made in which he donated his records to the United States government—Ishii's records included fifteen thousand slides of specimens from approximately five hundred human cases of diseases that had been caused by biological weapons, including the plague and anthrax. He retired as a respected medical man.
The Soviet Union designed its biological weapons program using General Ishii's work as a template, and Americans incorporated Ishii's work into theirs as well, when the United States began experimenting with biological weapons in the 1950s. In addition to testing weapons to be used against military enemies, the Americans tested biological weapons that could be used against the United States. To simulate the spread of anthrax over large populations, the government used microbes that were similar to anthrax but thought to be harmless—Serratia marcescens and Bacillus globigii. In April 1950, two navy ships sprayed the residents of the Virginia coastal communities of Norfolk, Hampton, and Newport News with Bacillus globigii. Neither the public nor Congress knew about it. Similar sprayings were made in San Francisco Bay—area residents were exposed to clouds of these microbes—and in perhaps as many as two hundred other places around the United States. In New York City, the military released Bacillus globigii on the subways. In the summer of 1966, plainclothes soldiers dropped Bacillus globigii-filled light bulbs on city subway tracks; they dropped them on the tracks in between the subway cars so that the wind of the train would whip the bacillus up and spread it through the system. Later, other soldiers carried suitcases with air samplers to see how far through the subway system the Bacillus globigii had spread. The results are classified.
The most recent plague case in New York City was reported in 2002, and it came not by boat nor by bomb but by plane. The plague in New York was the same plague bacillus that had come to San Francisco via China in 1900 and then spread out into the rest of the country before it was properly contained. Plague cases occur sporadically every year in America—it is labeled a reemerging infectious disease by the World Health Organization—but there had not been a human plague case in the city limits since the sailors from Brazil arrived in New York harbor in 1899. In November 2002, two tourists went to the Plaza Hotel for dinner and came down with flulike symptoms the next day. They were a husband and wife from New Mexico, and initially they thought they had simply overdone it with wine and a late night after a long flight; they stayed in their hotel room for twenty-four hours, but only felt worse and on the following day checked into a hospital. The doctor did not immediately recognize plague; the couple suggested they might have it since they lived in an area in New Mexico where several neighbors had contracted plague. They were quickly quarantined.
Because the couple was from New Mexico, where plague cases are not unusual, doctors quickly surmised that they had been infected with plague there, just before coming to New York—both mice and pack rats on the couple's five-acre ranch had tested positive for plague. They were immediately treated with antibiotics. The woman improved rapidly, but her husband's condition worsened: his kidneys appeared to shut down, he lost circulation in his feet, he went into a coma. In the end, he couldn't breathe on his own for three months. An avid outdoors man, the man awoke to find that, due to tissue damage, doctors had amputated both of his feet.
When the couple first came down with the plague, the television news stations immediately mentioned the medieval pandemic and questioned whether the couple might possibly be terrorists attempting to smuggle in plague as a biological weapon to be used against the city.
One of the stations used a dramatically lettered banner over the news anchor's head on the TV screen that said BLACK DEATH. The coverage of the couple leaving town, on the other hand, was low-key. When they were both well enough to return home, the man told people he felt lucky and vowed to learn to walk again. The woman said that she had kept a journal all through the ordeal as she sat by her husband's side. After she left, she wrote in her journal that she cried when saying good-bye to all the people in New York who were so nice to her. "Good-bye to this fine city," she wrote.
IF YERSIN, THE MAN WHO solved the medieval secret of the plague in Hong Kong in 1894, has a counterpart today, he might be Rusty Enscore, the biologist with the federal government who came to go rat trapping with Dan Markowski. Rusty is a commander with the U.S. Public Health Service assigned to the Centers for Disease Control. Rusty doesn't look like a guy who gets a call from the government during a possible bioterrorist event telling him to sit by the phone and be ready to leave at a moment's notice to handle an outbreak of an infectious disease—plague, for instance. He looks like a guy on his way to work at the office on a Saturday and then maybe fishing—though, to be certain, he is a kind of fisher of plague and thus knows it intimately, knows its details, its lore, its habitat.
He is about five feet ten inches with close-cropped hair, and a big grin, and when he showed up at the health department's offices to trap rats, on an unseasonably warm day downtown, he was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and carrying a briefcase. Rusty lives in Colorado, where he works for the Centers for Disease Control's division of vector borne infectious diseases. Usually, he drives around the western United States with a portable lab attached to the back of a small recreational vehicle. He traps and tests and bleeds animals everywhere. He himself marvels at the variety of his itinerary. "I was in Denver trapping beavers the other day, and next Monday I'm going to be in Nevada bleeding sheep. Now, I'm in New York City trapping rats," he said.
Rusty was in New York for the first time. He was staying near Times Square but he hadn't had a chance to look around; he was picked up early by the rodent control van. Isaac was with Dan again. (Anne was on another job.) We all drove out near John F. Kennedy International Airport, giving Rusty his first view of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which looked jammed with traffic to a nonnative but looked pretty good to Isaac—he was making decent time. The reason for rat trapping in the area of JFK was that the airport is thought of as a likely spot for someone bringing an infectious agent into the United States in an attempt to disperse such an agent. The neighborhood that we trapped in was part New York City, part neighboring county, and, as a result, feels a little forgotten by both—it only had the beginnings of a sewer system installed in the early 1990s.
Rusty explained his job to me in the van on the way. He talked about the reasons that the public health officers might want to know about a city's rat population: "When I land in a bioterror situation, the first thing I have to do is figure out the rodent population. If I already have knowledge that the flea infestation is low, then I can start killing rats right away. And that's what this is all about. When it happens, if it happens, how do we tailor that response?"
Rusty ticked off a list of other diseases that rats could be checked for: "There's bartonella, West Nile virus, plague, hantavirus, tularemia." Of plague in the U.S., he said, "What we don't know and what I'd like to know is why there aren't any cases in California right now."
And as we were driving, just for the heck of it, I asked him whether he had any doubts about whether the Black Death of the Middle Ages was caused by plague-infected fleas via rats—I mean, how often are you riding around New York City with a plague expert whom you can bounce plague theories off of? Did he subscribe, in other words, to the theory that anthrax had caused the Black Death? Not only didn't he have any doubts about the plague in medieval Europe, but he had studied Roman granary and taxation records (Romans paid taxes in grain—a percentage of yield) and seen indications of large plague-inducing rodent population increases as a result of bountiful harvests in the time of the Justinian plague pandemic, and he felt that a lot of extra grain was good evidence of extra rats.
We got out of the van on a run-down, swampy street, only partly paved, in the reed-filled borderlands of New York. In a place I'd never been, in the city of my birth, I stood there thinking about the city: How ultimately unknowable it is, like a vast forest, and how different every little portion is, even though people who don't know the city (and even some people who do) think it is all the same, all monotonously tenemented and office-towered, like the set of an action movie!
Meanwhile, everyone else had started looking for rat traps, the ones that Rusty, Dan, and Isaac had laid out the day before. We went into a falling-down, one-story house, surrounded by phragmites and garbage. Everyone was cautious because the day before they had walked into a house that they thought was abandoned but turned out not to be, and the Vietnam veteran they'd woken up wasn't happy about it. They checked the traps. Nothing. They went on to the next traps. Nothing. Over to some traps in the reeds. Again, nothing. In all, twenty-five traps were empty. Depressed, Isaac loaded all the empty traps into the van.
Everyone was pretty frustrated, especially after catching so many rats the week before. While we were waiting, Dan got down on the ground and looked through a bunch of old abandoned tires for mosquito larvae—it was getting on to the next infectious disease season, the season for West Nile virus. He dipped into the dirty water.
"You dipping for larvae?" Rusty asked.
"Yeah, sure." Dan's voice had a tinge of disappointment. Rusty laughed.
"I mean, might as well get something done on this trip," Dan said.
A plane, its landing gear ready for the runway at JFK, flew over, trailing a deafening roar. It was a supersonic Concorde, a plane that was about to be decommissioned, an endangered jet species.
FOR MOST PEOPLE, A LACK of rats would surely bring a positive reaction, but the lack of rats was disappointing for the rat trapping team; it meant there would be fewer rats to check for fleas. Dan, as a host, wanted his guest to be pleased or even feel at home by catching a rat. Personally, I felt a little relieved by the complications that would obviously be involved with infesting rodent populations for sinister purposes, at least in this part of Queens—rats are harder to catch than you'd think. Ratless, we all got in the car and headed back to downtown Manhattan for a consolation event. We went to an old Department of Health building on First Avenue. The corridors were out of the fifties, straight and outdatedly antiseptic looking. Dan took out the Brooklyn rats and about a half dozen rats that he had subsequently caught in lower Manhattan. The rats were frozen. Each was in a Ziploc freezer bag, and they hit the lab counter like gray rocks. Then Dan and Rusty pulled out two microscopes and began combing the rats for bugs—specifically, for Oriental rat fleas, the flea with the best track record for transmitting the plague. They were looking in the microscope for the absence of a telltale black band—which would indicate the presence of New York's version of the bug that nearly wiped out civilization.
Now the two men were stooped over their rats, concentrating, making idle, parasite-related chitchat, talking about fleas in the windowless room, under the fluorescent lights that tinged human skin a sickly green.
"They'll frequently go to the eyes to drink, and a lot of times they'll go to the crest of the back, simply because the animal can't scratch there, but there's no one particular place," Rusty said, not looking up.
"That's the good thing about ticks, they will go to the head and neck area," Dan said.
"Ticks, in my experience, seem to have some sense of gravity because they head up."
"Absolutely," Dan said.
"I'll take a tick if you don't want it, but I hate mites," Rusty said. "Mites take a special mentality."
"Oh, yeah," Dan said. "They are just so small and so hard to see—what a nightmare!"
They went through a few Brooklyn rats, noting again their size and health. Then they started combing fleas out of the Manhattan rats—rats caught in the vicinity of Wall Street and City Hall. They did not find any Oriental rat fleas, indicating that plague might have some difficulty taking hold in New York. However, they did notice that the Wall Street rats were especially stressed looking, beat-up, sickly in comparison to their Brooklyn counterparts, an indication of increased disease risk.
"Look," Rusty said, "when you comb back the hair on this one, you can see the bite marks on his ass."
"Oh, yeah, where's that one from?" Dan asked.
"Lower Manhattan," Rusty said.
"See that?" Dan said.
* European starlings were introduced to America by a New Yorker, Eugene Schieffelin, in Central Park in 1890. Schieffelin was the chairman of the American Acclimatization Society, a group of scientists and naturalists that sought to introduce animal species to North America. In 1864, they released English sparrows in Central Park and also introduced, or attempted to introduce, Japanese finches, Java sparrows, English blackbirds, and the English titmouse, among many others. They corresponded with other acclimatization societies, such as the Cincinnati society, which successfully introduced the skylark in Ohio. The society was also interested in introducing American fish to European rivers. Introducing starlings in Central Park was only a part of Schieffelin's plan to introduce to North America all of the birds mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. Henry IV, part 1, mentions starlings: "Nay, I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer.'" The eighty starlings multiplied quickly. It is thought to be the most numerous bird in the United States. They are known to spread spores of toxic fungus, and they have contributed to the decline of the Eastern bluebird. In 1973 and 1974, in Kentucky, the governor called a state of emergency as swarms of them blackened the sky; at Fort Campbell, then the base of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, the birds threatened the helicopters. Their scientific name is Stumus vulgaris.