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


IN GOING TO my alley, I was going where someone had gone before, of course, and I'm not just thinking of the millions of people who walk by it every year or the inebriated souls who stumble into it accidentally or the people who step into it because they think it is an actual street, which it isn't. I'm thinking of David E. Davis, the founding father of modern rat studies. It is said that Alexander the Great kept a copy of the Iliadin a precious casket as he went into battle, and in the same way I kept the work of Dave Davis beside me as I sat in the alley and excitedly took notes: the little diagrams that show rats running in dilapidated tenement neighborhoods, from fetid outhouse to poorly maintained garbage area; the field observations that look like maps with idle doodlings. It was Davis who first documented the habits of the rat, who first charted their moves, who applied to a rat in an alley in a city the same kind of close nature reporting used, for instance, on the threatened marbled murrelet in its habitat in the Northwest coastal forest.

Davis began studying rats during World War II. The U.S. government was concerned that the Germans might use rats to spread disease through Europe, and then, after the war, with Europe's infrastructure in ruins, the government was concerned about rats ruining food supplies and spreading disease on their own. The Rodent Ecology Project was founded in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University, and Davis worked there with the other founding fathers of rat studies: Robert Emlen, who, prior to working with Dave Davis, also worked with Aldo Leopold, an ecologist in Wisconsin who argued for a "land ethic," suggesting that humans ought to think about the relationship with the land on which they live; John Calhoun, who studied rat social behavior and in 1963 reported that rats left to overpopulate in a cramped room set about killing, sexually assaulting, and cannibalizing each other; Curt Pdchter, who started trapping rats with Davis, then went on to discover similarities between rats' and humans' diets and began experimenting on rats in laboratories, which led to all kinds of man-related studies on laboratory rats, like the one I read about in a newspaper recently that showed how rats will kill themselves overexercising; and finally, William Jackson, who advised governments around the world on rat control and rat poisons and then on what to do about rats that became immune to rat poisons. The scientists in the Rodent Ecology Project were working at the dawn of ecology, studying the relationship of an organism to its environment and to its fellow organisms and doing so with an organism that, frankly, no one wanted to have any kind of relationship with. They were World War II-era scientists who looked like World War H-era scientists—in photographs they wear short-sleeve, button-down shirts, khakis, pens in pockets. They went into neighborhoods that didn't see a lot of scientists—beat-up, run-down, near-the-waterfront neighborhoods, neighborhoods filled with people living in old tenement buildings, with people who due to poverty lived alongside rats. It was a new frontier for wildlife biologists. As P. Quentin Tomich, a biologist who worked with Davis as a graduate student and subsequently went off to study plague in rodents in Hawaii, told me, "No one had thought of the urban slums as a habitat."

Davis trapped rats, marked them, released them, trapped them again, and his papers opened a floodgate of myth-busting and groundbreaking rat information. "Although the brown rat (Rattus norvegicus) is an ubiquitous pest throughout the world," Davis wrote, "few studies of its home range and movements have been conducted." Davis showed that rats, commonly thought to be wanderers, in fact live in small areas, in colonies; that rats generally stay within sixty-five feet of their nest; that rats, when released far from their nest, will nonetheless wander for miles (up to four miles in one study); that male rats tend to go farther away from their nest than female rats; that one way rats may protect themselves is by becoming completely familiar with their home territory, their city alley or block ("Thus an individual that knows every hole, bush, or shelter probably will escape enemies better than an individual unacquainted with the area," Davis wrote); that rats are likely to cross alleys but not roads; that rats use regular runways or paths to feed, taking the same paths night after night, rarely diverging, rarely straying ("For example, a rat may live under the steps, run along the fence to the alley, and there feed on garbage," he said); that rats in the city are often bigger than rats in the country; and that the social rankings of the rat colony are of great significance, especially in times of duress—the strong rats thrive, while the weaker rats begin to die. In "Characteristics of the Global Rat Populations," an article published in the American Journal of Health in 1951, Davis wrote, "As the population increases relative to its food supply, the higher ranking members still get adequate food, but the low members begin to starve. Low-ranking females have poor reproductive success and progeny from low-ranking females have little chance to grow normally."

Throughout the 1950s, Davis was America's rodent control guru. He traveled America's rat populations. He consulted with cities on their rats, preaching his most important discovery throughout the country—that poisoning rats was not in itself an effective way of controlling them. In fact, when rats are killed off, the pregnancy rates of the surviving rats double and the survivors rapidly gain weight. The rats that survive become stronger. "Actually, the removal merely made room for more rats," Davis wrote. The only way to get rid of rats was to get rid of the rat food, or garbage, but no one wanted to hear this: as it was the dawn of the age of ecology so also it was the dawn of the age of the chemical, of poisons and pesticides, and people seemed to want a sexier, chemical-based fix. Eventually, Davis became frustrated. He moved to Pennsylvania, where he studied animals other than rats. For a while, he studied woodchucks and once sent a colony of them on a boat to Australia in a darkened box to see how the trip to the other side of the world would affect their internal clock: on the ship, they stayed on Pennsylvania time, but when the box was opened in Australia, they switched immediately to Australian time. He arranged a grid over a field to study birds. His three daughters remember him waking up at 5 A.M., sitting in his bathrobe, looking into the backyard sky, speaking into a tape recorder and saying things like "Three starling flying away from the city."

Davis taught in North Carolina and then California, and in his retirement, he wrote a paper that applied his many years of animal ecology and population studies to human history; it was published by his daughters in 1995, a year after his death. In the paper, he posited that the great cathedrals of Europe were a result of an excess food supply for the human population at the time. To read this paper is to see that thinking about rats, as low-down as it seems, can easily lead to thoughts about larger topics, such as life and death and the nature of man. "The population trebled in three centuries," Davis wrote. "As the population reached the capacity level of food and other resources, its growth stopped, and construction of cathedrals ended. The period terminated in wars, litigation, and disease. The hypothesis arose from the study of principles of population as derived from experiments on animals such as mice. Obviously, the test has not been experimental. A test that has many elements of an experiment is now possible in the oil-producing nations. These countries have suddenly found a source of energy. They will develop new types of art, literature, and science and will build vast structures not yet conceived. Then, as the population reaches the limit of resources (a complex stage involving the entire world), the period of history will end in stagnation, conflict, and misery. Humans have the knowledge to prevent a repetition of the later history of the Middle Ages."

A forgotten accomplishment of Dave Davis is his debunking of what is still today the most often quoted statistic about rats—the one rat per person rule. This statistic is ritually used in news stories about rats and has been for almost a hundred years. It is not true. It is a bastardization of a statistic derived from a study of rats written in England in 1909 by W. R. Boelter, entitled The Rat Problem. At the time, Boelter toured the English countryside and asked the following question: "Is it reasonable to assume that there is one rat per acre?" People responded by saying things such as "certainly" or "absurdly low." Boelter did not ask people in cities the same question because he thought it was ridiculous to ask people in the city if they had a rat. "As regards villages, towns, and cities, I consider it unnecessary to ask a question, the answers to which must be obvious to anyone who thinks of the number of pantries, houses, shops, stores, and sewers to be found on one acre," Boelter wrote. In the end, he made an educated guess: one rat per acre in England. And because there were forty million cultivated acres in England at the time, he concluded that there were forty million rats. Coincidentally, forty million people lived in England in 1909. Boelter was able to convert the one-rat-per-acre statistic to one rat per human. People loved that statistic, maybe because they abhorred it. They did not bother to recalculate for their own particular rat and human populations—an extremely labor-intensive process that at the time only Davis seemed to be interested in executing. Subsequently, one-rat-per-human has become the sacred rat statistic. The United Nations has used it. Pest control companies use it; health departments use it. Even today, it is commonly said that in New York there are eight million rats, one for every New Yorker.

In 1949, Dave Davis analyzed New York's rat population and called the one-rat-per-human statistic "absurd." He had just completed a precise calculation of the rat population of Baltimore—by trapping, counting burrows, and measuring such things as rat runways and rat droppings. In New York, he began his work on six blocks in East Harlem. He brought in an experienced trapper to trap rats in East Harlem apartments for a week. Davis determined there were an average of three rats per apartment in infested Harlem buildings, mostly living in the kitchen and bathroom but traveling through many floors. He further determined that more people thought they had rats than actually had them—about 10 percent more. But when he added up his calculations, New York's rat population was nowhere near eight million. Even the New York waterfront, which was mythically associated with rats, was less infested than assumed. "Certainly, there are no more than a few thousand in the entire dock areas of New York City," Davis wrote. In all, Davis put the rat population of New York at one rat for every thirty-six people, or 250,000 rats—a rat population the size of the human population of Akron, Ohio. When the health department read Davis's report, they canceled a citywide rat extermination plan. But the number-of-humans-equals-number-of-rats formula would not die. It is something people want to believe. A few years later, even the New York City health department was telling people that there were eight million rats in New York.

WHEN I FINALLY WENT OUT on my own to find a colony of wild New York City rats, I ended up talking to a lot of exterminators. Exterminators, or pest control technicians as they often prefer to be known, are the philosopher kings of the rat-infested world, the trap-and poison-toting mystics. I have gleaned many insights from them. Practically speaking, I have learned about the significance of spotting rats during the day. "When you see rats in the daytime, boy, the population is so large that the night feeding won't support them," one exterminator told me. "Only the dominant rats are getting enough to eat, and the weaker rats, they've gotta take a chance and go out during the day. They don't really want to be out during the day." Likewise, I learned about the strength of rats vis-a-vis cats. Here is this anecdote from an exterminator working in New York, in the borough of Queens: "A woman said to me, 'Oh, we're going to get a cat!'" he recalled. "I said, 'Miss, please don't put that cat in the cellar.' Then I came back two weeks later and I'm picking up the hair and the bones of the cat. They think it's like in the cartoons. But in the cartoons it's Tom and Jerry the mouse, not Tom and Jerry the rat!"

More than anything, I have learned from exterminators that history is crucial in effective rat analysis. In fact, history is everything when it comes to looking at rats—though it is not the history that you generally read; it is the unwritten history. Rats wind up in the disused vaults, in long underground tunnels that aren't necessarily going anywhere; they wind up in places that are neglected and overlooked, places with a story that has been forgotten for one reason or another. And to find a rat, a lot of times you have to look at what a place was. One exterminator I know tells the story of a job on the Lower East Side in an old building where rats kept appearing, nesting, multiplying, no matter how many were killed. The exterminator searched and searched. At last, he found an old tunnel covered by floorboards, a passageway that headed toward the East River. The tunnel was full of rats. Later, he discovered that the building had housed a speakeasy during Prohibition. After figuring out a place, after getting to know it intimately, killing rats is the easy part. "The textbook scenario, if you want to get rid of rats, is you put stress on their environment, you stop the food, and then they eat each other," another exterminator told me.

In beginning my own search for a rat colony, I turned to one exterminator frequently, George Ladd. George is tall with short, bristly hair; he is in his mid-fifties and fit and he routinely wears a blazer and tie while out on his pest control jobs, looking less like someone who hunts vermin for a living and more like a college coach dressed up for a big game. He works out of an office on the Lower East Side that from the outside looks like it's going to be a real mess but ends up being immaculate. And like many exterminators, he not only knows a lot about rats, but also about how humans relate to them. "You get a call and you just know right away from the intensity of the person calling whether or not they've got rats," he says. George has a lot of respect for rats. "They're just rude. They're like a bear because they're smart. They're extremely smart animals."

Ladd rides from job to job on a motorcycle, and he calls his company Bonzai de Bug. The Japanese reference has to do with George Ladd's great-grandfather George Trumball Ladd. George Trumball Ladd was a philosopher and a founder of the modern science of psychology; along with his friend William James, he organized the American Psychological Association. George's grandfather was also an influential figure in Japan; he was a friend and adviser to the emperor, promoting friendly relations between Japan and America, until he died in 1921. Half of his ashes are buried in Japan, half in New Haven, Connecticut, where he taught at Yale. In Japan, George Ladd is a minor celebrity.

Once, when I dropped in on George, he showed me a videotape of a program about him that had run on Japanese TV. He put the tape in and started it up, but then stopped it to take a call from a landlord dealing with a tenant who had not realized that an exterminator was coming by and either didn't hear the buzzer or chose not to get out of bed and answer the door and, thus, was startled to see an exterminator—one of George's assistants—in her room. When George hung up, he started the tape again. The program began with ominous music and images of New York City's skyline, then New York City's trash. Next was a shot of George riding into town on his motorcycle and buckling on a belt full of rat-fighting equipment. The show was in Japanese but George spoke in English.

"How fun is this?" George said, smiling and pointing to himself as we watched.

The Japanese program showed George talking to various people plagued by rats, and it showed him working in a building late one evening. As I watched, George recalled the particular rat problem that the TV show was documenting; it involved an apartment building in a fashionable area, the kind of neighborhood where people instruct the exterminators to work in secret, so that no one will know they have rats. "They had a rat in a fancy-ass building on the Upper West Side, and we couldn't even think about traps or bait or anything," George said. "We had to get 'em, period. So I went to the store and I bought Hershey's bars, nuts—they love nuts—anchovies, beer. They drink beer and they like it, but they drink a lot and then they can't throw up. And then shrimp. Then I rubbed the shrimp around the edges. Then I took it and I put it in the center. It had a nice strong smell."

I asked him what happened next.

"I nailed that thing on the first night," he said.

On TV, the Japanese film crew showed him going into a bodega, buying the food items that he had just mentioned, and pasting them down to a big glue-covered board. As he affixed the food items to the glue, George said, "Soup's on!"

In the next scene, he returned to the building the following day to inspect a dead, glued-to-the-board rat. "Got that sucker," George said.

On the TV show, he looked into the camera and spoke: "Being calm, cool, collected—it's all part of my job."

Eventually, I asked George where he thought I should go to study rats. He suggested the Seaport District, a place I was especially interested in. "Check out down around Gold Street," he said. "I've seen some big ones down there."

SHORTLY THEREAFTER, IN THE SPRING of 2001, I was ready to begin a year of rat watching, four seasons spent among vermin. On the afternoon of the night I first went out, I purchased a night-vision monocular. "This is the model that everybody looking for rats uses," the salesman said to me, facetiously, I think. And then, on my way home, when I spotted a rat on the subway tracks, I found myself taking it out to use in the station. I ran alongside the rat on the platform, until I realized everyone in the station was watching me, at which point I put the night-vision monocular away and tried to play it cool. That night, I was out in the warm spring darkness, out in lower Manhattan, out in the nearly deserted, late-night city—the habitat of the Rattus norvegicus. I was down near the bottom of Broadway, in the oldest quarter of Manhattan, the place where the city began. I passed City Hall, lights on its neoclassical front, noisy starlings in the London plane trees. I was out ratting.

I turned down Beekman Street, and in a few feet I was looking into Theatre Alley. If ever an alley looked like a rat-infested alley, then Theatre Alley is it: steam rising from a narrow, old cobblestone street like fog in a Hollywood horror film, high walls of trash that appeared to be formed by rock slides—a lost side canyon. The little bit of exterminator-inspired historical research that I'd done told me that Theatre Alley has always been a place for rats. In the nineteenth century, there was a grog shop on the alley, which was swill-filled and pig-roamed, littered sometimes with the corpses of dead horses, like many streets of New York at the time. An old British theater backed onto the alley, the theater that inspired the British spelling of Theatre Alley's name. And—because all the newsrooms of the city's newspapers surrounded City Hall, because the neighborhood was Uttered with theaters and fancy hotels—the alley was the nineteenth-century equivalent of a shortcut through Times Square, a timesaving runway for the entertainment-seeking masses, for Knickerbocker New York's publishing crowd.

In my mind's eye, as I looked down Theatre Alley, I could see the crowds that had snuck through it, and I even like to think I could see individuals. There was Herman Melville, who used a library at one end of the alley. There was Edgar Allan Poe, who edited a newspaper a block away; I could see Poe trudge through garbage, see rats scatter. There was Walt Whitman, who worked at a newspaper just around the corner and loved to go to plays, who might have walked up Broadway the time he heard Emerson speak, and then, when he typed up his review of Emerson's lecture for his newspaper, might have walked back through Theatre Alley thinking about the soul and nature as an expression of God—or so I like to think. "I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low," Emerson once wrote.

Unfortunately, I couldn't see any rats.

My luck changed around the corner. On Nassau Street, I found an abandoned fast-food place, its back to Theatre Alley. I looked in the window and at first saw just a flash of movement in the back corner, where long ago there had maybe been a shake machine or an area for warming fries; I noticed it the way a birder might notice the flush of the bird's tail. I looked more closely, using my binoculars-—night vision gear was not necessary given that there was some light in the back of the restaurant—until I saw it: the dark gray, bricklike chunkiness of it—a rat climbing out of a hole in the wall and hitting the floor. More rats arrived, scurrying around, just as fast-food patrons might previously have done, all coming from the lot next door, a mostly broken-brick-filled hole, the remains of a recently demolished building that had once stood on Theatre Alley. And yet, the place was not ideal for my purposes. The rats were behind fast-food restaurant glass. They were relatively far away. It was a good place to see rats from afar, but not a good place to study them up close.

I pressed on, continuing down Fulton Street, walking toward the waterfront through the trickle of tired tourists and late-night bargoers beginning to wander home. I searched for rats around Water Street and then near Peck Slip, a boat slip in the time of the Revolutionary War that was subsequently filled in, that was made dry land by dumping decrepit boats and garbage of all kinds, and is now a little run-down cobblestone piazza, framed by the nighttime lights of the Brooklyn Bridge. I could smell fish from the Fulton Fish Market, a rat-inspiring scent, and I had hoped there would be some garbage in the streets but it was relatively clean—the sanitation department's trucks had just been through. On Front Street, I used my night-vision gear to peer into lot after lot, but I saw nothing except four tall, thin, young women who walked past me in a little pack, their burning red-tipped cigarettes glowing before them.

Frustration was what I was feeling, to be sure, for it was almost midnight, and I was wondering if I would ever find a good rat colony—and yet it was exciting to be out when the city was pared down to its late-night self. With the sidewalks less peopled and the garbage bags hauled out, in the fluorescent-yellow laboratory glow of the streetlights, human activity seemed more noticeable, accentuated; nighttime is a great time to explore the brown rat's habitat. At the intersection of Peck Slip and Water Street, a large green garbage truck stopped behind a broken-down taxicab that was blocking the one way street. Men piled off of the truck and began to push the cab out of the street—they rocked it and shoved it, while the cabdriver pushed and steered the car to the side of the road and shouted thank-yous. The men from the garbage truck cheered and embraced and shook hands, one by one, with the cabbie—and then watched in wonderment as a man in a business suit wobbled out of nowhere and, while yelling into a cell phone, tried again and again to hail the broken-down cab.

At last, a few blocks back toward land, I came to an alley that I'd never been down before, that I'd never even noticed. Sure enough, it was just off Gold Street, the area George Ladd had suggested. It was a shortcut from Fulton to Gold Street, connecting the two like an elbow, a quicker way by a few seconds from the Seaport to, say, Wall Street, a few blocks away—a little place called Edens Alley.

I walked through the alley that would become my base for four seasons and did not see rats at first—though the alley smelled of urine, and dark green garbage bags lined it like ornamental hedges. Upon reaching the corner of the alley, I looked into what seemed like an abandoned lot. There was rustling, the sound of something moving. I stood quietly, so that soon the alley in which nothing seemed to be happening was filled with movement. When I looked into the lot with my night-vision gear, I saw, first, little bright eyes, shining in the infrared gaze, and next, more little bright eyes.

There were rats in Edens Alley, all right, and there were lots of them, all scurrying around in the dark. Some of the rats were larger than the other rats, some of the rats were smaller, and they were all running around, carrying food, burrowing in a pile of what appeared to be sand and then disappearing and returning again in a way that, since I was not at all familiar with such a scene, kind of made my skin crawl. The rats were busy, alive. They were rat-happy rats. I immediately recognized this alley as an excellent natural wild-rat habitat.