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

Chapter 8. FOOD

THE DIET OF the city rat is garbage, the refuse of man. But which garbage? Which particular kind of refuse? And exactly how much trash does a rat eat? One evening toward the end of summer, my thoughts traipsed in these repulsive particulars. It seemed to me to be a perfect night for a rat's food-gathering. If a wide-winged hawk at dawn might be satisfied with a steady wind and a clear sky as he ascends over a river basin made flat and treeless by the ancient run of a river, then so might a rat be pleased upon arising at ten o'clock on a Thursday night in the alley: the tide of garbage was just coming in, the doors of the restaurants opening for the jettisoning of garbage bags, then slamming tight, like clams. In the streets, there was light summer-evening traffic—young people darting into bars, older people coming more slowly out of bars, a man wandering alone, walking, stopping, walking a little more. I took my position at the front of the alley, just in from the evening street.

I heard the sounds of nighttime in an alley: the far-off moan of hydraulics from a truck digesting trash; the toss of ice and stale flower water from a delicatessen into a gutter; a garbage bag, first lofted and, soon, crashing to the ground with a splatch. Exterminators often note that rats are attentive not only to the sight and smell of trash but to the very sounds it makes, and my observations confirmed this. Initially, I supposed that the rats were waiting in their nests for the garbage's arrival. But then, sometime later, after watching the next fresh garbage bags thrown into the alley, I saw the rats come to the food again, and I realized that they were already out of their nests, already in the alley, roaming, foraging through bits of the previous evening's garbage, licking up fetid water, a portion of the two ounces they require each day.

And then they began to eat. Immediately, I thought of S. A. Barnett's 1956 rat eating study, summarized thusly by Jackson in 1982: "Mice tend to be nibblers; rats are more gluttonous." An example: a healthy male moved out from his nest area on the east side of the alley. He proceeded quickly along a curb, paused at a gap in the curb, then raced across the open space. He paused again, then moved back behind the garbage bags. This was a characteristic rat movement in the alley, a targeted series of bursts and pauses. Unfortunately, I could not see behind the plastic bag, so I do not know if the rat made his own hole—a simple rip—or if there was a preexisting hole, but quickly the rat was inside the garbage bag. The reader may ask why I did not go behind the bag and investigate more thoroughly, and my response is twofold. First, I was careful not to disturb the rats, for I was there to meticulously observe but not disrupt, and second, each time I approached the trash berms, even when I was fairly certain that they were ratless, an announcement would come over my internal public address system and, by way of reminder, say, "What the hell are you thinking? There could still be rats in there!" It was Coleridge who wrote, "Fear gives sudden instincts of skill."

A rat in a garbage bag is a keynote detail of the city landscape; if a rat were considered natural and people flocked to alleys to watch them gorge on the city's offscourings, the urban rejectamenta, then I would gladly send a postcard of my alley, which would, in such a world, be considered practically pristine, a wildlife refuge. Once in the bag, the rat is free to forage, using smell and touch and taste. The view from outside the bag is of the black plastic writhing and stretching. In my rat alley on this particular evening, the rat appeared to be working hard to consume one particular piece of garbage. I could not see the rat; I could see the rat lumps, though. Specifically, three short movements in the rat-shaped lump on the outside of the bag were followed by a larger expansion, at which point the lump moved to another area of the bag's interior. In four minutes, the rat emerged through a hole in the base of the bag with something in his mouth. On the western edge of the alley, adult rats were occupying other plastic bags, while younger rats were eating around the bags, tugging at scraps that fell from the holes gouged out by the larger rats. A few minutes later, with so many rats appearing, I was thinking of bears at an Alaskan salmon stream.

In the space of half an hour, it became clear that among the five garbage bags on the one side of the alley, the rats preferred the food in one garbage bag over the others. They were taking bits of this food back to their nests, so apparently satisfied were they with the safety of the alley and the quality of the food. The food that they were eating was white and stringy, and I had no idea what it was.

IT IS WRITTEN IN THE rat literature that a rat would starve in an alley surrounded by raw vegetables. Pioneering studies of rats eating garbage were conducted in an alley by a New Yorker named Martin W. Schein, who was born in Brooklyn in 1925. During World War II, Schein fought under General George Patton, in the Battle of the Bulge, after which he returned to New York to work as a rat catcher for the city. He went to Baltimore to catch and study rats in the alleys alongside Dave Davis—Schein was once named Baltimore's honorary rat catcher. When Schein died, in 1998, a memorial said: "Imagine Hemingway in looks and in his direct, nonsentimental style, yet generous and kind to a fault." Schein founded the Animal Behavior Society in 1964, and after he finished studying rats he went on to work with turkeys. An experiment of Schein's that is today considered a classic in the field of animal behavior is called the "turkey on a stick," which showed that all that was necessary to inspire a male turkey to begin the mating-related behaviors was the female head. When working with garbage, Schein went into a block in Baltimore and dumped out a lot of garbage cans into one spot and separated it into edible and nonedible garbage. "In urban communities where natural rat-foods have been restricted by construction of buildings and the paving of streets, the rat has become dependent upon domestic refuse as a source of food," he wrote in a paper entitled "A Preliminary Analysis of Garbage as Food for the Norway Rat." (Foods that would have been considered "natural" would include such things as plants and insects and small animals.) Schein found that on average one third of the garbage was edible. His hope was one day to be able to predict the number of rats in an area from pounds of refuse, but as best I can tell, he moved on to his turkey studies before accomplishing this. He had already shown a positive correlation between the number of rats and the amount of garbage. After analyzing the edibility of Baltimore garbage, he collected a lot of garbage from three different places—a college cafeteria, a grocery store, and a freight terminal—and he started feeding it to a group of rats. Schein had trapped rats from various alleys in Baltimore and transferred them to cages in an unused barn: city rats caged in the country. Here is a list of foods that the rats ate, in the order of rat preference:

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I looked at this list frequently while ratting and found it to be a good guide to seeking out rat feeding points in the city in general and in my rat alley in particular. Of course, the list is not completely reflective of modern New York City garbage; it does not mention fish garbage, which might be a bigger part of the rat's garbage diet where I was, so close to the Fulton Fish Market. (At Peck Slip, I once saw the carcass of an Atlantic salmon that appeared to have been chewed upon by a rat, though the chewer could have been something else, I suppose.) Still, the list proved quite accurate. For instance, the rats in my alley rarely touched the raw carrots that were often scattered around, while they seemed to love cheesy Italian dishes. Schein noted that rats may have a preference for sweets and an aversion to spicy foods, and I would only add that, while I am not disagreeing with him on this point, an exterminator who was based in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in East Harlem told me that the rats there have learned to enjoy spicy garbage. This exterminator hypothesized that rats grow to enjoy the ethnic foods of the ethnic group in whose neighborhood they live. Post-Schein rat food studies corroborate this observation to some extent; this rat adaption is more technically described as a "local food dialect."

Likewise, while apples are listed here as unfavoured by rats, I once watched a rat work hard to keep an apple. One night, just inside the fence surrounding City Hall, I spotted a rat who had found an apple core; the rat was standing in the tall green grass of the park outside the building. I approached carefully, but somehow the rat noticed me, and it immediately began running north along the concrete base of the fence. Then, seeming to sense that I was following him—jogging alongside him, actually—the rat jumped off the concrete and back into the grass, looking almost pastoral as it galloped through the tall, summer-breeze-swept green. About twenty-five yards later, he jumped to the sidewalk and ran along a concrete barrier used to block access to a construction project, then down into a sewer. The apple would not fit through the grate on the sewer. The rat pushed, trying to make it fit. Then, as I approached, the rat, startled, jumped into the sewer and reached up to pull at the apple, again to no avail. Fortunately, I had my night-vision monocular in my backpack; I took it out and was able to get close enough to the sewer to look into it and see the rat looking at the apple. As I crouched down and gazed into the sewer, an Israeli couple who were tourists and didn't speak much English wanted to know where I got what they thought was a video camera but was actually the night-vision monocular. I tried to explain to them that I was just watching a rat in the sewer. At the time, I was with my friend Matt, the poet, and he and I pointed to the rat—if you knew what you were looking for, you could see the rat's head somewhat, even without night-vision gear. The couple nodded a lot, but in retrospect I don't think they were understanding me. I am not certain that rat watching translates, anyway.

OH, TO PONDER THE DIGESTIVE systems of the city, to consider the vast and mundane civic processes through which the city rat is nourished and the alley filled—for in the alley I can see the city as organism itself, a creature that consumes in unimaginable quantity, that excretes, eliminates, expels!

On that late-summer evening, I continued to watch the rats emerge from inside the black plastic garbage bags in my rat alley, and I still could not identify the food that so appealed to them that they continued to carry off from the bag. I moved closer, and at first the rats stopped, seemingly aware of my presence. I stood very still. After a few minutes, when they returned to eating, I walked up the alley again, this time along the wall. I was closer now, maybe twenty feet from where they were carting away the garbage, which was stringy and white, almost gooey. Then the back door to the Irish restaurant opened. The rats scattered and froze. I froze. A man threw out garbage, but did not see me, as far as I could tell. I waited, my heart beating loudly. The door closed. I continued to keep still. In a minute the rats returned, to pull again at the substance. Meanwhile, some young men and women came out of a bar and into the alley, to light cigarettes and talk. The men were dressed in jeans and T-shirts, and the women's beach attire seemed to clash with the alley's aesthetic. Again, the rats scattered, though this time they returned before the bargoers left. Now, the rats had hit a rich vein of the stuff they were eating—they were shuttling it back and forth, unbeknownst to the bargoers.

Finally, I realized I could go around the corner and check the restaurant's menu. After so doing, I went back into the alley, where the rats had begun fighting, and they were fighting over this garbage—two rats, screeching, attacking. One rat ran. I could see the other with his paws toward his mouth, eating the white substance, which I now saw clearly was one of the daily specials, chicken potpie.