Home / Rats : Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants – Robert Sullivan

Rats : Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants – Robert Sullivan

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“And the muttering grew to a grumbling;
And the grumbling grew to a mighty rumbling;
And out of the houses the rats came tumbling.”

– Robert Browning

I used to take a short-cut through a back alley near my home, cutting two minutes off of my morning commute to the local subway station. Generally the laneway was empty of foot traffic except for the handful of parked cars and the garbage dumpsters festoned with cryptic graffiti and spray-painted tags. The alley was damp, deserted and the air layered with that dank, moist smell, just short of rotten but still driving in that general direction.

That particular yellow-lit morning, I was startled to see a furtive, pale brown creature about half the size of a housecat saunter out carefully from behind the local pizza parlor, dragging what look like about half of a medium-sized pizza behind it. It looked up, saw me, paused as if to say “What?” incredulously, then resumed its labor, dragging its hard-won prize along the edge of the curb. Obviously take-out. I spotted the long, thin, hairless tail trailing it and realized, with a profound bemusement, that it was a rat.

I don’t know why I was so startled. Rats are as much a resident of the urban byways as people, albeit generally just a little more circumspect.

Rats by Robert Sullivan delves into the hidden world of rattus norvegicus, the infamous city-dwelling Norwegian Rat or Brown Rat (although they are often as not grey, off-pink, tan, whitish, or other color variations). Sullivan, whose previous off-the-beaten-path works include The Meadowlands, a study of the fetid swamplands outside of New York, (famous as a garbage dump and the sort of place the Sopranos might plant their former business partners) is really the perfect guide to a study of the urban rat, bringing the right mix of humor, readability and infectious curiosity to the subject.

Rats provides insight not only into the world of the rat, but how rats have grown with humanity, the lives they build in the thin margins of civilization and, how they frankly flourish mightily at times in their relationship with people. Rats offers a penetrating slice through the usual urban byways, weaving history, urban planning, archaeology, and natural history together into a fascinating and highly readable mix.

The book offers a number of eye-opening (i.e. disquieting) facts that lend a certain adventurous and squirmy feel to your next walk downtown. For example, a single pair of rats has the potential for 15,000 descendents in a single year. Think about that, the next time the kids run screaming through the house, knocking over furniture…

Weird as it sounds, one of the best books of the year is all about rats…

Learn more about these pesky rodents here and here. For the Hollywood take on rats, well, the all-time must-see rat movie is the original Willard, it’s sequel Ben…or the recent Willard re-make.

Got rats? These guys might be able to help…or if you prefer, you can always call The Pied Piper.

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About Deano

  • Yuk!

  • Don’t forget this dead one, which coincidentally I saw earlier today. A Rat’s Tale here.

  • RJ

    Rat are like hampsters. Except bigger. Oh, and they killed millions in Europe a while back…

  • One of the more interesting parts in the book were the efforts by the City of New York to alleviate a rat population explosion after 9-11. Weeks after the disaster, when workers arrived in the deserted buildings, abandoned malls and foodcourts, all they found was the thick dust…and thousands of rat footprints everywhere.

  • Rats are common anywhere you find both water and food – a friend fought them for years at her apartment in San Diego, because the complex was next door to a commercial bakery, and just 1/2 mile from the estuary.

    My friend moved away, but the rats are still there…

  • RJ

    After a nuclear holocaust, only roaches, ants, and rats will be left alive…

  • … and Democrats.

    or if you prefer

    … and Republicans.

    People keep rats as pets – which if you can keep them clean I guess isn’t any bad thing. Better than something that doesn’t like it indoors.

  • Nemo

    Something about a rat population explosion in China this year (2007), because of all the dogs clubbed to death last summer, and a similar fate for civet cats because of a possible link to SARS. So now rat poison everywhere in China to kill the rats. I know an old lady who swallowed a fly…

  • M REDA

    Should not say Yuk! when you see the hairless tail but rat looks a lot like rabbit. Rat had changed the course of civilization. They stole the bread of Jesus in Jerusalem.

    They arrive in Jerusalem thanks to the Viking.