Duck Duck Book

59 – rats
02.5.2009, 12:02 am
Filed under: science

Rats : observations on the history and habitat of the city’s most unwanted inhabitants / Robert Sullivan.
New York : Bloomsbury : Distributed to the trade by Holtzbrinck Publishers, 2004.
[MCL call number: 599.352 S951r 2004; 14 copies, no holds]

Rats are bad. They inhabit our nightmares.  In fairy tales and children’s books, rats are often cast in an evil light, in the company of wolves, crows, vultures, bears, cobras, and other scary animals.  They are night-dwellers, their teeth are sharp and nasty, they infest ships and tenements and scavenge humanity’s leavings, they’re skittery when we startle them but vicious when their backs are against a wall; they are dangerous, they’re vermin, they don’t share our interests and we cannot have any kind of meaningful communion with them.  These are the lessons of our culture.  Rats are bad.

But human culture has more than folklore, more than tradition and street smarts and history.  We have also science.  The core methodology of western science is the trajectory of hypothesis, careful observation or test, and reasoned analysis.  It is difficult to shake the fear, the nightmares, and the fairy tales about rats, but if we can do so, and follow this relaxation of basic emotional response with methodical examination, we may learn to understand rats a bit, predict their actions, appreciate their virtues, and maybe even modify our own systems to accommodate rats a bit better while still meeting our own needs.

And this is what Robert Sullivan set out to do.  He spent a year observing the rats indigenous to a particular alley in lower Manhattan at night, while during the day he researched rat biology and natural history, rats’ impact in New York and other cities, rat extermination, and other rat-related topics.  This makes for more of a history and less of a scientific study, but it is still true that Sullivan began with the premise that he should do his best to observe first, and analyze and judge second.

In the long run, the story is sadder than it is hopeful.  Reading the first few chapters, Sullivan’s observations in the alley inspired in me a respect for rats and their abilities, their strengths. Sullivan’s diary of rat observations were like those of a naturalist in the wild — careful, methodical notations of events.  He recorded patterns and attempted to identify individuals.  When the rats did something he hadn’t seen before, he considered the environment around them and looked for rationales for their behavior, all the while trying to think like a rat might — or at least trying not to think only like a human. But Sullivan’s record of his observations is only part of the book: another significant portion of the text reports Sullivan’s interviews with professional exterminators and municipal rat control authorities.  I found this depressing.  Reading Sullivan’s reports of scores of conversations with people whose careers focus on killing rats, I began to teeter between sympathy for the hapless rodents (who, after all, are nocturnal scavengers because it is their nature, not because they are actually evil or vicious or sent by an enemy to vex humans), and a sort of generalized civic interest in their eradication from cities, for the benefit of urban humanity and to create a more harmonious urban ecosystem.  Not a pleasant fence to find oneself sitting on.

Anyone fascinated, interested, or horrified by rats should find something in Sullivan’s text to pique their interest — but if you, like most people, already have a conception of rats as bad vermin, or as cuddly pets, beware that neither side wins in this narrative.  Rats are shown as fascinating, even noble wild creatures; they are also shown as dangerous pests who will bite children’s faces as they sleep.

* * *

If you are looking for an book that takes a different line about rats, a book that casts them as intelligent creatures with a meaningful social network and complex interactions with the world around them, you can hardly do better than the children’s classic Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien (many publishers, 1971-present).  It is the story of a widow mouse with a sick child who seeks the help of a community of super smart, super scary rats who live in a bramble bush.  Mrs. Frisby’s husband had known these rats; they had all escaped from a National Institute of Mental Health laboratory together after several years of experiments.  These experiments, and their results, are an important feature of the story — the rats and their mouse friends are bigger, stronger, smarter, and more long-lived than other rats and mice, because of their time at NIMH.  So they’re not just rats, they’re special rats.  But I’ll tell you, when I read this book as a child, I came away feeling sure that rats were more complex and admirable than I’d previously thought.  And after reading Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, I was plenty pissed off that humans are so often too lazy to find a way to do genetic research without torturing rats and mice.


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