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August 2005
We Are All a Little Like Rats
Book Review by Maureen C. Wyse


Rats by Robert Sullivan

Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan (New York: Bloomsbury, 2004). $14.95 paperback. 250 pages.

The expectation may be that after Robert Sullivan spent an entire year devoted to learning everything about rats, he learned to love them too, and through Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, he would encourage his readers to do the same. Yet these expectations are proven wrong, given that Sullivan both begins and ends by saying that rats are dirty and gross. However, gross or not, Sullivan excels at explaining why rats are certainly misunderstood. Through examining history and daily visits to a downtown Manhattan alleyway, Sullivan did his homework. With his daily journals compiled into seasonal accounts of his alley visits, infused with an extensive history, Sullivan diligently and cleverly explains how rats live and thrive. Even though he affirms the mainstream opinion about rats, Sullivan’s wonder and drive to explore rats further creates a similar desire in his readers.

Following Sullivan on his rat quest means anything from exterminator conferences, to burrowing in trash with night vision goggles. Although not the most enjoyable experiences, Sullivan’s writing explicitly shows his interest for every aspect of his research. As “icky” as the subject matter may seem, Sullivan’s exploration gets increasingly interesting with each chapter and season of his visitations. You want to be along for the ride with Sullivan when he discovers the eating and mating habits of rats, when he explains in detail about how rats did not cause the plague, when he catches his first rat, or even when he identifies and “befriends” the Rat King. It is unfathomable at times that Sullivan never backed down despite rain, snow, mountains of grease and garbage, extermination sites and kills, and long lectures about the behaviors of rats.

Upon researching for Rats, Sullivan also enlisted the help of every expert he could. An epidemiologist, Anne Li, in the Health Department of New York contributes by speaking about the general unappreciation for rats. She says, starkly that “you’re never going to beat them. They have something going for them that you don’t, which is natural instinct… They instinctively avoid death and the obstacles that we put in their way to kill them. [And, Anne likes to say,] if you killed every rat in New York City, you would have created new housing for six million rats.” Anne’s opinion: don’t mess with these intelligent and resilient little guys.

Some positivity Sullivan brings to light is the increased prevalence and desire for humane trapping and extermination methods. In his discussion with the private pest control operator “writ large,” Barry Beck of Pioneer Pest Control, Sullivan learns that there are people out there trying. Beck and others like him, including customers who specify that their invaders are to be left unharmed, work to exclude rather than exterminate. Pioneer, thanks to Beck, has an entire division devoted to pigeon “exclusion.” It helps that Beck’s daughter is a vegetarian, but Beck’s mentality is spreading and many critters are very grateful.

One rather unique observation is that Sullivan keeps his views about rat extermination, management, and care fairly indifferent. Sullivan seems to intentionally keep his distance. It appears his efforts to remain neutral stem from the idea that people may read the book differently if they knew he was a rat advocate or that he grew to love them. Even still, Sullivan’s bias remains in digging up every detail about rats. He remarks about how his perspective changes in favor of the rats as he becomes more involved, but he credits it entirely to the pursuit of knowledge.

Sullivan’s thoughts? “We are all a little like rats.”

In addition, there is a great social aspect to Rats in the variety of quotable trivia. Did you know the reason rats are able to make narrow escapes from their human predators is through their amazing abilities to flex and burrow? For example, a rat can fit through their typical nest entrance of a two-inch-wide hole under concrete sidewalk slabs. They can do this because their skeletons can collapse and they can fit into holes as small as three quarters of an inch wide, the size of their skull. And although this may be true of rats in general, with the copious waste us New York City residents provide, I have doubts that our rats are able to fit into those holes, flexible skeleton or not.

Yet, my new favorite quotable trivia is, if rats aren’t eating, then they are probably having sex. Also, the gestation period of a female rat is only 21 days, and immediately after giving birth to between 8-10 pups, she can get pregnant again. All I can say is, I am glad to have this fun fact, but even happier that we are all only “a little” and not exactly like rats.

Sullivan is deliberate in his writing, making Rats truly enjoyable. Sullivan’s copious research fits nicely among easily readable and engaging anecdotes. He leaves in only the most interesting experiences and thorough and quotable facts. He may not love rats, but he certainly does them justice.

At the beginning of the afterward Sullivan writes about his “fierce urge” to “make all of his subsequent writings about really pretty flowers.” Although Sullivan’s garbage wading days and his crouching in the city’s dregs are over, and perhaps caused him to never want to think about rats ever again, he still stops by his alley out of nostalgia. And yet, my favorite point that Sullivan makes is that although he thinks rats are “really, really gross” he believes rats are just the species humans need to despise, because we do need to despise a species. We need to justify our human actions, as “we can and do act so despicably ourselves. We shake our heads as rats overpopulate, fight over limited food supplies and then go to war until the population is killed down, but then we proceed to follow the same battle plan.”

Sullivan’s biggest revelation: he can relate to rats. And he does a good job because after reading Rats I feel I can do the same.



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