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Big Scary Ugly Dirty Rats

They’re everywhere—but they always were.

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In this city, even a dead rat can draw a crowd.

If the rat were scurrying between garbage cans, or running down a 4-train track, some yahoo would have said it was “giant, as big as a cat, ten pounds or more.” But being dead, its greasy fur splayed out on First Avenue near 6th Street, the rat’s dimensions were clear. It was about seven inches from tapered, beady-eyed head to the base of its ropy tail and probably weighed no more than a pound, average size for a mature individual of the species Rattus norvegicus, the brown or Norway rat. In other words, it was a typical New York City rat, the sort that arrived on these shores in the late-eighteenth century, beginning its inexorable colonization of the waterfront, tenement buildings, sewers, subway stations, and vacant lots—thriving to the point where it has become no less a symbol of the metropolis than the Empire State Building or a Katz’s pastrami sandwich. As such, the dead rat on First Avenue was just one more tourist attraction, and half a dozen smartphone paparazzi were ardently documenting its fallen state.

That would have been that except for the arrival on the scene of a couple of boisterous young men who whipped beer bottles from brown paper bags and, in a leering act of frat-boy street libation, spilled some Stella Artois on the bestilled rodent. The synaptical reaction took a moment to kick in, but then the formerly dead rat appeared to levitate, spinning a full 180 degrees above the sidewalk and sending stunned bystanders shrieking into the night.

One of evolution’s more triumphant guilty pleasures, the New York rat, whose precursors waged bio-guerrilla war against the post-dinosaur reptilian rear guard 50 million years ago, comes to the table sporting a dossier of astounding and sobering attributes. Female brown rats are sexually mature at eight-to-ten weeks and can produce a litter within 21 days of impregnation. They can mate again within eighteen hours of giving birth and routinely turn out more than 50 offspring per year. Rats can swim for more than half a mile, tread water for three days, sometimes even emerging in the bathroom bowl. They can gnaw through concrete and lead, collapse their skeletons to fit through a hole no bigger than a quarter. They can go for two weeks without sleeping, utilizing this extended wakefulness to devour everything in sight. According to an estimate, rats and their rodent allies eat and otherwise despoil up to one fifth of the world’s food supply. This is to say nothing of their role in wiping out half of Europe during the Black Death plague of the mid-1300s. The plague also killed many rats, but the rodent proved its staying power when several were found to have survived the atomic-bomb testing on the Eniwetok Atoll in 1945.

When it comes to who and what will be left standing following Armageddon, the rat has a compelling résumé. Yet it wasn’t until that late-summer evening in the East Village that the Rattus norvegicus added resurrection-by-beer to its vita. It mattered little that the rat staggered barely a few feet before keeling over again, likely succumbing to some exterminator’s slow-death dose of rodenticide. He had proved his point.

We are apparently in the midst of one of New York’s periodic rat outbreaks. If there are 8 million stories in the Naked City, maybe half of them are rat stories; uptown and down, everyone seems to have one. Rats have been reported overrunning playgrounds, burrowing in children’s sandboxes, dropping from trees in Tompkins Square Park. On the Upper West Side, residents say rats have “formed a conga line” in Verdi Square (née Needle Park) on 72nd Street. Local TV crews have run outraged exclusives about rats living across from the Plaza Hotel. Rats were even threatening celebrity homes in Greenwich Village, menacing luminaries like Michael Cera and Rupert Everett, forcing Gisele Bündchen to raise her skirt in fear. At one downtown firehouse, rats were getting into the FDNY cars and eating away the wires under the dashboards. Knowing that rodent gnawing is responsible for an estimated quarter of electrical failures in the city, the firefighters employed infrared cameras to locate the rats, which they attempted to beat to death with hockey sticks. Perhaps even more vivid was the action taken in August by Jose Rivera, a city employee at the Marcy projects in Bed-Stuy, who used a pitchfork to kill a three-foot-long rat (possibly an alien rat from Africa, an escaped pet). Asked by a reporter if Jay-Z, Marcy’s most famous alum, would rap about Rivera’s feat, a project resident said, “He ought to … ‘Pitchfork, bitchfork, Marcy with the monster rat, sometime it be like that.’ ”


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