Big Scary Ugly Dirty Rats

Photo: Andrea Fremioitti

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.’ ”

Vermin videos have gone viral, collected by sites like Gothamist, which specializes in the rats-on-subway genre. Callow suburbanites seem to never get enough of the rat crawling on the face of the homeless guy, but the less heartless may prefer “Rat With Full Slice of Pizza.” “Rat on the A Train” isn’t bad either. In this climate, exterminators, now generally referred to as pest-­management professionals (PMPs), are reality-show stars. Animal Planet’s Rat Busters NYC tracks the undeniably amusing peregrinations of Jimmy Tallman and Michael Morales, who in their quest to become the most famous rat-catchers since Hamelin are photographed crawling around Queens attics saying things like “Holy cow! Look at those droppings.”

The ongoing rodent scare has proved a headache for the Bloomberg administration, especially since the announced layoff of 57 (out of 185) Health Department pest-control workers last year. “You don’t slash the ranks of public-health workers on the front lines of an epidemic,” said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer at a protest in Mitchell Square Park in Washington Heights, where locals claimed the rats had “taken over.” Last month, members of the subway-workers union circulated a petition against the cutbacks, shouting, “If you smell something, sign something.” For his part, Mayor Bloomberg has pooh-poohed the outbreak as just one more thing the 99 percent of us will have to put up with in these austere times. “Rats are a problem in every big city,” a peevish mayor told a TV reporter. This was in sharp contrast to the reaction of then-mayor Rudolph ­Giuliani when faced with a “Rat Summit” during a similar rodent panic in 2000.

Giuliani (who once famously told a ­ferret-keeping citizen to get help for his “excessive concern for little weasels”) declared, “We make unprecedented efforts to kill rats. We probably lead the country in rat killing.”

All of this brings up a number of questions, ones that have vexed city health officials at least since the rodent scare of the twenties, when scientists proposed to build a wall around the rat-infested waterfront area. For instance, just how many New York rats are there in New York? For decades, the rule of thumb was one rat for every human, i.e., 8 million rats, an iconic yet mind-­boggling number. Following the Second World War, David E. Davis (called “the founding father of modern rat studies” by Robert Sullivan in his esteemed 2004 book, Rats) challenged the one-to-one ratio. After much field work, Davis concluded there were no more than 250,000 rats in New York, or one rodent for every 36 people.

Since then, however, there seems little doubt that the rat population, spurred by ever more garbage for the rodents to eat, has increased, perhaps dramatically. You hear all sorts of numbers. One PMP told me there were “three, maybe four” rats for every person. “Thirty-two million rats?” I asked. “Well, at least 20 million,” the PMP replied. No one knows for sure, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is how many rats you see.

That is because, as Steven Bruce of the Superb Pest Control company of the Bronx says, “one rat is a lot to see … because they’re rats.”

It was true, Bruce said, that the Great Bedbug Panic had kept him busy over the past couple of years. This is largely because, as many PMPs allow, “paranoia is good for business.” Pictured as a creeping army of microscopic vampires capable of lurking in even Bloomingdale’s-bought 1,000-thread-count sheets, bedbugs, or even a rumor of them, are enough to make whole neighborhoods scratch through their skin and throw bedroom sets onto the street. But when it came down to it, a high percentage of people driven crazy by tiny demons had no bedbugs at all. “One of the hardest parts of my job is convincing them they don’t have them,” says Lee Browning of Discovery Dogs, a firm that uses pint-size terriers to sniff out the insects. A good PMP often had to turn psychologist, nudge people down from the ledge. Bedbugs were the perfect post-9/11 pest; they carried an alien, unknowable claustrophobia of dread, but since they were predictably wiped out by the application of 115-degree heat, many vermin-hunters found them dull, offering little intellectual challenge.

That was why there was “something about a rat job,” Bruce said as he walked through a midtown basement with his flashlight looking for “rub marks,” the dark smudges greasy-furred rats leave on walls. Unlike the faceless struggle against the bedbug, a rat job was “a battle of wits and wills. A turf war, because where they live is where we live.” Going against the rat was personal, a measure of the man, a pride fight between species.

It was something about the rat itself, the nature of the beast, the way thousands of years of proximity have produced a highly nuanced historical and cultural bond with humanity. Would any parent think of taking children to a performance of The Nutcracker featuring a Bedbug King? Is it any wonder Michael Jackson’s first No. 1 hit as a solo artist was “Ben,” theme from a movie about a telepathic, homicidal alpha rat? Rat lit is a staple of the New York writer, with this graph from Joseph Mitchell more or less summing it up. “Rats are almost as fecund as germs … a rat at four is older than a man at ninety. ‘Rats that survive to the age of four are the wisest and the most cynical beasts on earth,’ one exterminator says. ‘A trap means nothing to them, no matter how skillfully set. They just kick it around until it snaps; then they eat the bait … I believe some of them can read.’ ”

One could become obsessional about rats, I thought, thumbing through a scholarly article by the noted urban rodentologist Bobby Corrigan. A pioneer of “green” pest management and adviser to the City Health Department with a Ph.D. in rodent control from Purdue University, Corrigan did not put much credence in the suggestion that the uptick in rat sightings was a result of projects like the Second Avenue subway and the aptly named Bruce Ratner’s ­Barclays Center. “A rat isn’t going to leave his burrow unless it is directly impacted,” said the ­Brooklyn-born Corrigan. “Vibrations do not bother them. They are not leaving home because someone has a jackhammer.”

Corrigan called the present hysteria “understandable but idiotic.” The recent outbreak, he said, may only be little more than the unsettling of a few rat colonies, involving no more than 200 or 300 individuals. So this whole uproar was over a handful of rats? “It very well could be,” said Corrigan.

His point was that people are confused about rats. The fact was man “was more indebted to the Norway rat than any other species on Earth” with all those lab experiments and the lives they saved.

That was the conundrum; humans and rats were inextricably linked by time and space. History taught there was no getting rid of them. It was a Cold War, mutually-assured-destruction situation; wiping out the rats would wipe us out, too. What was needed was distance, Corrigan said. “Rats are diabolically clever animals. By that I don’t mean they’re controlled by the devil. It is just that they are very smart, very single-minded, very determined. One thing they want to do is be close to us, which is the problem, because if you allow a rat to get close to you, he will get very, very close. Closer than you want. That’s what we do, manage the distance.”

Iwas thinking about distance while wandering around looking for rats. This was embarrassing, since there are plenty of people in New York who don’t need to go out to find rats. The rats come to them. Right into their babies’ cribs. Not that I didn’t have rat stories of my own. For instance, in the winter of 1972, I was living in a storefront apartment with my sister on 6th Street between Avenues A and B. Bimbo Rivas, Loisaida poet and playwright, was my sister’s boyfriend and was around a lot. One day, Bim, a man with a sense of flair, used the five-foot-long steel-pole “police lock” to spear a scurrying Rattus norvegicus right through the belly. Toshiro Mifune couldn’t have done it better. The rat squealed a bit, but that subsided soon after Bim, with a quick flick of the pole, tossed the body out into an air shaft and closed the window.

Corrigan was right. Rats like to be close. They hug walls, seek warmth, want to be near you, if only to burrow into the subconscious, as in Freud’s famous “Rat Man” case, in which the patient was possessed by a fantasy of a chamber pot full of rodents attached to a man’s buttocks (which dovetails with the urban nightmare of the rat crawling through a toilet; check YouTube, if you want to throw up). Rats were parasites, living off human imperfection. Humanity was a race of profligate slobs who threw Doritos out the car window and were too lazy to fasten the lids on $100 pestproof trash cans. New York had more garbage than anywhere else, so we had more rats. They existed to mock us for our grandiosity and our sloth. They were our mirror, unwanted but true.

It was about then, as I sat near Collect Pond Park, that a rat appeared. I figured one would, sooner or later. Collect Pond, down the block from the Tombs, was a flash point in the rat scare. “Holy bleep, it is like a rat zoo in there,” exclaimed one video blogger. The rat approached, got within six feet of me, and stopped. This was fine. Six feet was an acceptable distance. But then the rat zigzagged around, moving closer by six inches or so. It was now within my zone.

I don’t like it when city animals act funny; it makes me think they might be rabid. But for all the diseases they spread, rats don’t get rabies. It was then I saw the Reese’s wrapper near my foot. Inside was a bit of peanut-butter cup. Rats can’t see for shit but can smell anything, and they’re crazy about peanut butter. It is like crack to them. I could see it: the rat decision-making process. Would he chance it? Make his move? It would be a mistake, because that peanut-butter cup was in my space. Lines had to be drawn. The rat, realizing I was serious, soon ran off. But he’d be back; two residents of the city, we were stuck with each other.

The Rat Beat

Rat killed with a pitchfork.

Rat with full slice of pizza.

Rat crawling on a man’s face.

Rat on the A train.

Big Scary Ugly Dirty Rats