The Rat Fan Club

Book Reviews:  Non-Fiction

by Debbie “The Rat Lady”



Book Review: Rats, Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants


This book, written by Robert Sullivan and published by Bloomsbury in 2004, has been greeted with great enthusiasm by the media.  Long reviews of the book appeared in Newsday, the L.A. Times, and the Chicago Tribune.  These reviews were fueled by Sullivan taking the reporters on “rat-hunting expeditions” in their respective cities.

When I first heard about the book, I was excited.  I was looking forward to reading about observations of wild rats in New York City.  But I was disappointed to find out that the book really isn’t about rats. 

If you read the subtitle of the book—Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants—carefully, you will see that the observations are not on the rats themselves, but on their history and habitat.  Out of 219 pages, only about 20 are actually about rats.  The rest is about people and history.  Sullivan says he spent a year of nights observing wild rats in a NYC alley, but he only tells about his observations of the rats in about 12 pages.

The most interesting chapters are 2, 6, 8, 13 and 18.  The cover art for the book is also interesting.  It shows a rat worked into a map of NYC.

Chapter 2 (9 ½ pages) starts by describing wild rats.  I liked the first paragraph, especially the last sentence which is “I offer a portrait that is hysteria-free, that merely describes the rat as a rat.”  He proceeds to spend about 3 pages describing wild rats, both Norway and roof rats.  Unfortunately, he includes several incorrect statements.  Calling the roof rat the “black rat,” he says, “The black rat is always a very dark gray, almost black…” and this is not true.  My two roof rats are agouti, a very pretty brown that could in no way be called dark gray.  He says the gestation period for rats is 21 days, when it is actually 21-23. 

But the worst statement he makes is so bad, it’s almost funny.  He describes watching rats drink water from a dirty puddle in the subway, and says, “They sip the water the way rats do, either with their front paws, or by scooping it up with their incisors.”  The chapter goes on to describe the different ways wild rats can die (you don’t want to know) and the history of how wild rats arrived in America.

Chapter 6 (10 pages) includes about 2 pages of description of Sullivan’s first observations of the rats in the alley.  He is amazed to find that they bound and gallop, instead of scuttling.  Most of this chapter is about a homeless man Sullivan meets in the alley, Derrick, who shows Sullivan that he can intimidate the rats in the alley by shouting and stomping on the ground.  He claims he has the rats “trained.”  This makes a big impression on Sullivan who is actually terrified of the rats.

Chapter 8 (6 ½ pages) is titled “Food” and talks about the types of food wild rats tend to like the best.  Sullivan says it is written in the rat literature that a rat would starve in an alley surrounded by raw vegetables.  Of course, this can’t be true.  But it appears that wild rats tend to like fast food best, and they apparently tend to prefer the type of food that is common in their alley.  For instance, rats who live in an alley that backs onto an Indian restaurant will tend to prefer spicy Indian food to other ethnic styles.  Sullivan includes a list of food from a study done by Martin W. Schein in 1953.  Schein trapped wild rats in Baltimore, housed them in cages in a barn in the country, and tested to see what foods they preferred.  The foods on the preferred list are not surprising, and include sweet potatoes, but I was surprised to see apples, raw carrots and peaches on the list of least-preferred foods.  Broccoli did not appear on either list.

Chapter 13 (6 pages) is called “Trapping,” and is about how Sullivan sets a live-trap to try to catch a rat in the alley.  He is unsuccessful.  Chapter 17 (19 pages) is called “Catching” and here Sullivan tells how he accompanied a team from the city health department after 9/11 as they trapped rats to take blood samples to monitor disease.  One of the team members, Ann Li, really liked the rats.  At various times she said, “I think rats are so underappreciated,” “Rats are the smartest creatures,” and when they finally catch a rat, “This rat is beautiful!”  They trapped the rats using live-traps, then anesthetized them with halothane before drawing the blood.  They then allowed the rats to die under the anesthetic, although one very strong rat overcame the anesthetic and escaped.  The last 7 ½ pages of the chapter are about cases of plague in NYC.

Chapter 18 (9 ½ pages) includes some of Sullivan’s observations of rats in the alley over a few nights, and especially, notes on a rat who had a corkscrew tail and was noticeably bigger than the other rats.  This is the only rat that Sullivan saw more than once, although he said he could not tell the other rats apart.

So what is the rest of the book about?  Well, Chapter 1 (4 pages) explains why Sullivan decided to observe rats and write this book.  It’s partly because he found a painting of wild rats done by Audubon, and partly because Sullivan shares a liking for areas that rats also like: swamps, dumps, and alleys.

Chapter 3 (12 pages) is about David E. Davis, whom Sullivan describes as “America’s rodent control guru.”  Davis was one of the first people to study wild rats to better understand how to eliminate them.  Sullivan says Davis tried to debunk a statistic that got started that there is one rat for every person in New York City, but the erroneous statistic still persists.  Davis believed a more realistic figure was one rat per every 36 humans.  This chapter also tells how Sullivan went alley-hunting to find a good alley to see rats.

Chapter 4 (6 ½ pages) is all about the history of the alley Sullivan chose: Edens Alley.  Chapter 5 (14 ½ pages) covers the history of wild rat infestations in NYC and reports of wild rats in the newspaper.  Chapter 7 (9 pages) is about Jesse Gray, the founder of the first Harlem Tenants Council.  Chapter 9 (9 ½ pages) is about the history of “ratting” in NYC, where wild rats were caught and put into arenas so dogs could kill them for entertainment. 

Chapter 10 (10 ½ pages) is about the history of garbage in NYC.  Chapter 11 (15 ½ pages) is about exterminators, or pest control operators as they are called now, once they realized they could only control pests and not completely exterminate them.  This chapter contains a quote from one of the exterminators who said he had seen on TV a “country in Africa where they worship the rat.”  Probably the program was on the rat temple in Deshnoke, India and the man was not paying close attention. 

Chapter 12 (16 pages) is about Sullivan traveling to Milwaukee to attend a press conference on rat control held by the mayor, and a pest control conference.  Chapter 14 (8 ½ pages) is about the history of the plague. Chapter 15 (8 pages) is about some of the activities of the health department around NYC after 9/11.  Chapter 16 (10 pages) is about plague in America, specifically in San Francisco in 1900.  Chapter 19 (18 pages) goes into more history of the particular location in NYC that would eventually become Edens Alley.  Chapter 20 (6 pages) tells how Sullivan visits Edens Alley during the day for the very first time (which I found strange), sees a dead rat and some poison put out by an exterminator, and how he goes and talks to the exterminator about the alley.

I can’t recommend this book for the average rat lover.  I found parts of it interesting, but other parts are boring, and some are quite grisly.  I can only recommend it for someone who isn’t too squeamish and who wants to read all they can about rats.




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