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
book, written by Robert Sullivan and published by
I first heard about the book, I was excited. I was looking forward to reading about
observations of wild rats in
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
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
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.
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
trapped wild rats in
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.
3 (12 pages) is about David E. Davis, whom Sullivan describes as “
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.
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
12 (16 pages) is about Sullivan traveling to
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.
Rat Fan Club,