There are few other critters that make people cringe as much rats. And there are few other cities that boast as big a population of rats as New York City. So it happens that New York-based writer Robert Sullivan decided to study them for over a year, examining the notorious nocturnal creatures which thrive on human waste in the cities' alleys. He discussed his book Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants during a recent interview on Tooth and Claw. Having interviewed people who regularly come in contact with rats, from professional pest controllers to homeless people, Sullivan notes disturbingly, "one is always within a few feet of a rat in New York City."
Driven by curiosity, the author unearthed some interesting facts about rats, including the not-so-well-known details. Sullivan noted that rats have a unique tooth enamel which gives their teeth the hardness of steel, matched with immense power in their jaws, which can munch through concrete and iron. Their ability to squeeze through tiny holes and eat almost anything makes them perfectly adapted to urban environments around the world. "They're excellently coordinated to take advantage of what is in a city ...They're perfectly habituated."
Does the common urban myth that there is a rat for every person in New York hold water? Sullivan has explored the history of it thoroughly in his book and said it isn't so, but that the image somehow resonates with people. "That figure is so delicious for people, that they can't reject it ...It speaks to the psychology of rats. They only exist because we do."
In Sullivan's opinion, people are not too different from rats. "Just like rats, we like to live in tight groups like cities. We like to always know where we are. You can plot their [rats'] move to North America from Europe, following immigration routes with the food stores." The comparison doesn't end here, he added. "They take advantage of resources, consuming them beyond the limit of the resource. Their population expands and then suffers as a result of it ... Sounds a lot like our story."
Ultimately, why write about rats? ullivan cited the writings of Henry David Thoreau as an influence. "He wrote about looking at exactly where we live ... It's good to know about the world, but first know about where you live and that for me is what rats are about -- knowing what's going on right under your feet."