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Rats: Observations on the History and…

Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted…

by Robert Sullivan

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Not for the squeamish, this one. Sullivan stakes out a New York City alley and observes its rats, interspersing his own anecdotal take on the critters with perspectives from rat scientists, exterminators, street people, &c. Reminded me of a Mary Roach book without the humor, or Andrew Blechman's book on pigeons from a few years ago. ( )
  JBD1 | Dec 9, 2014 |
Recently, I went to New York City with my son. It was the first time I had ever been to New York City, although I had been all around it several times. Two of the things I wished to see were the Tenament Museum and a New York City Rat. (At least one rat makes an appearance in almsot every book I've read about New York City.) We were only in the city for two days before going to Croton on Hudson, but we knew we'd hit the museum and we kept looking for rats. When we went to the museum we needed to use a couple of their lockers for our backpacks, and of course being who I am, we were early so we looked around the Tenament Museum shop. I looked for a book about the Triangle Shirt Factory fire and couldn't find one I hadn't already read (that's often the fate of someone who is interested in labour history/ethics) but there was this book entitled "Rats" by Robert Sullivan. I immediately picked it up and started to read the cover. A staff member of the store approached me and said, "I know this sounds strange, but the staff recommends this book very highly." One of his colleagues joined us and said "I loved that book."

In the hotel that night I began to read the book and I was immediately engrossed. For four evenings (about 20 minutes each evening) I began to devour the book of "Rats". I don't normally read nature books, (and the title doesn't lead a reader to believe it's a nature book) but this is about rats in their natural habitat.

Rats are absolutely fascinating and Mr. Sullivan shares his experiences with them using charm, wit, affection and objectivity in a way to delight the reader. I learned interesting facts about rattus norvegicus. They are thigmophilic and can't vomit?

I also learned that they are not indigenous to North America, and they are not the friendly pet rats that we usually consider. However, the most interesting point is the closeness the rat has with humanity and the similarities in our two species.

This books is more than a natural history. It is a history of the struggles of humanity and humanity's interaction with itself and other species, including rats. It is full of little stories as well as myths and legends. Although focused on New York City itself, it also includes the impact of the life of the rat world wide.

What I did not anticipate was how easily the book could be put down because of unexpected circumstances, and then picked up and enjoyed without losing a beat. I've also learned that if I ever get to New York City again, there's a better way to look for rats than we were doing. ( )
1 vote M.J.Perry | Aug 31, 2014 |
Finished this one over the weekend. It was enjoyable and touched on many aspects of rats, including their natural history, history of rats in New York City, profiles of exterminators and their methods, and rats' role in carrying disease. There is certainly a lot to learn. It's amazing that a creature that most people don't think about, unless in disgust, is so firmly rooted in life alongside humans.

The author does not love rats, and maybe that was why the book didn't excite me more than it did. I have to admit I've never lived in a city in close proximity to rats and I don't seem to have that instinctive repulsion or fear that most people have, although the author's descriptions of rat bites and rat attacks are sobering (and reminded me of the evil rat in Lady & The Tramp, which I have always thought unfairly demonized the poor rodent - guess I was wrong). Still, I believe a creature that is so adaptable and obviously intelligent deserves our respect and even a bit of admiration. It seems we tend to hate those animals who do the best job of living with us -- rats, pigeons, mice, etc. -- when their adaptability, evolution, and tendency to reproduce and drive out other species makes them more like us than other, rarer creatures.

There was very little in this book about environmental concerns, either. The matter-of-fact discussion of the exterminators and the chemicals they use, which are described as very hazardous, did not venture into discussion of how those poisons are affecting groundwater, air quality, etc., although there was some discussion of accidental and intentional human poisoning using rat poison. Guess that was too much for the scope of this book, but it was a constant thought in the back of my mind as I read.

I also wish the book had some photos, although they might have been unappealing to most readers. I admire the author's tenacity and willingness to submerge himself in the world of rats for a year, but it doesn't seem that he gained any great wisdom or new understanding. ( )
  glade1 | Jul 29, 2014 |
Rats are not my favourite topic, but Mr. Sullivan made then fascinating, albeit still a bit repulsive. Rats have affected humans a lot more than most other things in history, and for that reason if no other they should be read about. This is a great read. ( )
  RobertP | Jan 13, 2014 |
Rats by Robert Sullivan is a fascinating study of rats and their cohabitation with humans. One particularly interesting section was on rats and plague, which, as you may know, is spread to humans by the rat flea. Apparently the Japanese were the first to experiment with the use of plague as a biological weapon during WWII under the direction of General Shiro Ishii. He discovered that the best was to infect a city with plague was to fill clay bombs with infected fleas. An attack was successfully conducted against the Chinese city ofChangde. A clue that the outbreak was caused by humans rather than rats was that the rats began dying of plague weeks after the humans, a reverse of the normal situation.

General Ishii also practiced vivisection on live humans. He was never tried for war crimes, apparently having made a deal with the Americans who got copies of his notes and papers which formed the basis for the early American attempts at creating biological weapons. He retired a respected medical man.

The United States began experimenting with biological weapons in the early fifties and tested their weapon distribution methods on unsuspecting Americans. In one case, Navy planes sprayed the eastern Virginia coat with microbes similar to Anthrax but "thought to be harmless," and as late as 1966, soldiers dressed in civilian clothes dropped light bulbs filled with the microbes on the tracks in New York subways in order to measure how the microbes dispersed -- all without the knowledge of the public or Congress. ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
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When I wrote the following account of my experiences with rats, I lived in an apartment building on a block filled with other apartment buildings, amidst the approximately eight million people in New York City, and I paid rent to a landlord that I never actually met-though I did meet the superintendent, who was a very nice guy.
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In Rats, the critically acclaimed bestseller, Robert Sullivan spends a year investigating a rat-infested alley just a few blocks away from Wall Street. Sullivan gets to know not just the beast but its friends and foes: the exterminators, the sanitation workers, the agitators and activists who have played their part in the centuries-old war between human city dweller and wild city rat. Sullivan looks deep into the largely unrecorded history of the city and its masses-its herds-of-rats-like mob. Funny, wise, sometimes disgusting but always compulsively readable, Rats earns its unlikely place alongside the great classics of nature writing.… (more)

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