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Scampering through rats' colorful history

Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants
By Robert Sullivan, Bloomsbury, 242 pp., $23.95

Coming home at night, I used to peer down the alley for signs of life before hurrying inside. I wasn't worried about a thief, a flasher, or a drunk. What made me shudder was the chance that I might see a rat.

Last year officials in Cambridge warned of an increase in the rat population in my neighborhood. I've never seen a rat on my street since I moved in 18 years ago, but my partner has. Two years ago, he saw a rat next door one afternoon eating pieces of bread presumably scattered for the pigeons. It wasn't until I read "Rats" that I understood the significance of that sighting.

Anne Li, an epidemiologist, tells author Robert Sullivan, "The general consensus is that if you see one then there are ten, and if you see them during the day, then you don't know what you've got."

Rats are the ultimate survivor. Their life expectancy in the city is one year. In that time, a female rat can produce up to 12 litters of 20 rats. One pair of rats has the potential for 15,000 descendants in a year. As the representative of a pest-control firm told Sullivan, "The bad news is rodents are going to win this war against us humans. The good news is there's a lot of business."

Sullivan's book is a rollicking, richly drawn history that touches on rat fights, the rodent-control business, rats' favorite foods, and the showstopping role rats have played in tenant and sanitation worker strikes in New York. Sullivan offers up a parade of eccentric characters who deserve to be in the movies.

At the Rodent Management Summit in Chicago, Sullivan meets Bobby Corrigan, the "superstar of the rodent control industry." Corrigan's fans descend on him to shake his hand and trade stories. Corrigan once spent three weeks hunting down a rat in a granary. And he keeps photos of himself sitting amid piles of chicken dung in a poultry house taking notes about the rats.

Sullivan's previous two books are full of keen observation and witty renderings as well. In "The Meadowlands," Sullivan sets out to find Manhattan's original Penn Station and the elusive corpse of labor leader Jimmy Hoffa in a polluted New Jersey swamp. "A Whale Hunt" recounts the controversial efforts of a Native American tribe to revive the tradition of hunting whales from a canoe.

In "Rats," the many digressions are more entertaining than the backbone of the book. Sullivan returns again and again to the year he spent observing rats in Edens Alley near what used to be the World Trade Center. Yet rats are the quintessential creatures of habit, so his diary quickly grows tedious.

Rattus norvegicus, known as the Norway rat and the brown rat, arrived on ships around the time of the American Revolution. By the 19th century, rat fights were a popular form of entertainment. Dogs competed to kill the most rats. Having killed 100 rats in 5 minutes, 28 seconds, Jocko the Wonder Dog was said to hold the world's record. Henry Bergh, the founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, shut down the rat pits, though some historians credit the rising popularity of baseball -- a cheap alternative at the time -- for the demise of rat fights.

In 1963, Jesse Gray organized a rent strike in Harlem and asked 13,000 tenants to bring a rat to court. People brought dead rats and live rats. People dangled rats by their tails for the newspaper photographers; people displayed rats spread out on newspapers, like fresh fish they'd bought at the market, Sullivan writes.

The tenants won. Dozens of buildings were repaired, and the city spent $1 million on rat extermination.

In 1968, John DeLury, the rough-and-tumble president of a sanitation workers union, took on New York mayor John Lindsay and Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The union went on strike, and DeLury went to jail. As tons of garbage piled up, the specter of rats invading wealthy neighborhoods may have hastened a settlement. By the 1970s, city sanitation workers were paid as much as police officers and firefighters.

Is a city without rats possible? Probably not, according to the rat-control experts whom Sullivan consults, unless humans switch to a diet of fresh vegetables -- inedible as far as rats are concerned -- or properly dispose of their garbage. As John Norquist, the mayor of Milwaukee, said at a press conference about the rodents, "If people don't like rats, don't feed them. It's as simple as that. People should look in the mirror first." As for the rats in my neighborhood, I've adopted a new policy: Don't look, don't see.

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