Monday, May 23, 2005

Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan

UPDATED on 5/23. Interesting quick read on the other urban creature that has lived harmoniously with us for 1000s of years.

Publishers Weekly: In this excellent narrative, Sullivan uses the brown rat as the vehicle for a labyrinthine history of the Big Apple. After pointing out a host of facts about rats that are sure to make you start itching ("if you are in New York... you are within close proximity to one or more rats having sex"), Sullivan quickly focuses in on the rat's seemingly inexhaustible number of connections to mankind. Observing a group of rats in a New York City alley, just blocks from a preâ€"September 11 World Trade Center, leads Sullivan into a timeless world that has more twists than Manhattan's rat-friendly underbelly. Conversations and field studies with "pest control technicians" spirit him back to 1960s Harlem, when rat infestations played a part in the Civil Rights movement and the creation of tenants' organizations. Researching the names of the streets and landmarks near the rats' homes, Sullivan is led even deeper into the city's history till he is back to the 19th century, when the real gangs of New York were the packs of rats that overran the city's bustling docks. Like any true New Yorker, Sullivan is able to convey simultaneously the feelings of disgust and awe that most city dwellers have for the scurrying masses that live among them. These feelings, coupled with his ability to literally and figuratively insert himself into the company of his hairy neighbors, help to personalize the myriad of topicsâ€"urban renewal, labor strikes, congressional bills, disease control, September 11-that rats have nosed their way into over the years. This book is a must pickup for every city dweller, even if you'll feel like you need to wash your hands when you put it down.

"Rats often bit young children and infants on the face because of the smell of food residues on the children. Many of the approximately 50,000 people bitten by rats every year are children." p6

"When it gnaws, a flap of skin plugs the space behind its incisors... Hence, indigestible material - concrete or steel - shavings don't go down the rats throat and kill it." p7

"It terms of hardness, the brown rat's teeth are stronger than aluminum, copper, lead and iron. They are comparable to steel... Rats can exert a biting pressure of up to 7000 lbs/sqin." p7

"By one estimate, 26% of electric cable breaks and 18% of all phone/cable disruptions are caused by rats... as many as 25% of all fires of unknown origin are rat-caused." p7

"Their skeletons collapse and they can squeeze into a hole as small as 3/4 inch wide." p8

"Male and female rats may have sex 20 times a day... A female rat can become pregnant immediately after giving birth... One pair of rats has the potential of 15,000 descendants in a year [however most rats don't make it]."p11

"The end of rat fights did not come until the next inexpensive crowd-pleasing sporting event was finally embraced by the growing number of inner city residents in New York and all over America: Baseball." p85

"When plague arrived in Honolulu [circa 1900], the officials were so intent on saving the city that they considered burning it down and ended up burning much of Chinatown. The outbreak of plague in Hawaii is sometimes called the 2nd worst disaster in the history of state after the bombing of Pearl Harbor." p155

"There are more rodents currently infected with the plague in N. America than there were in Europe at the time of the Black Death, though modern rodents infected (prairie dogs for example) tend to live in areas less populated with humans..." p162

"To simulate the spread of anthrax over large populations, the government used microbes that were similar to anthrax but thought [at the time] to be harmless. In April 1950, 2 navy ships sprayed the residents of Newport News, Hamption and Norfolk, VA with Bacillus globigii. Similar sprayings were made in the SF Bay - area residents were exposed to clouds of the microbes... In NYC, the military released Bacillus globigii on the subways... Neither the public nor Congress knew about it. The results are still classified." p178-9

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