Rats by Robert Sullivan

Rats, yes, I am writing about a book about RATS!

Synopsis of
 Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan: Love them or loathe them, rats are here to stay-they are city dwellers as much as (or more than) we are, surviving on the effluvia of our society. 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.

My two cents

The book in one sentence: A man observes rats in a obscure alley in New York ... for fun!

I first mentioned this book in a Friday 56 way back in October 2011. I read this over several months and I wanted to write about this book because I really enjoyed it!

I am probably the last person to say anything complimentary about rats. I can't even stand pet mice.
I shudder at the thought of having rats in the house. You probably do too. And we all have our war stories involving rats. I remember we had one in the house at one point and we tried everything - traps, poison. The rat kept getting bigger, badder, and before long was reproducing. *shudder* Until one day, the hubby finally saw this humungous rat caught in some wire ... and he dropped his 10-pound hand barbel on it and crushed it to death.

So, I can't believe that  is among the most fascinating books I've read this past year!

Stories like this abound in the book. Intriguing, disgusting, repulsive encounters with vermin! But the book isn't just about recounting his observations when he stationed himself in Eden's Alley over the year in lower Manhattan, to the dismay of his puzzled wife (Can you imagine spouting: "Honey, I'm going rat watching, wanna come?") and to the glee of some rather nice friends (who actually were eager to accompanying him there). Sullivan intersperses his ratting encounters with that of the human kind - mainly those who deal with rats by circumstance (a homeless man) or by choice (ecologists, biologists, "pest control technicians" aka exterminators, and all manner of scientists). And boy, do they have a lot of stories to tell, too!

The amount of trivia in this book is astounding. Sullivan scours research studies and rat lore and provides us with some little-known facts like:
  • If you like scramble eggs and macaroni and cheese, and hate raw vegetables ... then you have a lot in common with rats!
  • The rats that actually come out are the desperate ones - being the runts, they need to come out  during the day to get to food sources with less competition.  Can you believe what monstrous rats are down there?
  • Get a pair of rats a-mating and they can produce up to 15,000 offspring in a year. Talk about prolific!
  • Rats skeletons are collapsible, which is why they can scurry into as small as their skulls. 
  • Other than man, the rat has been called the world's most destructive mammal. Consider the stats: rats cause 26% of all electric cable breaks, 18% of all phone cable disruptions, 25% of all fires of unknown origin are rat-caused, and rats destroy an estimated 1/3 of the world's food supply per year. 
  • The above isn't too surprising if you know that rats can gnaw through concrete and steel.
  • Ever heard of the Rat King, where one rat leads others in mass a la The Pied Piper? This is based on the actual phenomenon where the rats' tails get entangled and they grow together - as many as 32 rats in a knot!

While this is about rats, it is as about New York City's history and some very prominent rat-related figures.

There's Jesse Gray, a Harlem tenant organizer and activist in the early 1960s who used rats as the "hook" for the strikes he led. Gray had little success rallying renters strike against the slumlords. "Bring a rat to court!" he told the tenants, not difficult to do and tangible proof of the decay and filth of their conditions. And bring them they did in to court and city hall they did - dead, alive, in the droves (13,000 to be exact) -  complete with horror stories. It's amazing how things snowballed. 
As the winter went on, the strike doubled in size. Gray and the volunteers of the Community Council urged the city to take over the dilapidated buildings. Gray called for a "mass rehabilitation of the ghettos." The courts sided with the rent strike; a judge ordered repairs. To this day, it's the largest rent strike the city has ever seen. In 1964, the strike spread from Harlem to the the Bronx and the Lower East Side, including Hispanic neighborhoods. Now at protest rallies, the signs that said NO RENT FOR RATS and FREEDOM NOW and JAIL THE SLUMLORDS were accompanied by signs that said LAS RATAS.  - pp. 62-63, from the chapter "Unrepresented Man"

Then there's Christopher "Kit" Burns, a Irish immigrant, and the last known owner New York's rat fighting bars. He opened Sportsman's Hall in Lower Manhattan in 1840. People came to watch as he he pitted dogs, other rats ... and even men against live rats! 
The bar itself was said to hold 250 decent people and 400 indecent ones. The rat pit was just beyond the bar. It was a wooden- walled oval on the dirt floor, seventeen feet long, eight and a half feet wide, with benches and boxes for the patrons. The rats entered in a wire cage the size of a large pail; they came in fifty at a time, rats screaming and hissing. When the dogs saw the rats released, they howled, setting the rats into a frenzy "They galloped about the walls in different directions, meeting and crowding into a file in one of the corners, where they tried ineffectually to scale the top of the pit," a rat flight attendee wrote. "Then they would separate again run frightened about the floor, trying every crevice and corner. One or two would run up the trousers and legs of the caretaker, whence he composedly and carelessly shook them again." - p. 77-78, from the chapter "Fights"

I couldn't put this down out of morbid fascination! And if you found the above intriguing, then the latter part of the book will also hold your attention, as it digresses into quite the history piece.


Sullivan has an air of excitement and bravura when he tells his stories - kind of like a little kid showing off to his friends! His enthusiasm is contagious. While I doubt I'll say I am now fond of rats, I have a newfound appreciation for them because of Sullivan's research and writing. This book exposes rats as an amazing species, capable of surviving anything. It is an engaging read of such an odd subject matter that I wish my biology/history class were this interesting!


Combination field guide-ecology textbook, history book-scientific trivia compilation, and personal diary, rats are among the most fascinating animals that live alongside man. Not for the squeamish. Definitely for the trivia buff!


First line: 

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 pay 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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© guiltless readingMaira Gall