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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Our Animal Week series continues with an animal that has a perverse celebrity status, the rat. Journalist Robert Sullivan describes rats as nature's mobsters, flora and fauna's serial killers who breed in filth and carry disease. They're all around us, even if they're hiding out of our sight. It wasn't difficult for Robert Sullivan to find a colony of rats to study. He chose a trash-filled alley just a block or two from Wall Street. He waited night after night to watch the rats come out and feed. After also traveling with exterminators and doing historical research, he wrote his book, "Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants."

This interview was recorded with Sullivan in 2004 when the book was published. We started with a short reading from Sullivan's rat journal describing one evening in his rat alley.

Mr. ROBERT SULLIVAN (Author, "Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants"): 6:50 - Out across Fulton Street the garbage from the Burger King is dragged out, as I imagine this happening at fast food restaurants all over New York at around this time. A small mountain of garbage bags forms, a vile and grease-dripping, sedimentary New York City occurrence that nightly turns the streets into miniature badlands to be roaded by morning, assuming the sanitation workers arrive, after which, there will be dark stains on the concrete like sweat on the morning rocks of a mountain.

7:57 - More garbage, more rats, so many more that it's becoming difficult to concentrate. There are too many rats now, more than a dozen visible at any time, squads constantly surfacing, resurfacing. In the foreground are the young rats. In the back, the larger rats, the rats that must be older, given their size.

When I venture up with binoculars, I can see their modeled coats, the bite marks, on one, a gash-like scar. I see also specialty diversions, rat performers in a circus of trash affording much entertainment for the alley watcher. A rat climbs up a garbage bag, stops at the summit, appears to look around. The rat jumps nearly straight up. In fact, jumps for what my later measurements will show to be one foot, up, up and on to the old ledge of a boarded up window. The rat walks along the ledge and turns behind the rusted old steel window bars to face the alley again and lowers himself down on to a bag back close to the wall. A bag that is inaccessible from the alley floor.

7:15 - The rats are drunk on food I think. Technically speaking, all the rat needs is three to four ounces of food a day, but these rats seem to be greatly exceeding that amount. And wouldn't you? It's not at all difficult to picture the rat eating at its food source until the food source is destroyed, cleaned out, until the rat must move on to the next alley, the next street, the next neighborhood.

GROSS: That's Robert Sullivan reading from his new book "Rats." Robert, why did you want to spend a year observing rats in a New York alley?

Mr. SULLIVAN: I feel like saying it wasn't my fault. I didn't mean to do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: I don't really, sometimes I don't know why at all and other times it seems I can't believe I wasn't doing it sooner. I like to go places where rats tend to be in, you know, alleys and swamps and garbage dumps. All the places that nobody wants to go to, it turns out that rats are kind of the theme park mascot of my places that I like.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: But the other thing happened was I was writing a book about a whale hunt, about a tribe, a Native American tribe and they were hunting a whale and everybody, of course, came up to say you can't hunt a whale. The tribe said we should be able to maybe and some people said you shouldn't. It was a big to-do about whales. And I started reading about whales and why we kind of love whales.

And I read about how we went from being a whaling nation and whaling, you know, the whales out of the world pretty much to being a nation that kind of loves whales, loves dolphins, especially loves dolphins and we feel we're on a parallel, sometimes some people think we can communicate with dolphins, we're like dolphins. And then I started thinking, well what's the creature that nobody feels like they can think like? The creature that nobody wants to say I went swimming with rats tonight, you know, in a lagoon in Florida?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: And that ends up being rats. So this is the creature that I want to check out.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. So how did you choose your spot to observe rats?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, I have a friend from high school, my friend Dave, and we still hang out even since high school. And we decided to kind of go out looking for the perfect place to look for rats. Of course, we asked our wives if it's all right if we went out after dinner to look for rats and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: ...my wife said that would be fine as long as I went with Dave. It's very important to her that I'm with somebody when I'm out there looking at rats. Although, after a while I was going alone, I got to know my alley. But we just kind of went into downtown Manhattan at night. I'd gotten some tips from some exterminators that around Seaport would be a good area.

First we found this abandoned McDonald's. It was kind of filled with rats. What was amazing was initially we looked in the McDonald's. We went by it maybe a couple times that night or we looked in at first and saw nothing. But then we went back and we realized it was filled with rats. We just didn't know how to see them, and this is an exciting thing you learn early on...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: ...is that there's all this stuff going on in places that you don't know stuff is going on. You can't see rats. That doesn't mean they're not there. Anyway, we ended up going beyond that to this little alley that was kind of between two restaurants and it was just, we realized, really full of rats. And moreover, there's this great kind of multicultural food supply. And finally, this was just a great small alley that I felt like I'd maybe seen once but hadn't seen. People were walking by and not noticing it and that felt like the perfect place. A place that everybody passed by and nobody saw.

GROSS: Now rats are nocturnal animals. When do they start coming out?

Mr. SULLIVAN: They come out on cue. It's amazing. They come out right after the sunset. Just before it gets dark they come out first and they do an initial feeding. As I'm saying this, I can't believe that this really happens, but it really happens. They kind of get an initial, you know, run through. It's sort of like breakfast. Then, if it's a heavy alley, an alley with a lot of garbage, you'll see them continue to be out. But they - sometimes they'll go back in, back into their nests. And in this particular alley, that meant that they would sometimes go back down through the cracks and the cobblestones, back down into the street, into the hill, which is very, very amazing. But anyway, then they'll come out again kind of in the middle of the night and they'll oftentimes come out for another big feeding before sunset. It's the reverse of our day.

GROSS: I always associate rats with garbage. Do rats have a preference for food that's rotting? Or if we left like fresh food out for them, would they be eating that as much as the garbage?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, rats like garbage. But there's different kinds of garbage. And we think, many people think of garbage rightfully as garbage, but if you take apart garbage, you see that, you know, there's all different parts to it. And rats won't eat rancid food. They won't go for stale or bad food necessarily. They'll take what they like first and it's, I think it's written in the rat literature that a rat might starve in an alley full of raw carrots. Rats, generally speaking, are not crazy about their vegetables. They like fried foods. They like fatty foods.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: A really fun thing about the rat food preference list...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: ...is that it matched up very nicely with the human food preference list and...

GROSS: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: And you know, like at Gourmet Magazine I could just see a rat sitting down and saying, oh yeah. I got to make that out of last week's garbage. And another interesting thing about foods, rat food and garbage is that rats develop kind of a preference, a palate that matches the neighborhood. And I'd sort of heard this. I heard from exterminators who'd said that oh, my rats like this kind of spicy food and my rats like this kind of food. And it's pretty interesting to think that a rat would develop an interest in the food that matched the culture, the ethnicity that lived in that neighborhood.

GROSS: So what was like the creepiest or scariest moment for you when you were in the alley that you adopted observing the rats?

Mr. SULLIVAN: There were many creepy, disturbing moments. But the most, sort of rat-oriented, rat-freaky moment definitely happened to be when I was in this one alley with my friend, Dave, and another friend, Matt, and I had to kind of turn away people from going ratting with me. Oftentimes people would say, you know, can I go to your rat alley. And that's the kind of thing, you can't let everybody go to your rat alley. You just, it gets out of hand. So at one point I did, though, bring a second friend when we were thinking about maybe trapping rats and so forth. Something didn't, it didn't work out the way I'd hoped.

Anyway, Matt and Dave were in the alley and there was a guy named Derrick(ph) who was kind of living around the alley and he seemed to have some control over the rats in this alley. And this was another alley from my alley but it was definitely a rat-filled alley and he orchestrated the movement of the rats -Derrick did. And Derrick began calling upon the rats and beating with a stick and beating metal and the rats then started running out all at once.

And we went over the numbers immediately after - Dave, and Matt and I went over the numbers - and there were definitely at - we, you know, we want to say thousands of rats but there weren't. There were somewhere between 100 and 200 rats. There were a lot of rats and they were all coming down the alley. This is a tough thing to experience if you're just a person in sneakers and light camping gear. And here comes this pack of rats which, of course, I had read about, you know, many times but never seen. And the pack of rats is coming and what was most amazing was as soon as they hit this corner, corner of an old abandoned building, they all took a left and it was just like watching everybody come off of Lexington Avenue and sneak into that small...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: ...that small subway entrance that's around 59th and 58th. Everybody went down a single file. You know it went from crazed mass pack of rats to single file, okay around the corner we're going down this hole now. It was incredible.

GROSS: Well Robert, now that this book is behind you, I wish you a life without rats.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Thank you.

GROSS: And thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SULLIVAN: I wish you a life without rats as well. Thank you.

GROSS: Robert Sullivan recorded in 2004 after the publication of his book "Rats."

Coming up, a creepy creature that's more hidden than the rat. We talk with biologist Douglas Emlen about the bizarre world of the dung beetle.

This is FRESH AIR.

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