BOOKS: Rat & Rats
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2008:
Rat by Jonathan Burt
Reaktion Books Ltd. (33 Great Sutton St., London EC1M 3JU, U.K.), 2006.
189 pages, paperback. $19.95.
Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat
of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan
Bloomsbury (175 5th Avenue, New York, NY 10010), 2004. 242
pages, hardcover. $23.95.
Immersing myself in Rat, by Jonathan Burt, and Rats, by
Robert Sullivan, during my flight to Egypt for the December 2007
Middle East Network on Animal Welfare conference, I sat a few
evenings later in front of the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx during a
bombastic sound and light show and contemplated the role of rats in
creating the spectacle before me.
No matter what the Pharoah Cheops and his successors thought
they were doing, no matter what their scribes wrote down, and no
matter what anyone believed about an afterlife, the Giza pyramids
and Sphinx are first and foremost monuments to a temporary conquest
of rats by the first civilization to entice help from cats.
By enlisting cats, the Egyptian civilization for a few
millennia held in check the population of Arvicanthus, the Nile cane
rat, which ravages crops throughout Africa. Humans in turn often
eat Arvicanthus, when they can catch this mostly vegetarian rat,
but the loss of grain protein to Arvicanthus far exceeds what is
recovered in meat from those who are snared. Cats hunt Arvicanthus
much more efficiently, making no demand on crops.
Dogs also hunt Arvicanthu, but if dogs had been the
Egyptians’ front line of defense against rats, the Giza pyramids
probably would never have existed.
The much older human partnership with dogs enabled humanity
to survive the Ice Ages and thrive despite constant vulnerability to
predation, including by murderous fellow humans. As agriculture
evolved, dogs distinguished themselves at herding and street level
rat-hunting, as well as guarding.
Yet dogs are limited as rat-catchers, because they do not
climb well. To store large amounts of grain throughout a winter,
without excessive spoilage, it is necessary to minimize the extent
to which the grain rests on the ground. This means building vertical
storage capacity–and that, without cats, would amount to building
The antecedents to the Egyptian civilization had already
existed for centuries before African desert cats struck a
work-for-food bargain with the grain-growing humans. But only
thereafter did the first pyramids and great temples rise. With cats
on their side, the pharoahs could save enough grain each winter to
feed tens of thousands of workers.
The sound-and-light show asserted that the Sphinx is
more-or-less a monument to the other monuments, built to guard them,
but fails to mention the nature of the threat. A dog would have
better guarded against human invaders. A bird would have more
effectively guarded against a plague of insects.
The feline shape of the Sphinx hints that mice and
Arvicanthus were recognized as the real threats to the pharonic
dynasties. Yet this is never mentioned.
As the sound-and-light show thundered on, I paid more
attention to the activities of three street dogs who wandered through
the spotlights to hunt for rats and edible refuse around the seating
area, and two cats who engaged in a mating dispute near one of the
These animals were the most authentic voices of ancient
Egypt. Their presence testified to the endurance of rats and other
rodents, and the continuing difficulty that all civilizations have
in controlling them.
The ancient Egyptians did in fact experiment with other
methods, notably poisons. Poisoning pharoahs and pharoah-aspirants
eventually became a routine feature of pharonic government.
Poisoning embalmed remains so effectively as to inhibit decay for a
few thousand years represented the apex of ancient Egyptian
biological science. But the technique of poisoning rats and mice
without poisoning the human food supply tended to elude the
Egyptians, and everyone else, until the mid-20th century.
The ancient Egyptians also experimented with the use of
snakes for rat and mouse control. But while snakes can go anywhere
in pursuit of a rat or mouse, they usually eat just one at a time.
Venomous snakes, like concocted poisons, proved more effective in
disposing of redundant royalty.
The Egyptian civilization declined as the Lower Nile region
became more arid. With much less to eat, Arvicanthus retreated,
and by 1971 was forgotten as a former threat to human society. When
the Aswan High Dam was completed that year, however, irrigating
more than one million acres, Arvicanthus proved to be a more
immediate beneficiary than the Egyptian economy.
Egypt responded with a nationally coordinated effort to
poison Arvicanthus with zinc phosphide, which continues today, with
effects rippling through the food chain. Cheaper than the
anti-coagulant poisons used to kill rodents in more affluent parts of
the world, zinc phosphate is also lethal to cats and dogs who ingest
Adding to the stress on the cat and dog population is the
habit of many Egyptian city governments and private property owners
of attacking feral cats and street dogs with strychnine, also used
as a rat poison. Because the effects of strychnine tend to be
immediate and obvious, while the effects of zinc phosphide
accumulation are insidious and obscure, the strychnine campaigns
attract activist protest while the war on rodents does not. Both
forms of poisoning, however, tend to suppress the species who
could most effectively control Arvicanthus, if allowed to do so.
Authors Jonathan Burt and Robert Sullivan write little of
Arvicanthus, but the issues they address are essentially the same.
Burt and Sullivan focus on Norway rats, the rat species of most
notoriety in the colder climates of Europe, Asia, and North
America. Unlike the mostly vegetarian Arvicanthus, Norway rats are
predator/scavengers, whose major prey are nestling mice. Their
omnivorous habits make them even more versatile and adapative to
different habitats than Arvican-thus, ubiquitous as the latter is in
Norway rats may thrive with or without mice, consuming
almost every sort of human food waste, but proliferate most rapidly
in habitat where mice are already abundant, where the rats can take
advantage of both the food sources feeding the mice, and the
availability of mouse nests.
Though the role of Norway rats as a mouse predator is rarely
mentioned by casual observers, probably because rats do most of
their hunting inside walls, it is likely that they kill more mice
than any other predators except poison-wielding humans.
The ferocity of Norway rats in turn protects them, to some
extent, from cats. Norway rats caught by cats tend to be the old,
the young, the sick, and the injured, like the prey of any
predator. Cats mostly avoid or ignore healthy Norway rats in the
prime of life, who are capable of severely injuring or even killing
This somewhat expands the habitat niche for street dogs, for
whom Norway rats are often a leading source of protein. Street dogs
cannot go everywhere that rats do, so provide incomplete rat
control. Dogs inhibit rat population growth much as a visible police
presence inhibits rather than prevents crime. Wherever street dogs
are exterminated, rat nuisances tend to become rat plagues.
Ancient Egypt was only the beginning of the co-evolution of
mice, rats, cats, dogs, and human civilization, a process still
underway as Norway rat invaders struggle to establish beachheads in
Arvicanthus habitat. Even the outline of the interdependent stories
has yet to be fully presented in any one book. Authors tend to focus
on individual elements, seemingly unaware that the story of one is
the story of all.
Rat, by Jonathan Burt, and even more so Rats, by Robert
Sullivan, are differing but complimentary studies of rats and their
interactions with humans, mostly overlooking mice, cats, and dogs.
Rat, copiously illustrated, focuses on the cultural history
of rats, all rat species, worldwide. The emphasis, however, is
on Norway rats. Among other themes, Burt explores how the behavior
of rats has influenced human concepts of hell.
Rats looks in depth at the Norway rats of Edens Alley,
Manhattan, just a few blocks from the site of the World Trade
Center, both before and after the terrorist attacks of September 11,
Both Burt and Sullivan acknowledge ambivalence about their
topic. Both seem to admire rat intelligence, and the ability of
rats to thrive almost anywhere. Yet both Burt and Sullivan stop well
short of defending rats. Scarcely anyone defends rats, who carry
leptospirosis and bubonic plague, among other deadly diseases, and
are nearly as destructive to human food storage now as they were
4,500 years ago, when the Sphinx was young.
Cats, dogs, and deadly technology have managed to hold rats
in check, just barely, but even where rats are not as evident as
Sullivan found them in Eden’s Alley, they still consume larger
shares of grain production than, for example, the distilling
industry, including both distilling spirits for human ingestion and
producing ethanol as motor fuel. Indeed, globally, the rats’ share
of grain production may be larger than the share made into any one
product, even bread. Here in the U.S., rats may take more from the
economy each year than organized crime.
Yet rats are also contributors to civilization, as partners
in mouse control, consumers of food waste, and converters of refuse
into dog and cat food.
If we did not have rats, we might find ourselves missing
them, not so much directly as because we would miss the red-tailed
hawks who now nest in Central Park and the bald eagles who soar over
the Hudson River, among other examples of beloved urban wildlife
whose numbers are governed by their ability to hunt rats.
Rats carry some diseases, to be sure, but not nearly so
many as humans catch from each other.
A society without rats might be as affluent and attractive as
are the allegedly rat-free cities of Calgary and Edmonton, or it
might be overrun by mice and insects, especially cockroaches, who
compete with rats in pursuit of oily and greasy food waste.
Though Burt and Sullivan excel in telling the stories of rats
from a conventional human perspective, neither argues that rats
should be recognized as worthy of compassion and moral consideration,
nor as integral contributors to urban ecology who give as much as
Sullivan comes closest. Time and again as Sullivan studies
the rats of Edens Alley, they lead him into historical discovery.
Rats help him to identify the remnants of early Manhattan
settlements, the locations of Revolutionary War skirmishes, and the
offices of some of the more colorful leaders of the mid-20th century
New York City labor and civil rights movements.
Along the way, Sullivan delves in considerable depth into
the subculture of exterminators, whose work occupies the twilight
zone between wildlife management and animal control. The leading
ecological experts on Norway rats study them in order to kill them.
The leading physiological experts on Norway rats are vivisectors,
who kill them in order to study them. Sullivan pays them notice too,
but is chiefly interested in rats at large.
Sullivan identifies as the current superstar of rat
extermination research New York City Department of Health and Mental
Hygiene rodentologist Robert M. “Bobby” Corrigan. Kate Hammer of The
New York Times on December 21, 2007 profiled Corrigan’s effort to
prevent storekeepers from keeping cats on their premises.
“Mr. Corrigan did concede that some studies have shown that
the smell of cats in an enclosed area will keep mice away,” Hammer
wrote. “But he does not endorse cats as a form of pest control
because, he explained, the bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites
and nematodes carried by rats may infect humans by secondary transfer
through a cat.”
Storekeepers meanwhile complain about the stench from rats
poisoned by exterminators, who crawl into inaccessible places to
die. “Amid the goods found in the stores, there is one thing that
many owners and employees say they cannot do without: their cats.
And it goes beyond cuddly companionship. These cats are workers,
tireless and enthusiastic hunters of unwanted vermin, and they
typically do a far better job than exterminators and poisons,” found
The Sphinx is a monument to the truth of that–and to the
truth that the stories of human civilization and rats have rarely