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.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
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 Pharaoh 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 Arvicanthis, the Nile cane rat, which ravages crops throughout Africa. Humans in turn often eat Arvicanthis, when they can catch this mostly vegetarian rat, but the loss of grain protein to Arvicanthis far exceeds what is recovered in meat from those who are snared. Cats hunt Arvicanthis much more efficiently, making no demand on crops.
Dogs also hunt Arvicanthis, but if dogs had been the Egyptians’ front line of defense against rats, the Giza pyramids probably would never have existed.
Rats & the origins of civilization
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 rat heavens.
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 pharaohs 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 Arvicanthis were recognized as the real threats to the pharaonic dynasties. Yet this is never mentioned.
Street dogs & feral cats
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 lesser pyramids.
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 pharaohs and pharaoh-aspirants eventually became a routine feature of pharaonic 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, Arvicanthis 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, Arvicanthis proved to be a more immediate beneficiary than the Egyptian economy.
Egypt responded with a nationally coordinated effort to poison Arvicanthis 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 poisoned rodents.
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 Arvicanthis, if allowed to do so.
Authors Jonathan Burt and Robert Sullivan write little of Arvicanthis, 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 Arvicanthis, Norway rats are predator/scavengers, whose major prey are nestling mice. Their omnivorous habits make them even more versatile and adaptive to different habitats than Arvicanthis, ubiquitous as the latter is in Africa.
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 a cat.
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 Arvicanthis 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, 2001.
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 they take.
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 Hammer.
The Sphinx is a monument to the truth of that–and to the truth that the stories of human civilization and rats have rarely diverged.