My new favorite rat story

is not so much a great rat story as a rat story that proves a rat point, and maybe a point about nature. It has to do with the difference between wild rats and pet rats, which is a distinction I thought I made in the book (see chapter 2) but a distinction I had to constantly reiterate while on the road, even to people who were kind enough to have read my book, or to have acted as if they had read my book—as a rat author, I am under no delusions. People often brought pictures of their pet rats to share with me; some people brought their children with their children’s pictures of their pet rats, sometimes called fancy rats. And at one reading in Berkeley, California, I thought I was going to have a rat riot on my hands when a small group of people showed up thinking I was against pet rats or something—and, again, I’m not, I swear. It’s just that wild rats aren’t at all like pet rats—they are not, I repeat not, cute and cuddly, believe me.

Anyway, I heard my favorite new rat story from a young couple who live in Brooklyn. They showed up at a reading in lower Manhattan. They didn’t say anything during the rats question-and-answer section of my presentation, but afterward the man came over alone, and, pulling me aside, asked if he could speak with me for a moment. I was a little worried about what he was going to ask me—I’m no good, for instance, at relationship advice. But he eventually explained that his girlfriend worked for an animal-welfare organization. She had adopted a rat that had been rescued from the World Trade Center and handed over to her animal-welfare group; the caged rat had survived the tower’s destruction. The man recounted to me how, after a while, his girlfriend took the rat home. It developed cancer and died a short while later, but they had both grown accustomed to the rat and were saddened by the empty cage. One evening, while walking home through the streets of the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn—a neighborhood that has seen its ups and downs and is lately beginning to see some ups again—the man spotted a small rat on the sidewalk, a juvenile. He decided to bring it home to the empty cage, as a gift to his girlfriend. He caught it with his hands, noting immediately that it was more aggressive than their previous rat. At home, the rat grew quickly, but while the couple had assumed it might mellow, it did not. Indeed, the opposite happened. The man said that when he placed food in the cage, he made certain to quickly jerk out his hand; he likened feeding the rat in the cage to feeding a piranha. As the man recounted this rat story to me, his girlfriend finally approached, and soon they were both describing their fear of their new “pet” rat. I say fear because their eyes beseeched me, hoping I would understand, and, frankly, I did, because I’ve been there, sort of—I mean, I’ve been with wild rats. They told me that they wanted to release the rat in a park—coincidentally, a park in the borough of Queens that I knew from my childhood. But they were afraid the rat might jump out of the cage and immediately turn and attack them. I told them to be careful; I told them to play it safe. I suggested that one release option might be to open the cage and run like hell. I also told them that I was glad to hear a story that proved once and for all the difference between the wild and pet versions of Rattus norvegicus—proved it to me, at least. In my own mind, I equate the difference between wild Rattus norvegicus and fancy Rattus norvegicus to the difference between American Homo sapiens and European Homo sapiens—same species, completely different upbringing.

Rats by Robert Sullivan

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