Tuesday, December 18, 2012

`I Believe Some of Them Can Read'

After driving the boys to their schools I pulled up in front of our neighborhood library to return some books through the night-chute. It was early and I was under-caffeinated. I tripped on the steps, dropped the volumes and looked up to see a charcoal-gray roof rat (Rattus rattus alexandrinus), a creature built like a compact squirrel, standing upright in front of me. He cocked his head, rubbed his forepaws together in imitation of Fagin, and glared. He looked offended. Despite my approach and the clatter of fallen books, he stood his ground. 

I like rats. Rather, I admire them, as I admire almost anyone who is resourceful and endures. I don’t share the revulsion most feel in their presence. I once killed a rat with a shovel, flattening him in our backyard, and I shot several with a pellet gun, but I was young and filled with bloodlust. Last summer I interviewed a neuroengineer who dissects rat brains, cutting them into thin slices like prosciutto di Parma. He spoke lovingly, with unfeigned respect, of the rat and the beautiful symmetry of its hippocampus. Thanks to the rat and his sliced-up brain we may someday eliminate Parkinson’s disease. The neuroengineer’s tone of admiration reminded me of the exterminator Joseph Mitchell quotes in “The Rats on the Waterfront,” collected in The Bottom of the Harbor (1960):    

“Rats are almost as fecund as germs. In New York, under fair conditions, they bear from three to five times a years, in litters of from five to twenty-two. They live to be three or four years old, although now and then one may live somewhat longer; a rat at four is older than a man at ninety. `Rats that survive to the age of four are the wisest and the most cynical beasts on earth,’ one exterminator says. `A trap means nothing to them, no matter how skillfully set. They just kick it around until it snaps; then they eat the bait. And they can detect poisoned bait a yard off. I believe some of them can read.’” 

Evidently, Dr. Johnson shared our interest in rats. Boswell reports a 1776 conversation regarding Bishop Thomas Percy, a friend to both men best remembered for assembling the ballad collection Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). Boswell writes:

“I told him, that I heard Dr. Percy was writing the history of the wolf in Great-Britain. Johnson. “The wolf, Sir! why the wolf? Why does he not write of the bear, which we had formerly? Nay, it is said we had the beaver. Or why does he not write of the grey rat, the Hanover rat [better known as the brown rat, sewer rat, Norwegian rat, Rattus norvegicus], as it is called, because it is said to have come into this country about the time that the family of Hanover came? I should like to see The History of the Grey Rat, by Thomas Percy, D.D., Chaplain in Ordinary to His Majesty,’ (laughing immoderately). Boswell. `I am afraid a court chaplain could not decently write of the grey rat.’ Johnson. “Sir, he need not give it the name of the Hanover rat.” Thus could he indulge a luxuriant sportive imagination, when talking of a friend whom he loved and esteemed.” 

The Hanover rats of eighteen-century England were the likely ancestors of the rats whose brains my neuroengineering friend was thin-slicing in his lab. My roof rat, too, was an import, possibly from North Africa or anywhere on the Mediterranean, probably sometime in the last five-hundred years. As I watched, he walked away slowly, past the book-chute, under a railing and down the alley where he disappeared.


George said...

I have read that the Norway rats essentially ended the plague in England by driving out the black rats that carried the plague fleas. Doesn't Squire Western talk of "Hanover rats"?

Pete said...

Perhaps, like Mitchell's rats, your roof rat was interrupted on his way back to the stacks, where he longed to resume his scholarly studies.

Anonymous said...

When I was in the U.S. Navy, rat guards,conical metal shields, were secured around mooring lines. The Navy went to great lengths to prevent parasitic creatures, great and small, from coming on board. One that was particularly feared was the common bed bug. The New York Times recently reported that bed bugs have been found inhabiting library books, including those of our local university library. My wife now insists that I place any checked-out library books in a plastic garbage bag and, when I arrive home, throw them in the freezer for a few hours.


Laura Demanski said...

This story our magazine published about research on rat empathy really made me like the little buggers.