Let Us Now Praise Rats

Alexandra Molotkow is an editor at Real Life magazine. She was a founding editor of Hazlitt, an associate editor of the Hairpin and arts columnist for...

Rats make excellent pets. They’re smarter than hamsters and friendlier than cats, lower maintenance than dogs and livelier than fish. A rat will sit on your shoulder while you finish your homework; a rat could love you. It might not, but it could.

I’ve never owned a pet rat, but I was lucky enough to ratsit for a friend in the fourth grade. Old McDeadly was sweeter and more communicative than Jingles, my pet hedgehog, who was dour—although I would be dour, too, if I lived in a pile of piss-logged woodchips because my nine-year-old owner was not responsible enough for pet ownership. The two of them got along fine; rats are sociable creatures.

I’m warmly disposed toward rats because I’ve cuddled with a few, but science proves me right. Rats are empathetic animals who will act selflessly even at the expense of treats: a 2011 study found that rats would work “frantically” to rescue a buddy trapped in a Plexiglas trap, while murmuring words of comfort through the air holes. When a rat was presented with two traps—one containing a buddy, the other containing chocolate chips—it would open both and share the yield. Would you do that? Would I?

And rats know lust. I have no particular interest in animal sexuality, but I was struck by a scene in Daniel Bergner’s What Do Women Want? in which a student picks up a female lab rat and strokes its rat clitoris—“like a little eraserhead”—with a tiny brush. When the student puts the rat down, it tugs on her sleeve until she repeats the gesture. The lab in question performs experiments in which rats are brought to arousal and immediately killed, their brains sliced like deli meat and parsed for insights into the human condition.

The other day a dead squirrel appeared on the fire escape outside the apartment I’m staying in for the summer. “Probably ate rat poison,” said the landlord’s friend, as she scraped the carcass into a garbage bag. A few blocks away, a friend tells me, you can find heaps of dead rats oozing blood from their mouths. “The poison melts them from the inside,” he said. Another friend, who’d been staying on the Lower East Side, described a rat congregation she’d passed on Houston Street. They were eating pizza, our homunculi.

They say there are 8 million rats in New York City, one per person (neither true nor very outlandish). Rats can spread salmonella, hantavirus, typhus, and the plague (although humans can spread it just as well); their urine can carry leptospirosis, which can ravage your insides as rat poison can theirs. If you live in a city with rats, chances are your home is not big enough to share. Last year, a caretaker at Brooklyn’s Marcy Houses spiked a Gambian pouched rat with a pitchfork; the photo shows it dangling the length of his torso. “We don’t dodge bullets. We dodge rats,” said one tenant. “They’re so big, they should charge them rent.”

Rats don’t eat people, but they will: the mass murderer Richard Kuklinski used to tie up living victims and leave them for rodents to devour.

Last week I went to a friend-of-a-friend’s place in Bushwick, a loft divided into rooms the size of Fisher Price cabins. My friend had brought his dog, who was excitable. “He’s after my rats,” explained one of the tenants, an attractive, punkish woman about my age.

“You have rats?” I said.

“Yeah,” she said. “Want to see?”

Animals scare me. Over the past two weeks I have checked the bed and sofa three times each for evidence of bed bugs, fearing a sleepless nightmare in which my best dresses become villages for vampires and my friends avoid me because I’m shedding parasites like cartoon tears. My underwear is sticking to me; I picture a tapeworm nipping at the fabric as though yanking back a blanket. If the bites on my legs are the work of the many mosquitoes I’ve noticed, I may be in for West Nile. I doubt my travel insurance covers spinal taps; I doubt it covers rabies shots, either, which can run you up to $15,000, according to a woman I met who was bitten by a strange dog.

When I heard about these rats, though, I only felt sentimental. I remembered the way Old McDeadly would leap onto my queen-sized bed and balance himself on my head. I was feeling a little lonely besides, so the answer was yes: I wanted to meet those rats. The woman handed me Charlie, a soft, salt-and-pepper critter who glanced up with vulnerable eyes as she scampered across my forearms.

Her nails were scratchy, and as the hives began to rise, I remembered why handling rats was no longer part of my character. Charlie’s owner seemed nice, but I wondered about her pet, and I racked my brain for a subtle way to suss out its provenance, something that wouldn’t make me sound like an uptight pain in the ass. “Did you get her from a pet store,” I said, “or, like, a breeder?”

The whole walk home, I thought about salmonella, hantavirus, typhus, the plague, leptospirosis, and rabies—rabies, and the possibility of going into debt as a precaution against rabies. On that count, Google quickly assuaged my fears. The most common victims of rabies in New York State, it turns out, are raccoons, foxes, skunks, and cats. Rats rarely carry the virus; whatever gave it to them would likely finish them off. Most rats belong to no one.

Find Hazlitt on Facebook / Follow us on Twitter

Alexandra Molotkow is an editor at Real Life magazine. She was a founding editor of Hazlitt, an associate editor of the Hairpin and arts columnist for the Globe and Mail. Her writing has appeared in The Cut, The Believer, The New Republic, and The New York Times Magazine.