For three days last week M and I were responsible for a small, helpless animal named Betty. Even if Betty had been the most self-sufficient of puppies, able to feed and water herself in the wild, she still would not have survived long under our care because we didn’t trust her with keys to our Brooklyn apartment. Thus a few times a day we had to escort her down two flights of stairs and up the street to the local dog park.
Our local dog park resembles nothing if not a prison yard. It’s surrounded by chain-linked fencing and filled with gravel three inches deep. You have to breach two security gates to enter and exit. But the dogs go bonkers for their gravel oasis. In this park they call their own, they can race back and forth with frenetic impunity. They can indulge in impotent orgies while their owners play on smartphones and pretend their pets aren’t indiscriminately humping one another. To a farm dog, the dog park would seem restrictive and dusty and depressing. To a city dog, the dog park is a blissful reservoir of freedom from the 400-square-foot apartment where he spends 99% of his time.
I get the sense that dog people typically bond by talking to each other about their dogs. How much they weigh. How much they like to eat socks. How they’re getting a bath later yes you are aren’t you cutie yes you are. But at our local dog park, nobody was interested in discussing the coddled, yapping creatures lunging at our ankles. Our neighbors wanted to talk about the rats.
Here is the nightmarish gossip that initiated me into dog park society: A few weeks ago the dog park’s rat situation was so bad that a rat emerged in broad daylight to bite a dog on the leg, prompting public health officials to shut down the park temporarily. A subsequent inspection of the park and the neighboring children’s playground yielded the discovery of 125 bordering rat burrows. Sensibly, the rats had dug their vast empire along the perimeter of a promised land brimming with their favorite foods: dog shit, garbage, and the Cheddar Bunny crumbs that frequently get stuck to toddlers’ faces.
One acerbic older woman whom the other dog park regulars barely seemed to tolerate blamed yuppies for the rat infestation. “Park Slope didn’t have a problem with rats until the yuppies arrived and started eating brunch all over the place.” She said she’d gotten in trouble at the playground recently for shrieking about rats and scaring the children. She also said that the authorities had managed to eradicate 100 of the 125 local rat burrows by setting traps and clearing the brush that served as the rats’ cover, but then the city had gone ahead and planted some new shrubs immediately outside the dog park gates, which was just stupid.
While the woman shared these facts, Betty was happily plunging her adorable puppy face into a mound of rat feces. We shooed her away in a panic, but minutes later, while being chased by a horny pug, Betty dove headfirst into the same pile, effectively atomizing the feces so we humans felt an urgent need to step away, shielding our mouths and noses from the hantaviral shitstorm.
On later visits to the dog park, we found that everyone there had something negative to say about the rats. We were encouraged to gaze over the fenceline so we could see into the dark apertures of the remaining burrows. We were encouraged to become students of the city’s anti-rat poster campaign warning against not cleaning up after your dog. We were told that the bubonic plague is alive and well.
Naturally, I was horrified by what I was learning about my idyllic neighborhood. It was like finding out that your long-term boyfriend has an STD that will eventually chew off your privates while you’re unconscious. Rats are gross. Rats are pests. Rats have collapsible rib cages and unplated skulls that allow them to squeeze between the bars of birdcages and devour pet canaries. But something about the unquestioned flood of rat criticism made me want to step in and defend the little monsters. Many of the harsh things that the dog park people were saying about rats could just as easily be applied to humans, or to dogs for that matter. Looking around the park, I saw a whole bunch of stocky, inbred, social, ravenous animals that mindlessly shat and pissed and served as vectors for disease. One could argue that the main difference was that they wore collars. (And used smartphones, haha.)
I decided to do some research. I was prepared to dazzle the dog park people with a recitation of rat facts that were both positive and fun. I was going to change hearts and minds, and make a real difference in interspecies relations in my neighborhood. But Betty peed on our rug one too many times and our dog-sitting adventure came to an end. And I think loitering in a dog park without a dog is probably the same level of creepy as loitering in a playground without a child. Fortunately I still have you people. Here is what I learned about our rat friends, primarily from Jerry Langton’s Rat: How the World’s Most Notorious Rodent Clawed Its Way to the Top:
- Rats have friendships with each other and if a member of their clan is disabled, they are just as likely to feed him as eat him.
- Rats are neophobics, meaning they’re scared of new things, the exception being new environments. If you give a rat an island to take over, as humans have been doing for many centuries, the rat will explore every inch of that island, and then it will swim for three days so it can reach the next island, and explore that one too.
- Rats love scrambled eggs!
- Rats can’t belch or vomit. They can actually die from drinking carbonated beverages. Exterminators have attempted to use Pepsi as rat poison but the soda usually goes flat by the time the rats are brave enough to enjoy it.
- Rats are omnivores just like us! (With the exception of Pepsi products.)
- Rats are shy and they struggle with obesity.
- These things exist, and I’d like to be a part of them somehow: American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association, Rodent Control Academy, New York City Rodent Complaint Form.
- Rats only bite babies when they’re sleeping because the babies smell like food, which sounds like Mommy’s fault to me.
- I once knew a drug dealer who kept two rats as pets and those rats were a lot cleaner than he was.
- Rats have superior digestive systems. They can poop up to 200 times a day. Amazing!
- In the Middle Ages, rats were cheap and efficient torture devices. A rat would be secured to someone’s abdomen, then a hot object would be brandished over the rodent until it got so frightened that it began to burrow into flesh.
- Rats used to provide humans with hours of entertainment by getting violently slaughtered by bloodthirsty dogs in basement arenas.
- Rats have figured out an ingenious way to heat their burrows in winter by using their own fermented urine!
- The world’s most popular lab rat was named after one of my ancestors.
- Rats love to reside in thatched roofs, which is part of the reason that medieval people had such a plague problem, and also why 10% of people in Mozambique can expect to be nibbled by a rat while they’re sleeping.
- In 1664 the Lord Mayor of London decided that cats and dogs were causing the plague, so he had them all killed, removing the rat’s only nemeses. The rat population boomed. Dopey mayor!
- Rats always build an emergency rear exit into their burrows. If there’s an earthquake, they wisely flee en masse through these “bolt holes” because they fear the roof caving in. But sometimes what they think is an earthquake is actually a jackhammer at a construction site and there are the rats anyway, swarming up from the earth and comically surrounding people in hard hats.
- Rats can develop an immunity to rat poison.
- Rats can sometimes be so playful with each other that their tails become tangled together. Then they can continue playing as a team without interruption until they all die of starvation. Silly!
If these fun facts don’t win over even the most passionate of rat haters, I don’t know what will.
The alternative to learning to love the rats is continuing to despise and destroy the rats. I also understand that impulse. Personally I would like to see a sky full of hawks. They would dive through the air right and left, taking out the bad rats but leaving the friendly ones. Unfortunately many of the smaller dog species in the dog park could get mixed up in the carnage. But they would be martyrs and we would honor them accordingly.
I could also volunteer to lead the rats away, maybe into New Jersey, using my iPhone playlist. This is the least I can do for my beloved neighborhood. I wouldn’t even ask to be paid! Though I might attempt to lure the cutest children on the playground into our photo studio later. So
I can make money they can be safe from the rats.