Beyond my natural ‘ick’ reaction when I see a rat’s undulating body loping down a subway track, I also can’t help myself from thinking of the host of diseases that rats carry and spread. You know, pleasant little things like hantavirus, hepatitis, leptospirosis, a fun little malady called Rat Bite Fever, or RBF, Hemorrhagic Fever with Renal Syndrome and this little thing called THE PLAGUE, just to skim the top of a very long list. They are deadly and they are everywhere!
All that being said, as a kid, I was fascinated by any movie that involved rats. Lucky for me, I grew up in a time when some of the best rat movies ever made were hitting the screen, from Willard to Food of the Gods and Ben. I named my hamster Ben. He was the meanest SOB that ever lived, with a taste for human flesh not seen since Jeffrey Dahmer. On a side note, did you know that a young Michael Jackson sang the theme song to Ben?
As a lover of nature gone feral, and sometimes colossal, the rat movies hit me the hardest because they made my skin crawl. I would literally screw myself up in my seat, yet unable to take my eyes off a swarming horde of vermin or rats the size of bulls crawling all over a cabin. I cheered on the giant ants in Them! and the killer rabbits in Night of the Lepus, but man oh man, I wanted those rats to be gone ASAP whenever they came on the screen. For me, they were the ultimate bad guy. Give me the devil and a head spinning possession any day over a box o’ rats.
Doing research for my book, Rattus New Yorkus, I sat down with exterminators to learn more about the very thing I wanted to know less about. It turns out that rats, especially the Norway rats prevalent in New York, are smart. I mean, the kind of smart that keeps me up at night worrying. How smart? If you lay out poison for them, they will send the weakest rat to eat it. Then, they’ll wait and see what happens to the royal taste tester. If it dies, they don’t touch the poison. Scarily, it doesn’t’ take them long to become immune to a new poison. I wish I could adapt as well to White Castle burgers.
They also learn how to avoid traps, that knowledge passed down to other generations. In the first chapter of Rattus New Yorkus, there’s a scene with a crafty vermin devising an ingenious way to avoid being stuck to a glue trap. I wish I had made that up, but it was based on a real life observation. I did not enjoy my time with the exterminators.
Oh, and rats are very, very good at multiplying. The little buggers enjoy making more little buggers, and they make many! A female rat can give birth four or more times a year, popping out a dozen suckers at a time. And it only takes a few weeks for the babies to be ready to make babies of their own. *shudders*
True story time A very good friend of mine had rented a tiny furnished apartment in the suburbs in the 90s. It was a total dive, but he was proud of it because it was all his. The first night there, he fell asleep on the couch. He was awakened when he felt something squirming underneath the cushion. He pulled it up and saw there were rats trying to get out from the nest they’d made wiyhin the couch! To make matters worse, more rats fell on him from a hole in the drop ceiling. He ran out of the apartment and lived in his car for a whole month until he could find a new place.
In this day and age, with exposure to everything on a 24/7 basis, it’s easy to become jaded. Scary books and movies have a harder and harder time eliciting chills to people who can watch a video of a person getting mauled to death by a bear on their phone. You need something that taps an instinctual reflex to cringe. Rats do that for me, and millions of others. If you think you’re NOT one of them, I have the keys to my friend’s old apartment.
About the Author
About the Book
Rattus, New Yorkus
One Size Eats All #2
by Hunter Shea
Deep in the sewers of New York City, the rat population is growing. Dr. Randolph Finch is determined to break the cycle. His new rodenticide, Degenesis, doesn’t kill rats. It sterilizes them from reproducing. But nothing adapts faster than a New York rat . . .
City exterminators and soon-to-be divorced Chris and Benita Jackson think they know how these rats think. They know how rats breed. And they fear that Degenesis has only made these rats stronger. More aggressive. More intelligent. And more ravenous than ever . . .
Tonight’s Dinner Special: Us
After a noticeable surge in rat den activity, the Jacksons witness something strange. Without warning, the rats disappear—only to reassemble in a massive lair beneath Grand Central Station. Millions upon millions of them. Working together. Operating as a hive mind. Feasting on the flesh of the homeless below—and planning their all-out attack on the unsuspecting humans above . . .
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It was going on dusk when we got to the restaurant. Business at Pasta 13 was light at the moment. Restaurants didn’t get humming until at least seven on weeknights. I called the owner ahead of time and we met him out back by the dumpster. It wouldn’t do him good for his diners to see a pair of exterminators come strolling inside.
“You were here already today,” he said to Benny. The man was tall and thin everywhere except his hips. He looked nervous, but then he always looked nervous. Owning a restaurant was not for the fainthearted.
“We need to take a closer look,” she said, nodding toward the suitcase in my hand.
“Yes, but please, be discreet.”
“We take an oath of discretion,” I reassured him. He didn’t look reassured.
“Come directly to me if you need anything. My staff doesn’t need to know.”
I opened my mouth and closed it.
If his staff didn’t see the piles of rat shit everywhere, they were either blind or willfully ignorant.
“Let’s go down that one,” Benny said, pointing to the largest burrow. The edges were fuzzy, having snagged copious amounts of hair. That meant it was the road most taken for this nest.
“As you wish, Alice.”
I opened the case and assembled the camera. It looked like a snake that plumbers use to clear drains, with a fish-eye lens on the end. It hooked up to a small monitor so we could see into the den.
This time of day, the rats should have been starting to get restless, but they were more than likely still in the main nest.
“You want me to do the honors?” I asked, the camera poised over the hole. “By all means.”
I once had a rat jump out of a burrow just as I was about to drop the camera down. It landed on my chest, desperate to find the soft tissue of my face. Thankfully, Benny had swatted it away with a spade she’d been using to cover up some of the burrows. She’d managed to slice it in half like a samurai.
Warm rat entrails soaked through my shirt, but thanks to her, I was still pretty.
“Get ready,” I said.
Sometimes, when we went exploring like this, the rats would pour out of the other burrows and swarm around us in a frenzy. Our pants were tucked into our tough leather boots. Benny gripped what she called her swattin’ pole. It had once been a nine iron, the head replaced by a wood block, held on with a half mile of duct tape. What it lacked in esthetics it more than made up for in efficiency. I slowly snaked the camera into the hole. With night vision activated, we watched the black-and-white monitor.
What we saw was very similar to the video from a colonoscopy. Just traveling down a winding, dark tunnel.
A normal rat’s den contained seven or so rats. We had caught three with snap traps last week. Their dwindling numbers, especially if the Degenesis was working, couldn’t account for the growing feces.
“Expect anything,” I said.
I pushed the camera deeper, kicking up a puff of dust deep in the burrow.
A rat’s twitchy face sprang into view. I instinctively recoiled, then recovered in as manly a way as possible.
“Say cheese,” Benny said, standing over me.
“You talk about my tired old witticisms.”
The rat retreated, tunneling backwards down the hole.
I knew I had to hurry up. The other rats would be ready to scatter .
Working the cable as fast as I could, I remotely spelunked, wondering just how far down they had settled in.
In my periphery, I caught a rat leaping from a burrow to my left.
She pointed at the screen.
I let the camera cable drop as if it were a poisonous snake.
We watched as dozens and dozens of rats writhed over one another. Every inch of the nest was packed with vermin bodies.
“Pull back a little,” Benny said.
I tugged slightly on the cable so we could get a better view.
“Look at all the babies,” Benny said.
“It’s like the maternity ward in Shanghai,” I said.
We were either looking at multiple litters or the granddaddy of all litters.
“What do you think? At least twenty?”
Benny peered at the monitor. “I’d second that. And they all look like they’re from the same generation.”
“I guess there’s no point in saying how impossible that is.”
“You guess right again.”
More adult rats were scurrying out of the holes around us. From what I could see, several had stayed behind in the nest to guard the babies.
“I don’t like this at all,” I said, moving the camera some more to get a different angle. All of it was being recorded.
“They like it less,” Benny said.
The camera’s intrusion had brought about sweeping panic in the nest. I almost felt sorry for the little critters as they sought refuge around the adult guardians.
“I think we’ve seen enough,” I said, pulling the camera out. “I’ll send the file to Ratticus, see what he thinks.”
“Fine. Dr. Finch.”
“No. Put the camera down.”
I looked to Benny, whose eyes were wide and darting about. Following her gaze, the camera slipped from my suddenly milquetoast grasp.
We were surrounded by rats. A dozen pairs of marble black eyes locked onto us.
They weren’t running away.
And they were sure as shit not afraid.