Even though a Norway Brown ó the type of rat found in Boston ó will rarely grow beyond 13 inches, including the tail, rat stories almost always include the phrase "big as a cat." And everyone, it seems, has a rat story. Not only are rats "everywhere," people say, they are growing bolder. "Good heavens," says Sarah Lydon, who lives on Beacon Hill. "They practically knock on the door to ask for leftovers."
Certainly, rats have been out in force lately in the Fenway area, where the Boston Phoenixís offices are located. Walking to work a while ago, I stepped on something squishy, and, fearing Iíd set foot in a pile of dog poo, looked down to see a rat, bloated, burst open, its viscera coating my foot. But it gets a lot worse than this. John Meaney recalls attempting to calm a woman who had a close encounter with a rat in her toilet bowl. ("That," says Bruce Colvin, can be "a life-changing event.")
"Thereís not a Halloween goes by without someone using rats as a prop," says Meaney. "The teeth, the physical presence, the gnawing. People talk about the health issues, but not the psychology, and that is huge. A big part of our job is almost like being a therapist, listening to peopleís fears, calming them down. Iíve seen people hysterical."
Indeed, rat stories often seem to reflect our visceral aversion to the creatures, rather than reality. You hear tales of rats falling from ceilings, leaping out of garbage cans, running up trouser legs, attaching themselves to noses, evil rats, demonic rats, rats with shining yellow eyes, lying in wait, swarming, lunging at throats, burrowing into eye sockets, gnawing on lips and cheeks, picking bones clean, squealing and scratching and slavering in a blood frenzy.
In his book More Cunning Than Man: A Social History of Rats and Men (Stein & Day, 1984), Robert Hendrickson sketches out a scene worthy of the most chilling Stephen King novel: "The baby cooed and sighed. Stealthily, the rat approached the sounds and smells.... Instantly, it was between the infantís folded legs smelling at the diaper: whiskers, tail, and paws scraping against skin ..." Spooky, yes, but surely things like this donít really happen.
Actually, they do. While most bites occur as a result of a rat being startled or cornered, the animals are omnivorous, opportunistic feeders, and as such are not averse to a meal of human flesh once in a while, particularly if, like a baby, the victim is effectively helpless in the face of an attack. As researcher Barry Norwood writes in an online article on rat bites, "Cases of infants being fed on repeatedly are not uncommon."
Even if predation isnít involved, a rat bite is a fearsome thing, and not only because it can transmit disease. A ratís jaw can exert an awesome force of 24,000 pounds per square inch. Once the animal has sunk its teeth into a victim, its incisors form a V-shaped barb, which allows the rat to rip away clumps of flesh with a swing of its head. According to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as many as 10 in every 100,000 city dwellers have been chomped by a rat.
If infants are a high-risk group, so are the homeless. "Theyíve snapped at me before," says Leonard Payne, who is homeless. "Itís a problem. Downtown near the Prudential, I seen rats as big as cats. I ainít lying. There in the alleyways, down there behind the restaurants. I seen rats, loads of rats. Whooee, itís rough. Youíve got to wear gloves when youíre picking up cans. Them rats got germs and disease."
Yes indeed, them rats got germs and disease. The phrase "you dirty rat" is not without basis. Not only do the animals urinate about 80 times a day and defecate up to 50 times, they are given to hanging out in sewers and trash cans. Rats are said to have a commensal ("sharing the table") relationship with humans, and every time a rat pitter-patters across that table, it carries on its little footsies salmonella, trichinosis (parasitic-worm infection), and a host of equally horrible food-borne illnesses.
But the health threat doesnít stop there. "Rodents in general have been known to carry a large number of diseases that they share with humans," says the CDCís Dr. James Childs. "Rats are associated with some nasty infections."
Though there are about 35 rat-borne illnesses that affect humans, itís difficult to get a handle on exactly how many people are made sick by rats in the US each year, largely because rat-borne diseases often resemble other, less-gothic ailments. The potentially fatal "rat-bite fever," for instance ó whose symptoms include chills, fever, vomiting, aches, and pains ó is often mistaken for a severe case of flu.
Less tricky to diagnose is the rat-borne bubonic plague, which is generally recognized by the egg-size, pus-oozing tumors that bloom in the armpits and groin, the blue-black splotches that mottle the skin, and the slow, agonizing death that usually follows. Though there hasnít been a serious outbreak of plague in the US since 1924, there was a scare in Cambridge in the mid í80s and an honest-to-goodness outbreak in India just a few years ago.
People in the business like to point out that rats have killed more humans than all of the worldís wars combined ó three epidemics of the plague alone killed as many as 150,000,000 people. And even if you discount the diseases that rats carry, there are plenty of other hazards associated with the beast. Rodents ó whose name means "gnawing animal" ó cause untold electrical fires by chewing through wires. They have been known to leave buildings structurally unsound with their elaborate subterranean nests. Worldwide, rats are said to destroy 20 percent of human food stocks annually. The American Association for the Advancement of Science estimates that rats cost this country $19 billion every year.
So what can we do to rid ourselves of this menace? The answer may very well be "nothing." As pest technician Stephen Trundle puts it, "They were here before we got here, and theyíll be here when weíre gone."