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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 June, 2005, 11:55 GMT 12:55 UK
The rat pack
By Kazimierz Janowski
Producer, One Planet: Rats

Rat
Lunchtime in a city near you

A big city usually means a big, and ever-expanding, rat population. So what's life like for those who get up close and personal with them?

It's been said that in the urban jungle you're rarely more than 12 feet from rats doing what they like best: eating, playing, sleeping and having lots of sex - a bit like humans really. Perhaps that's why they strike such a deep chord in people's minds.

They live alongside us in drains, sewers, cellars and burrows. They feed on our leftovers and share with us the title of most successful mammal on the planet.

Perhaps more than any other creature they bring out feelings of fear and revulsion in people. It's a common fear that rats bite people, even though statistics show you are 10 times more likely to be bitten by a fellow human being.

Enemy

To get to know rats better you can either work with them as an exterminator or watch them in some dark alley from a safe distance. Jack Wiler, who works in pest control in New York, does the former.

"We see the world kind of inside out," he says.

"Most people walk in the front door and they see a secretary or they see a security guy greeting them and everything looks very nice, polished and clean. We go in the back door, we go down to the basement."

Jack's work has taken him into apartment rooms where he's seen bags of cocaine and revolvers on the coffee table while the occupants stand terrified because they've had a visit from a rat.

And after years in the business, he now thinks twice before buying a quick snack on a New York street corner.

Rat exterminator  Jack Wiler
Rat exterminator Jack Wiler can tell rats apart
"We used to provide pest control in a building where hotdog carts were stored," he says. "We saw the rats jumping in and out of the buckets of water that the hot dogs are cooking in later in the day. To this day the one thing I can't do is eat a street hot dog in New York."

Across the world rats are linked with spreading disease, from typhus to the plague. The World Health Organization has named the rat as mankind's number one four-legged enemy.

Jack believes the root of our fear is not only the ancient association between rats and disease, but also their feeding habits.

"Rats feed on garbage and dead things," he says. "So before people were as civilised with their dead, if you were in a poor area or a small village you might find rats feeding on dead human beings.

New York symbol?

"That would certainly be grisly and ghoulish and scary and I think that was passed on as well. Because they are omnivorous, they'll feed on both grains and meat, dead things are just more things on the table for them."

While Jack Wiler deals with rats for a living, New Yorker Bob Sullivan chose to observe them in the city for two years and then wrote a book. He watched them in an alley in downtown Manhattan, not far from Wall Street.

"The alley is nicely grease-slicked, there's kind of a slipperiness about the cobblestones," he says. "It's old, it feels like this secret place that's not been noticed by New Yorkers for years and years and years."

New York alley
Bob Sullivan's favourite alley for watching rats

His choice of site placed him at the very heart of the terror attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001. After 9/11 all of the of downtown district was blocked off and it was six months before he could return to the alley to resume his observations.

"There was all this waste and garbage that was frozen in time," he says. "Very shortly thereafter the Health Department had a problem and people had to go in after a couple of weeks to get rid of putrid salad bars and deli bars that had food.

"There was a big rat problem. An unknown story from this time is that exterminators from all over the country donated their services to stop the possibility of a huge rat infestation."

The extermination operation was so successful Bob was left without any rats to study for a while and had to wait for the population to build up again.

It's clear that rats represent more to us than being just another animal.

As one New Yorker puts it: "Rats? They're symbolic of New York - the dirty, dark corners of life, that sort of hold an essence of New York."

The first episode of One Life: Rats is broadcast on Thursday 9 June 2005 on World Service Radio. Please check the programme schedules for transmission times.

You can also visit the programme's website where you can listen to or download the programme which is available as part of the BBC podcasting trial.


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