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No rats in Ryder Alley

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Last week, in the wake of superstorm Sandy, I saw a number of people asking questions on social media (and some traditional media picking up on it) about a potential for ratpocalypse, i.e,. the possibility that hordes of rats will come out of the sewers and subway tunnels and flood the streets of New York City in a Pied Piper style. So I wrote a blog post debunking this and explaining why this will not happen, which made me a temporary expert on behavior of rats in storms, so I got interviewed in various places, etc.

As I noted at the very end of the post, my main source of information, at least initially, was a book, Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan. I read it several years ago, when it first came out, and loved it. Reading it provoked me to read more on the topic, so when these questions came up, I already knew most of the answers, and knew where to look for additional information.

The book describes a year in Sullivan’s life, spent observing rats by night, and researching them by day. He went every night downtown to Fullton Street, and just stood there in the middle of two L-shaped alleys: Edens Alley and Ryder Alley. He watched rats come out at night, eat the food discarded by the two restuarants edging the alleys one on each side, fight, hide, and whatever else rats do when they are up on the surface.

The first opportunity I had to go up to New York City after reading the book was in 2007. I just could not resist! The book has no photos of the alleys, so I just HAD to go and see them myself.

My wife and I hailed a cab. Told the driver: Edens Alley. Driver: Hmmm, this is my first day on the job, do you know how to get there?

This was before I had iPhone, GPS, Google Maps…. I pulled out an old-style map, printed on paper, and gave the driver turn-by-turn directions. Once we got there (after making several circles around the area), the driver refused to take any money. I forced him to take double the amount of the fare. He did well for the first day as a NYC taxi driver. This place was hard to find. And off the mid/up-town grid.

Of course, this was in the middle of the day. I did not expect to see any rats there at that time. If I did, that would be an indication that the underground population is astoundingly large, forcing some of the sub-dominant individuals to forage during the day. But I was looking for traces of rats, and for holes and crevices from which they emerge at night, for bags of garbage full of Chinese food, and I took the pictures. I had the pictures stashed away in my Dropbox for more than five years. This is the first time they see the light of day. See for yourselves:






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  1. 1. aidel 6:17 pm 11/5/2012

    I think that this is the only book that I’ve ever recommended to you that you’ve actually read (besides Steven Jay Gould). This book is absolutely worth reading. Buy a copy today. And I’m not sure, but I think I took a lot of the photos. Your loving wife.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Bora Zivkovic 6:18 pm 11/5/2012

    Possibly. The fuzzy ones are mine, for sure.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Postman1 12:45 am 11/8/2012

    One of the multiple reasons I will Never visit NY again.

    Link to this

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