Image credit: Steven Cottingham, Like rats in the walls of the world, 2022, digital inkjet print, 26 x 43 in. (66 x 109 cm). Courtesy the artist

The biologist bought shares when rodent birth control went public. The barista kept a hammer close at hand. The artist, who should have been in a meeting, trawled a database and discovered an image of Venus in furs—snow white fur. Pink tail and paws. And the alert, sensitive face of an animal who’s been subject to the violence of human scrutiny many, many times before.

Rats are, famously, a vector for disease. Less notoriously—although perhaps just as pervasively—rats act as a vector between perception and prejudice, imagination and behavior. How humans respond to rats in our workplaces and homes reveals the extent of our cruelties, innovation, and empathy—how, ultimately, we are prepared to interact with species we occasionally keep as pets or lab animals, but nearly always categorize as “other.” In bringing together this Public Seminar special issue, I spoke with many humans. From biologist to barista, building superintendent to community gardener, everyone had a story to tell about rats. 

We are, after all, so close. Rats and humans share such similar tastes that they follow us wherever we go (except to Alberta—too cold). Rats work hard. They keep pace with our peanut butter, our crops, our garbage pickups, our excessive consumption, our systemic injustice. Where the human social contract fails—in public housing with crumbling walls and dilapidated plumbing, for instance—rats thrive. Tracing the history of futile human efforts to exterminate rats and end our cohabitation, Rafi Youatt observes, “Rats do not only fill niches in an ecological sense, but they fill socioecological niches.” Or as Curran Boyd puts it in his account of a winter spent killing rats in an infested coffee shop, these commensal animals move into our abandoned infrastructure and set up “their ideal bed and breakfast.”

But while rats are busy making the best of our failures, we humans can’t keep up with their appetite for sex. One breeding pair has the potential to produce up to 15,000 descendants (of several generations) in a single year. We devise new traps—but new rats keep on coming. 

Recent innovations in rat control target their prodigious fertility, with implications for rats (and humans) around the world. In Aotearoa/New Zealand, the latest budget for a national pest elimination program, Predator Free 2050, allocated NZ $2.25 million toward research into a gene-editing program that would engineer rats to produce offspring of only one sex in their litters. On the other side of the world in New York State, the Department of Environmental Conservation has approved the drug ContraPest for general use, a liquid bait laced with an “oral contraceptive” targeting male and female rats alike. While the bait may be of limited use in cities with hard-to-reach tunnels and sewers, like New York and Washington, DC, ContraPest offers parks and neighborhoods a means of decreasing rat populations that is nontoxic to the environment, other animals, and to the rats themselves. 

These developments may come as a relief from the rhetoric of “warfare,” vengeance, and bloodthirstiness favored by the mayors of New York. But Youatt’s essay reminds us to look closely at any system of extermination—even an apparently “humane” one—for its biopolitical implications: “Extermination applied to rats can be moved directly onto humans who are cast as rats, as genocidal politics has done.” 

New Zealand’s Predator Free 2050 in particular raises questions not only about the hazards of genetic modification, but about notions of relative worth in interspecies populations. The government program’s mission—to protect endemic plant and animal wildlife from introduced “pests”—is predicated on a hierarchy of perceived value introduced, like the Rattus rattus and Rattus norvegicus species, by European settlers. In her examination of the “stowaway memory” of rats, Anna Boswell highlights the fact that Predator Free 2050 also targets the kiore or Pacific rat (Rattus exulans), a species that journeyed to Aotearoa/New Zealand centuries earlier, in tandem with Māori. “To mistake [kiore] for northern-world rats,” writes Boswell, “is to obscure their role in te ao Māori as distinguished travel companions who recall migratory pathways, Pacific homelands, and shared genealogies.” In Boswell’s analysis, targeting kiore in an “ecological clean-up” is part of a larger settler-colonial act of mis-remembering—an attempt to erase an uncomfortable history. 

But rats continue to bear witness. And the close quarters of our shared history, as well as our many assassination attempts (on their bodies and on their characters), have surely sharpened rats’ noses to the whiff of human hypocrisy. They’re intimate with our poisons and our propaganda. Perhaps it’s this training that helps rats bag leading roles in our political satires. There, they are recognized as versatile actors, able to embody both victim and perpetrator of violence—sometimes simultaneously. This duality is encapsulated in the monstrous body of “Scabby,” an enormous inflatable rat who shows up at U.S. businesses to protest labor violations. As Cassandra Brey points out in a brief biography of the balloon rodent, Scabby’s act of witness both parodies the “rat-like” greed of corporations and protects the striking human workers, who greet the giant rat with affection. 

In the political theater of humans, the rat-actor is almost always a stand-in for human concerns: a mask with round ears and whiskers, and below it a human mouth. But what do rats see when they look in the mirror? Upending the literary tradition of rats as politicized bodies, Radhika Subramaniam offers a vision of rats as a body politic. Her “Report from the Rat Academy” records a democracy as pedantically bureaucratic as our own but focused on undeniably ratty concerns (sanitation truck timings, chew-ins, and “Radical Burrow Network” technologies).

The concerns of rats are common to those urban animals—cockroaches, pigeons, mice, feral cats—categorized by humans as “vermin” or undesirable. Some scholars and scientists, including Loretta Mayer, cofounder of ContraPest’s parent company, Senestech, have observed that it’s precisely rodents’ success that creates problems for humans. Rats weren’t supposed to prosper in the city, amidst concrete and broken glass—or, for that matter, in parkland reserved for protected species. Almost anywhere rats travel, humans perceive them as living in the wrong place.

Rejected from the zones of the “natural” and the “normal,” the rat migrates toward the avant-garde. In a dizzying passage from Marc Anthony Richardson’s experimental novel Year of the Rat, the narrator sees himself as a rat in the walls of his dying mother’s Philadelphia apartment. This image leads him back to a memory of San Francisco, where he and his lover noticed one of the city’s dispossessed human residents sitting at a traffic intersection. The woman was “clasping something big and furry, wet and black: it had a semi-prehensile tail that nearly snaked a forearm like an opossum’s or cat’s.” 

The astonished narrator remembers that the woman was not only stroking the gargantuan rat in her lap, but that the rat “was kissing her, as though it were trying to offer some great comfort during a time of greater torment.” In occupying an inadmissible space—loving and loved by a human—the rat shocks and reconfigures our vision. In doing so, Richardson’s rat makes visible its habitat: the lived reality of human cities, and the systems of racism, class, and capital that create and enforce poverty.   

Destigmatizing rats doesn’t mean anyone should have to suffer rodent infestation and the destruction and disease that accompanies it. “No one should have to live alongside rats,” Caroline Bragdon notes in her conversation with Katy Einerson. As Director of Neighborhood Interventions for New York City’s Pest Control Services, Bragdon presents the need for “a coordinated public health approach to rat management,” with a focus on prevention: city agencies, landlords, property owners, and individuals are responsible to one another in managing our waste. 

It sounds simple. The problem, as usual, is human.

This essay is part of a spring 2023 Public Seminar special issue on rats, curated by senior managing editor Evangeline Riddiford Graham.

Evangeline Riddiford Graham is the senior managing editor of Public Seminar and author of the poetry chapbooks Ginesthoi (Hard Press, 2017) and La Belle Dame avec les Mains Vertes (Compound Press, 2019). She hosts and produces the poetry podcast Multi-Verse.