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Posted at 06:43 PM ET, 11/01/2012

Tales of the D.C. and NYC rats, after the storm


These are the wrong kind of rats. But when else am I going to get the chance to use a picture of naked mole rats? You can’t just slip that into a piece about election fatigue. (Mehgan Murphy - SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION)

One of the persistent questions, following the storm, once the more important questions had been answered about the safety of friends and family, the return of power, the extent of damage, and why on earth Gov. Chris Christie was being so unaccountably . . . nice, is: What became of all the rats?

Rats, after all, are a fixture in the cities of the northeastern seaboard, especially New York City, where they are one of those things that visitors point and marvel at and send postcards of to our friends. Or perhaps that’s just me. “They’re so big here!” we text. “Only in New York City!”

DC. has its share of rats, of course. But our rats are wimps who could not make it in the big city. They vaguely intend to write a novel someday. Meanwhile they lurk outside cupcake shops, priding themselves on their proximity to government.

Fortunately for people wondering about the rats, actual rat experts exist and have emerged from the woodwork to explain what happened. According to Bora Zivkovic in Scientific American, “some rats drowned, some survived.” But he goes on to explain in great detail the variations in rat population and who might have been where when — they cluster near humans and food, and more dominant rats get to go out during night hours to forage while subdominant rats have to hunt during the daytime, meaning that post-Sandy survival potential will depend on who was on the surface and able to reach safety. If the dominant rats were on top and able to scuttle off to safety, their odds of survival are high. If their less dominant brethren were stuck up top, odds are less good.

Disease ecologist Rick Ostfeld told the Daily Beast that “People and rats together have a corner on the adaptability market,” which is an unflattering way of putting it. He also noted that their whole M.O. reads: ”Live fast, die young, breed explosively, and fill up the world with more rats.”

I’m definitely getting that in place of YOLO as an ill-advised lower-back tattoo.

No wonder we always experiment on rats. Their only crime is being too like people.

I was deeply concerned about the rats, so I am glad these experts are here to tell us these things. There have to be some consolations to spending your life having the following conversation:

“So, what do you do?”

“I’m a rat expert.”

(Date screams, flings champagne at you, leaps onto chair.)

I am sure moments like this, or that time you served as a consultant on “Ratatouille,” are among them.

I was expecting a little more detail in the response, though. Where are the experts to let us know about all the rats making ill-timed jokes about the storm and losing their jobs as spokesrats for Aflac?

I want to hear updates like “Many rats were upset because the rat king was doing a good job of handling the situation, earning praise from dominant rats in New York and New Jersey, and they had just been trying to replace him with another rat with more business experience.”

“Some rats packaged leftover garbage, lightly used cans, and old shoes for rat refugees, but the Rat Cross explained that these donations were actually diverting resources from the rescue effort.”

“Several rats went jogging in masks during the height of the storm to catch the attention of newscasters. A brave rat in Newark single-handedly rescued the entire population and kept tweeting about it. The rats worried a lot about how the humans were doing, mainly because the humans were their major source of food and entertainment, and because the humans sounded very polarized and the rats worried it was unhealthy. The rats were familiar with smear campaigns from their experience being blamed for the bubonic plague, and they would not wish this on anyone.”

But the experts did not touch on these themes.

I did manage to interview some local rats. They said predictions of the storm were greatly exaggerated. In D.C., the rats shut down the entire rat government and infrastructure for two days. As usual, nothing happened. They sat under awnings next to their favorite cupcake shops and watched the rain fall, squeaking discontentedly about Pepco.

Rats, after all, are resilient.

By  |  06:43 PM ET, 11/01/2012

 
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