How rats became an inescapable part of city living

In some parts of the world they are revered and protected; in other places they are captured and eaten for dinner. One thing is certain: They’re everywhere.

NEW YORK CITY Adaptable and smart, rats of several species have evolved to thrive in major cities—yet the sight of a rat scurrying across West Broadway can make even the most hardened urbanite jump. Many humans find rats frightening and revolting, even though rats and people have occupied shared living spaces for thousands of years. New York rats are primarily Norway (or brown) rats. Their ancestors lived in the wild in northern China and Mongolia, were established in parts of Europe by 1500, and then followed Europeans across the Atlantic Ocean by the 1750s.

Rats are our shadow selves. We live on the surface of the city; they generally live below. We mostly work by day; they mostly work by night. But nearly everywhere that people live, rats live too.

In Seattle, where I grew up, the rats excel at climbing sewer pipes—from the inside. Somewhere in my hometown right now, a long, wet Norway rat is poking its twitchy pink nose above the water surface in a toilet bowl. Seattle also has another species, roof rats, which nest in trees and skitter along telephone lines. In the Middle Ages, they may have transmitted plague.

From Seattle to Buenos Aires, urban rat populations are rising—as much as 15 to 20 percent in the past decade, according to one expert. Charismatic animals like elephants, polar bears, and lions are all in decline, yet inside our cities, we find it hard even with extraordinary efforts to keep rat populations in check.

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