For most of this blog series, I have focused on the interaction of rats in humans in only bad ways.  Which, for the average American, is a very commonly shared opinion.  However, rats and humans are able to coexist peacefully sometimes, especially with laboratory testing and some people even keep rats as pets.  For this post, I wanted to delve deeper into the human and rat interactions, especially in laboratory testing settings and people keeping rats as pets much like any other rodents (mice, guinea pigs, hamsters, chinchillas, etc.).  In addition, I wanted to look more into if rats were part of the movement against animal testing that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s and continues to resurface occasionally.


For a majority of history, animals have been the subjects of tests for varying scientific purposes, whether it is testing a new medication, cosmetics, or for psychological testing.  Animal testing dates back to the Greeks, Romans, and Arabs who each had scientists that conducted some kind of research on animals, especially in the fields of anatomy, physiology, and psychology [1].  In more modern times, the more common use of animal testing is for pharmaceutical drug testing.  Drug testing was even required by the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, partially due to a product called sulfanilamide, that was used to treat streptococcal infections, turned out to be poisonous to humans.  During the 1970s and 1980s, a rise in viewing animal testing as cruelty to animals led to reform of using animals as test subjects and the adoption of “the three Rs” which are replacement (of animals with non-living models), reduction (in use of animals as test subjects), and refinement (of animal use practices) [2].  Animal testing was not completely removed, but it improved tremendously.  Rats were a very common source of animal testing, accounting along with mice for about two-thirds of the total number of test animals [3].  It seems that with the new guidelines, testing on other species of animals decreased much more than it did on rats and mice.  However, rats were still a major part of the movement to reform animal testing.  This 1985 New York Times article discusses the fundamental clash that was occurring between animal rights activists and medical scientists and it discusses both viewpoints well [4].

While researching this topic I learned that the rats used in laboratories are typically not the same Norway rats found commonly in cities.  Instead, they use Norway rats that have been specifically bred to be tested and typically come from specific strains of DNA, primarily the Sprague-Dawly rat (which is an albino rat with a long narrow head, high reproduction rat, and low tumor rates) and the Wistar rat (another albino rat and is typically considered as a base model rat)[5].  I remember reading while researching rat control and rat fighting that many rat catcher, such as Jack Black, would often sell the rats they caught to scientists and other researchers as test subjects.  While laboratory testing is a common human-rat interaction, rats sometimes are kept as pets by some people.


Why someone would want a rat as a pet is beyond me, however, rodents are traditionally a common pet, more so with other species such as mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, and chinchillas.  However, like lab rats, pet rats are not typically the common Norwegian rats found in cities, but instead are a different breed of rats called fancy rats, which is a domesticated subspecies of  [6].  A short guide on how to keep pet rats can be found here for anyone who is more interested.  According to a pet rat website, domesticated rats are just as different from wild rats as dogs are from wolves.  Domestic rats are social and personable, extremely intelligent, playful, keep themselves clean by grooming themselves, and rarely bite [7].

While pet rats are not for everyone, myself included, rat and human interaction is not always a negative interaction, and can be very beneficial to humans such as in lab testing.  Although many view animal testing as animal cruelty, which in many cases it is, lab testing on rats and mice still is a very common practice today.  Many pharmaceutical drugs are tested on rats prior to being released to humans, preventing accidental poisoning such as with sulfanilamide.  Whether we like it or not, human and rats will coexist until one or both are extinct.








[6] Langton, Jerry (2007). “Entertainer, Test Subject, and Family Friend”Rat: How the World’s Most Notorious Rodent Clawed Its Way to the Top. Macmillan. ISBN 0-312-36384-2.




Rats are a major pest in many cities all across the world, including the United States; most people who live in urban areas are unable to escape these vermin.  However, rats seem to live much more prevalently in some areas more than in other areas.  Areas in which the poor are highly concentrated are a major area rats seem to infest.  This especially holds true in the very poor, majority African-American urban residential areas in many major American cities.  Rats can affect the lives of people, especially the poor, in many different ways, most of which are very negative.

Before going further, one question that I believe that needs to be addressed is where are rats commonly found?  Rats are found in or near homes, alleys, sewers, and zoos, and are strongly associated with areas of high concentrations of people with low socioeconomic status [1].  In addition, areas where there is a higher amount of trash, such as subways, waste stations, and parks have higher populations of rats and many areas near the noisy railway stations and waste centers, are areas in which persons of lower socioeconomic status are more prevalent.  In the United States, there are several cities that have significantly large populations of rats in their cities.  According to an article on Bloomberg, New York City and Austin, TX had the highest number of rat sightings, with several other cities having significant rat, mice, and cockroach problems as well such as, Seattle, Tampa, Detroit, and Miami [2].  The chart below shows the percentage of occupied houses that have had evidence of rats in the past year according to an American Housing Survey conducted during the 2013 U.S. Census.  Six of the top 10 worst rat cities in the world are in the United States, including New York, Boston, New Orleans, Atlanta, and others [3].  This shows that no matter the socioeconomic status, many Americans have to deal with the problem of rats and the problems they create.  However, one thing all these cities that have major rat problems have in common are a large number of extremely poor citizens living in the poorer areas of the city, a majority of these areas being areas primarily occupied by African-Americans.


During his “War on Poverty”, Lyndon B. Johnson tried to have the Rat Extermination and Control Bill passed in Congress in 1967, however, it was rejected which sparked much political debate [4].  Many slums in America had become infested with rats, which was both a huge environmental health issue and social injustice.  Many families struggled to even protect their children and from being bitten by rats.  During this time, most trash was simply thrown into the streets and left there due to the lack of a system of waste removal.  This also allowed the rat populations to thrive in the poorer parts of the cities.

While most would associate the presence of rats bringing down the quality of life, a new study has some very profound results.  A study by Danielle German and Carl Latkin found that in low-income areas with rat problems increased disorder in the neighborhood and had higher rates of depression.  The study showed that the presence of rats increased stress in the residents and had a significant negative effect on the people’s mental well-being and their physical health.  Rats were found to be more prevalent in areas of low income, higher population of African Americans, higher populations of people with STDs, lower education levels.  This data shows another way that “bad neighborhoods” are even worse than one would think.  While total eradication is implausible, as mentioned before, there are several methods rat populations can be attempted to be controlled.  However, in since they are more prevalent in poorer communities, many of the people affected have other expenses that take up a majority of their income that are much more dire, such as food and housing, leaving them less able to deal with the rat infestations as compared to how a more affluent neighborhood could.

Poverty and rat infestations in cities are both two very prevalent problems in many American cities that are extremely correlated.  Many residents in the more rat infested areas are unable to afford to deal with the problem of rats, which creates many health problems for those affected by the presence of rat populations.  A major debate arises from this, which is whose responsibility is it to deal with this problem?  The government’s?  This question may not have a definitive answer currently, but should be one law makers discuss.  In closing, I have added a very familar poem below that I found on a couple of the sources I used that discusses the problem of rats for the poor.



They fought the dogs,

and killed the cats,

And bit the babies in the cradles,

nd ate the cheeses out of the vats,

And licked the soup from the cook’s own ladles,

Split open the kegs of salted sprats,

Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,

And even spoiled the women’s chats,

By drowning their speaking

With shrieking and squeaking

In fifty different sharps and flats.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin

Robert Browning, 1849 [5]






[4] McLaughlin, M, The Pied Piper of the Ghetto: Lyndon Johnson, Environmental Justice, and the Politics of Rat Control, Journ Urban Hist, 37(4) 541-561. Doi:  10.1177/0096144211403085




Part Four: Rat Fights

People all over the world have always had a fascination with death and killing.  It has been a sport to people for most of history, whether it is human or animal being the killer or the killed.  Animal fighting has been a common sport for much of modern history, one typically associates dog or chicken fighting with this violent sport, but rats too have found their share of “fame” in the pits.  While no longer a common animal used in sport fighting, during the Victorian period, rat fighting was a common sport among the poor of England as well as with immigrants in the Americas.

Rats naturally often fight, whether it is for food, fun, or mating.  From about 18 days after birth until death, rats fight each other, often for play [1].  However, there is a big difference in play fighting and actual fighting among rats.  In play fighting, rats typically target the nape, the back of the neck, whereas in actual fights there is more targeting and defending of the romp, the lower end, of the rat.  An interesting occurrence happens in rats, the rats who typically initiate the play fight when younger tend to become the more submissive rats of the group, whereas those who are attacked the most tend to become the more dominant males of the group.  This is due to the rats that are attacked more learning better counter-attacked techniques and by the time they reach sexual maturity, they are able to have the upper hand.  This nature of fighting lets Norway rats become perfect animals for baiting.

The London pub is “a social arena like no other: a place of both conflict and comfort – rivalry and camaraderie – and where all troubles can be washed down with a pint of ale” [2].  In these pubs, gaming and gambling were common practices for many to participate in, such as skittles and cribbage.  However, there is also another common past time for many upper and lower class citizens, ratting.  In this sport, people would place bets on how many rats a dog could kill in a given amount of time or how long it took the dog, usually a  to kill all the rats in the pit.  The record is held by a terrier named Billy that supposedly killed 100 rats in five minutes and thirty seconds, equating to a rat every 3.3 seconds.

Henry Mayhew gives an account of vising a rat pit in his volume of London Labour and the London Poor [3].  In 1851, Mayhew visited with the famed “Queen’s Ratcatcher,” Jack Black who would catch rats for several pits and sell them to the proprietors of the pubs and other pits.  In which, Mayhew and Jack Black discuss the sport, and how Black raises ferrets for the sport.  James Wentworth Day, who followed the sport, described the rat pits as:


“This was a rather dirty, small place, in the middle of the Cambridge Circus, London.  You went down a rotten wooden stair and entered a large, underground cellar, which was created by combining the cellars of two houses.  The cellar was full of smoke, stench of rats, dogs, and dirty human beings as well.  The stale smell of flat beer was almost overpowering.  Gas lights illuminated the centre of the cellar, a ring enclosed by wood barriers similar to a small Roman circus arena, and wooden bleachers, arranged one over the other, rose stepwise above it nearly to the ceiling.  This was the pit for dog fights, cockfights, and rat killing.  A hundred rats were put in it; large wagers went back and forth on whose dog could kill the most rats within a minute.  The dogs worked in exemplary fashion, a grip, a toss, and it was all over for the rat.  With especially skillful dogs, two dead rats flew through the air at the same time…  [4]”

When immigrants arrived in America, they brought many customs, traditions, and sports with them, rat baiting was no exception.  One famous rat pit in American, Sportsman Hall, was owned and operated by a famous rat fighter named Christopher Keybourne, more commonly known as Kit Burns [5].  Kit Burns was born in Donegal, Ireland and moved to New York when he was a young boy around 1830.  Rat killing in the Sportsman’s hall consisted of dogs, weasels, ferrets, and sometimes humans.  When humans entered the pit, they were expected to bite the head off the rats.  As with most sports involving the death of an animal, there was a large amount of resistance to the sport.

Henry Bergh, who was the founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, began a campaign attacking animal cruelty in New York.  He set out and began shutting down all pits that involved rat and dog fighting.  Kit Burns was able to escape the raids by using an exit through a tunnel he designed in the basement of the Sportsman’s Hall.  However, Kit was eventually caught in a raid and arrested.  Kit eventually turned the Sportsman’s Hall into a mission and home for wayward women, named The Kit Burns Mission and opened another saloon for one last rat fight.







[5] Sullivan, Robert, Rats, New York:  Bloomsbury (2004).

Part 3: History of Urban Rat Control


For all of human history, people have had to deal with the problem of rats.  In the last post, I discussed how rats have had a very negative connotation associated with them and have been viewed as pests.  A few interesting questions came up throughout the research, how have rats been dealt with in the past?  How long have rats been viewed as a pest whose population needs to be controlled?  How are their populations controlled?  Why have rats not been eradicated if they were not naturally found in the Americas?  I believe the history of rat control, as well as pest control in general, is a vital part of the understanding of how rats have affected the environment of cities in the United States.

For most of human and rodent history, humans have tried to eliminate or at least control rat populations.  As early as the Mongolian nomads, people have associated rodents with disease and have tried to avoid them [1].  Rats were even killed in Europe due to belief they were spreading the Bubonic Plague.  This led to cities hiring rat catchers to try to handle the problem of exterminating the rats.  One such famous, and most likely exaggerated, tale that has been told in many stories and tales for children is that of Germany’s Pied Piper, who has hired to get rid of rats in the town of Hamelin [2].  As many people know, the Piper would play his pipe and would lure the rats away from the city.  While this story is most likely fictitious, it does represent the overarching theme the cities were trying to deal with their rat problems.

In Pests in the City: Flies, Bedbugs, Cockroaches, and Rats, Dawn Day Biehler disusses how since there was no public rat control in homes, the job fell to private households and hiring help [1].  Simple methods were often used such as keeping a cat, repairing the house, setting traps and poison, and simply killing rats with a weapon.  From this, rat-catcher businesses began to appear to either sell poison and traps or offer extermination sources.  One famous example of a rat-catcher is Jack Black [3].  Known as “the Queen’s ratcatcher,” Jack Black was probably the most famous rat-catcher of the 1800s in London.  Jack Black was hired by many to catch rats and is well documented, such as the encounter Henry Mayhew had with him in 1851.  In America, the first known professional rat-catcher was Walter “Sure Pop” Isaacsen [4].  Isaacsen opened a shop in Brooklyn in 1857 selling poison and using ferrets to hunt and kill rats.  Isaacsen even famously ended a rat infestation in Central Park Zoo, in which he caught over 475 rats in the first week.

From these smaller private businesses, more modern pest control began to evolve.  In 1936, the National Associatation of Exterminators and Fumigators officially changed the name of the position of rat exterminator to pest control operator, citing that the word extermiate was too high of an expectation [4].  In 1949, the city of New York founded the Rodent Control Unit as a method to provide public rat extermination.  Today, insecticide and pesticide use now dominate the modern pest control methods.  DDT, the most famous pesticide, was first synthesized in 1874, but was not known as an insecticide until 1939.  The first generation of pesticides consisted of kerosene, sulfer, arsenate of lead, and nicotine sulfate and were applied by Flit guns.  After WWII, more powerfore pesticides were developed and were used intensely until the 1970s when Rachel Carson published her famous book, Silent Spring, in which the environmentally dangerous side effects of pesticide use were discussed and how they were killing birds and other animals.

Today, numerous companies exist to help people deal with their pest problems, including rats.  There are now nationwide pest control companies, such as Orkin, Dodson, and many others who specialize in pest control for both commerical use and private homes [5].  These companies also try to teach people how to prevent pests in their home.

Rats have always been a problem that people have tried to exterminate or at least control.  The history of rat control does have some serious environmental implications, such as the problems caused by the extensive use of pesticides.  However, conventional methods seem to be able to control rat populations much more than playing a flute.



[1] Biehler, Dawn Day,  Pests in the City: Flies, Bedbugs, Cockroaches, and Rats, Seattle: University of Washington Press (2013).



[4] Sullivan, Robert, Rats, New York:  Bloomsbury (2004).