The only pets I’ve ever had were hamsters. My friend Adam was the first to get them, a pair of fluffy teddy bears who did adorable things like stuff their cheeks full of food, run around in plastic orange balls, and sit calmly in Adam’s fist as he stroked their heads.

I would drop things into their cage to see what would happen. A Cheezit cracker, which they sniffed but didn’t eat. A small red ball, which they tried to eat instead, pulling off strips of rubber with their long yellow teeth as though peeling the rind from fruit. Panicked I told Adam’s father, who fished out the ball and stray strips.

“You don’t want to eat that,” he cooed at the fur balls.

Our hamsters were plain brown and not fluffy, but we still loved them. We still thought they were cute.

Then, somewhere along the way, they became less cute. They became scary. I thought of their pointy choppers and took to wearing one of my mother’s dishwashing gloves whenever I had to reach into the their cage.

Then they began to fight. One morning I came down to find one with a firy scratch under its eye.

“Why do they do that?” I asked my father.

He shrugged. He was a scientist in a cancer research lab. He worked with mice and rats every day.

“Sometimes animals fight,” he said.

Adam’s hamsters had begun to tussle as well. He’d toss a towel over their cage so that he wouldn’t have to watch.

The next thing we heard they were having babies. I knew the fighting had something to do with the babies, but I wasn’t sure what. I tried not to think about it.

Then the next thing we heard, the mother hamster ate her babies.

Maybe you didn’t hear me: THE MOTHER HAMSTER ATE HER BABIES.

“Whyyyyy?!?!” I cried to my father, and again he shrugged.

Sometimes animals do that,” he said. “When they get nervous.”

I was nervous. Everyone said so. That’s why I got stomachaches over book reports, and would cry when encountering a roomful strangers. But I’d never EAT MY BABIES.

I couldn’t stop picturing it. The mother with her deadly incisors ripping out squirming chunks, each baby a rubber ball.

Soon after my parents let us get rid of our hamsters. My father took them to his lab, and I don’t know what became of them. (Sorry, PETA.)

Thus began my squeamishness with all things rodentia.

* * *

Perhaps you’ve seen this video of a rat on a New York subway climbing on a guy’s face.

Did you hear me? A RAT CLIMBING ON A GUY’S FACE.

First of all, do you see how big that thing is? Is that a rat or a fat chihuahua? Secondly, sure New Yorkers are supposed be impassive, but COME ON. It’s ginormous scurrying vermin in an enclosed space, and those guys are lifting their legs like it’s a rambunctious toddler on the loose (hence, the rumors that the whole thing was staged). I lived in New York for 10 years, and I’d be swinging from the subway pole.

Maybe you’re wondering why I’m not wondering why there’s a rat on the subway in the first place. I’m not because I know why: in New York City, rats are everywhere.

* * *

New York rats are formally known as Rattus norvegicus, or the Norway or brown rat. In 1972 the Federal Government estimated one rat per person, while other reports claim as many as six to 12, which could mean at LEAST 50,351,286 rats. Did you catch that? Fifty MILLION rats, the population of a good-sized country.

A country of rats living underneath, or in some cases on top of, our feet.

* * *

When I was 15, we had mice in our attic. Every night I heard them, scritch-scratching above my head. I heard them running. I imagined their sharp and hairless paws, not unlike the paws of Adam’s cannibalistic hamsters.

I told my father, who went up to the attic, took a cursory look around, and pronounced our attic “mouse-free.”

“They’re in the insulation,” I told him. “I’m telling you, I hear them every night.”

My father looked peeved. “And I told you I didn’t see any. You’re hearing things.”

“You’re craaaaazy!” my brother sang.

Later my father took another look, found mouse droppings, and called an exterminator, who confirmed: “Yes, you have mice.”

Crazy my ass.

* * *

Perhaps you’ve seen this other video from 2007 of rats taking over a KFC/Taco Bell in Greenwich Village.

I’m glad to say I’ve never eaten at that KFC/Taco Bell, but I’m sure I’ve eaten at other places where there have been rats, unbeknownst to me. And I’m sorry to say, I have eaten at places where there were rats, known to me, as related by friends (“The rat didn’t even run. It took its time, like a dog”), because most likely, more places than not in New York have have had rats at one time or another.

The Taste You Love.

Mmmm, rat taste.

* * *

I have seen rats in many places.

I have seen rats on the subway tracks. I’ve seen them crawl in and out of holes in walls. I’ve learned that when they disappear into the holes, a train is coming in approximately ten to 20 seconds.

I have seen a rat on the subway platform. I’ve hightailed it from said rat onto the subway car, where a, shall we say, flamboyant young man hurried off, followed ten seconds later by a high-pierced shriek.

I have heard rats in a grassy area off of First Street. I have heard them jumping and rustling and squeaking in said grass. I have been so freaked out by said rats that I’ve had to walk past it with my eyes closed while someone less freaked out guides me down the sidewalk.

I have seen rats a block from where I lived on the Lower East Side. I have seen them scurrying over a not-well-kept pile of garbage. I’ve seen them run across my path as I hurry past. I did not, I’m glad to say, notice the one that ran practically over my toes.

I have seen rats from a distance. A long-tailed silhouette bounding in the moonlight over a gravely path.

I have seen rats where there were no rats. At foot level and rustling in the wind, just about anything looks like a rat, such as:

A plastic bag.

A leaf.

A newspaper.

A pigeon.

A hobo’s foot.

I have mistaken the sound of a squeaking radiator for the squeaking of a rat’s nest.

In San Francisco, where I now live and where I’ve yet to seen a rat, I’ve mistaken all of the above for rats in mini-fits of rat-PTSD.

* * *

Perhaps you’ve seen this, the Hoarders rat episode.

While seeing thousands of rats (did you hear me? THOUSANDS OF RATS) pour out of the walls and furniture was disconcerting, I felt worse for the rat owner, Glenn. After the sudden death of his young wife, Glenn began growing his rat collection when his three pets escaped and began to procreate. Soon, the rats became both companion and distraction from his grief and loneliness. Soon, they ate him out of house and home.

Unlike other hoarders profiled in the show, Glenn himself was the one who decided he needed a change, and no matter how difficult, no matter how much he loved them, he had to get rid of the rats (the very injured and ill put out of their misery, the balance put up for adoption).

For the record, Glenn’s rats, as far as rats go, are rather cute, a bit smaller and cuddlier than their city rat cousins.

But I still wouldn’t want one.

* * *

All of this is rather ironic because I am a rat. That is, I was born the year of the rat.

The rat is the first sign on the Chinese zodiac, having won the race set up by the Jade Emperor.  The cunning little shit let the cat oversleep, then used the dumb-head ox to cross the river before jumping on land first and winning.

Rats are supposedly “smart, magnetic, well-liked affable, quick-witted, surreptitious, selfish, protective, and calculating.” Me and everyone else born in twelve-year increments since, and before, 1900.

Of course all of this could very well be bullshit, as could how all the signs match up in love. Rats, the Chinese zodiac claims, get along best with dragons and monkeys, second best with dogs, pigs, and other rats. I’ve only flirted online with a monkey, who while H-O-T gave terrible email.  I’ve dated two dogs, both of whom were dickish in their own ways. Sure, tell yourself you’re super-smart although you’ve never heard of Gloria Steinem, Shamu the Whale, or the Communist Revolution in China. That’s right, tell me I’m negative right before yelling at some poor woman having trouble at the subway turnstile.

My current partner is a tiger, a so-so match according to the zodiac, but the stars have been wrong before, so who gives a rat’s ass, right?

Except for one tiny thing.

I married a horse, was cheated on by a horse, and divorced said horse, despite warnings that:

This is a relationship that can end in bitterness.

Rat and Horse don’t make up a great pair. They are most likely to get involve in arguments.

Rat and Horse make up as one of the worst relationships. There is nothing right between these two animal signs, so beware!

Don’t even think about it.

Unhappy.

Not much going for you.

No no no – run away now.

But did I listen? No.

I didn’t even listen when my husband himself mentioned a tale in which the rat eats up the horse’s grain, a story I’d never heard before. I didn’t pay attention to the way he talked about his mother, also a rat, with a mixture of reverence, rage, and guilt. The way she could push his buttons without, it seemed, even trying. The way he thought I was trying to push his buttons in the same way when I wasn’t trying to do anything.

So when he finally had an affair, you’d think he’d have picked anyone but another rat. Not another rat to eat up his grain.

But guess what? His mistress was a rat too.

People Hoarding, A&E’s next big show.

* * *

I have been at war with rats, in many ways.

Overhead and underfoot.

In childhood and as an adult.

They have threatened to invade and have invaded my home.

They’ve burrowed themselves into my brain.

They’ve become my fears, my worries, my doubts.

They are, of course, me.

But they’re also my friends (hello fellow rats!).  My favorite aunt.  They’re a figment of my imagination.  They’re only scary if I let them be.  Like Glenn, I can let them go.

I’d still scream like a little girl though if I ever saw one on the subway.

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A long-time New Yorker, ANGELA TUNG is a writer in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in CNN Living, The Frisky, Dark Sky Magazine, Matador Life, The New York Press and elsewhere. Her Young Adult novel, Song of the Stranger, was published by Roxbury Park Books.

Her latest book, Black Fish: Memoir of a Bad Luck Girl, chronicles the failed marriage between a Chinese woman and Korean man, both American-born but still bound by old world traditions. Black Fish was short-listed for Graywolf Press' 2010 Nonfiction Prize.

In addition, she's a writer/editor at Wordnik.com, an online word source, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. Visit her at angelatung.com.

40 responses to “My War With Rats”

  1. jmblaine says:

    I can honestly say
    I have never seen a rat
    in Nashville.
    Rat tail maybe.

    We have possums?

  2. I once wrote on here about Samurai Rats. Not cool. I killed them before they killed me. And hamsters just suck.

  3. A friend of mine (another Angela) and I, when we were college students, once bought a hamster to share. He’d spend a little time with me, and then off he’d go to her place. It got to where we were passing him off to each other like a hot potato, though, when we figured out he was less hamster and more rat with a lopped-off tail. His name was Hairy Head (though not hairy at all), and the only thing he ever did, night and day, was scratch madly at one corner of his cage. Eventually, he sailed off Ang’s apartment loft in his hamster ball and died. I’m quite sure that poor bugger was a rat. Eeeesh. Shivers.

    This is such a funny, perfectly written piece, Angela!

  4. Oh Angela I am so with you on the ick factor about the hamsters! I was five when my dad had to tell me that my hamster ate her babies. It so ruined me for pets of ANY kind that I didn’t have one again until I was married and a mom and we adopted a dog when we were tired of hearing the girls beg. Naturally a dog became the gateway pet that led to other pets: fish, lizards, turtles, frogs and a dwarf hamster and yes, I was the one who came upon the dwarf hamster in his cage having a seizure before his ultimate demise. The dog has now outlived all the pets.
    Regarding rats: I lived in NY for many years and never recall actually seeing one — ironically enough the first “street” rat I ever saw scurried along beside me up Post Street in San Francisco!

    • Angela Tung says:

      omg, hamster seizure. they just don’t seem to live very long, do they? i’m glad your dog is still alive and well! 🙂

      Post Street?! i live just a few blocks from Post! then again, streets here are so long. i will tell myself you saw your rat WAAAAY far away from where i live.

  5. Matt says:

    I’ll probably be the lone voice of dissent here, but I love rats. They are way, waaaaaaaaaaay better as pets than stupid bitey hampsters, and I’ve had (including some of the babies mine produced) probably close to a hundred of them in the last 22 years or so. They ARE smart and trainable; the best I had was a big, hooded male named Mojo, who was both litterbox & clicker trained. I could (and did) let him wander around my apartment at will, since he wasn’t into chewing and always came when summoned. Every now and then I’d come home to find him curled up on my pillow, napping.

    That said, I was quite mercilous towards the wild rat colony that infested my first New Orleans apartment. Like New York, the little bastards are everywhere down there, and some of the ones that live around the French Quarter are – no joke – the size of footballs.

    • Angela Tung says:

      i agree that pet rats do seem kinda cute. like in the Hoarders episode, i found myself saying, “Awww!” a couple of times.

      your rat came when summoned? that’s awesome! and the image of a napping Mojo on your pillow is rather adorable.

      on another Hoarders episode, a woman who hoarded parrots also had a rat problem, and those were really nasty pieces of work. she caught one in a trap, and it was FREAKING out, just the way you’d think a feral rat would.

      FOOTBALL-SIZED RATS? oh lord. get me the smelling salts.

  6. I bet that hamster tale is something many children have had to go through. Animals are tough but I guess that’s why we have pets. It’s a way of introducing our children to the evils of the world without just switching on the news or taking them on the subway.

    I had hamsters, but only when I was in university. One was suicidal, the other just died at 2 yrs old, like, I suppose, most hamsters do. When I was in Korea my girlfriend had hamsters… but our cats ate them both and left their livers on our pillows as an awful gesture. Bleh.

    Not so familiar with rats. In spite of having lived in barns and woods and Korea and China, I really haven’t seen more than a couple of small ones. Except in the Philippines. I was in the jungle and one (I think it was a rat) grazed my leg. It was about the size of small dog. Not a small small dog, just a smallish dog.

    But actually I do find rats pretty interesting and not that ugly… Like so many animals, it’s where you encounter them that’s problematic. Or your face in the subway? Not cool.

    • My kids had cannibal hamsters. Maybe I should write the story. It’s pretty funny. Well, not the eating babies part.

    • angela says:

      your cats ate the hamsters?!?!? more horrors for me to imagine again and again.

      I don’t remember seeing any rats when I lived in China (at least no live ones), but there were these little lizards all around and once I saw a red and black snake. then there were the noisy magpies, one of which shat on me on my second day.

      I had friends who lived in some city in China (which one I can’t remember), where the rats would literally leap out them as they walked around campus. really glad I wasn’t there.

      Cannibal Hamsters *is* an awesome name for a band. maybe Suicide Hamster is a close second.

      • One of my cats was terrified of the hamsters. One day she got too close to their cage and a little hamster paw punched her in the face. The other cat, however, is a little feral shit. She stuck her paw through the bars and ripped the hamsters out, disemboweled them, and ate everything except the livers.

        Yes, Suicide Hamster definitely has Christmas Number One written all over it.

  7. Zara Potts says:

    Hello fellow rat!!
    I love rats. I love being a rat. I like all things rattish.

    I had to laugh at the piece where you talked about a rat crawling on someone’s face. This happened to me! I was staying a friend’s house and her little brother’s pet rat had gone missing. I woke up that night withe the pet rat lying on my face. But the funny thing was, I wasn’t at all bothered. Then again, I’ve always liked rodents.

    Your hamsters and my rabbits should have gotten together – they could have eaten all their babies up in tandem. Ha!

    And yes – stay away from horses. Rats and horses never mix.

    • angela says:

      why do rats do that?!?!? Glenn from Hoarders said they’d crawl on him while he was sleeping to try to get his hair for their nest. maybe that’s why?

      ha – a rat and rabbit cannibalistic feast!

  8. This makes me wonder if I have personal issues with rabbits as a species (not unlike Zara’s recent post). And issues with 2011 for that matter, it may be an interesting year ahead for long-eared types like me.

    But good luck letting go of your own infestations.

    • angela says:

      supposedly you are more “vulnerable” during your birth year. what this means i’m not sure. all i know is that you’re supposed to wear red underwear all year to ward off evil spirits.

      best to get some, nate, if you don’t already them.

  9. Irene Zion says:

    Angela,
    The rats we have in Miami Beach are really cute.
    They are “tree rats,” or “roof rats.”
    They are smaller and really adorable.
    When we moved in ten years ago, there was a nest of baby rats with their parents in the enormous ficus tree right next to the kitchen table.
    I’d feed them and we’d watch the rats scurrying up and down the tree.
    That came to an end when they got into the crawl space between the roof and the ceiling.
    It sounded like a herd of horses up there all night.
    They were eating sort of important stuff up there.
    We had to get a rat guy to, um, kill the cute little things.
    The we had to fix all the holes they ate in order to get into that space.
    There were a lot of them.
    Last weekend we had friends over and they said, Hey! what are those things running like hell in your atrium?
    Yup.
    They ate through the netting on top of the atrium and had moved in.
    Victor went to the garage to get some rat poison.
    The rat poison was opened and nibbled all up by rats, who apparently were suicidal.
    I felt really bad, but Victor threw the nibbled rat poison into the corners of the atrium, so they couldn’t get dropped in the coy pond.
    We didn’t get flies in the atrium, so we think they carried the poison up and out of the atrium to share with their friends and chose to die somewhere outside, which was good for us.
    Rotting rats smell bad.
    My problem is that I like them.
    I just wish they’d stay outside.

  10. Jessica Blau says:

    Wow Angela! That is one hell of a collection of wild rat videos! I understand your pain here!

    We live in Baltimore, on a stream that runs through the city. My dog caught an enormous rat in the backyard once. I called her off the rat because it was brutal to see her shaking it like a squeaky toy. But then the rat was twitching and spasming on its back, not quite dead. I got a shovel and hit it on the head, trying to make it a swift passage for him. The feel of the shovel cracking against his skull was so odd, it was something I had never felt before–the sound, the vibrations up the handle into my hands. I put a leaf next to him and took a picture. I figured no one would believe how big he was when I told the story.

    • Angela Tung says:

      jessica, that’s nuts! I meant to mention something about Baltimore rats possibly rivaling New York’s in number and largeness, but totally forgot.

      aw man, I can’t imagine having to put a rat – or anything – out of its misery.

  11. Judy Prince says:

    A tour de force de rats, angela! Your writing’s honed and crackling!

    I’d never ever have read about rats if I didn’t love your writing, and now I know more, much more, about rats than I did….plus I feel much better about the knowledge for some reason I can’t figure out.

    I’m gonna recommend this to dear Rodent.

    Now that you’re in San Francisco, do you still see/hear/think about rats?

    • angela says:

      thanks judy!

      i don’t think about rats as much now. when i first moved here, i did mistake the aforementioned newspaper/leaf/hobo-foot for rats, but haven’t for a while. then after writing the piece, i became sort of paranoid again. hopefully i won’t see a real live one anytime soon.

      • Judy Prince says:

        You prolly won’t see a rat again, angela.

        This is a great piece of writing, uniting the Year of the Rat folks, including you, your former husband and his mother, with the horrible bits about real rats. A seductive comparison—-and totally weird!

        Rats make folks weird, I think. Example: A neighbour girl used to climb over our fence, run directly to the back door of my house, and run throughout the house—-never once saying a word or seeming to notice me or anyone else. After I moved, neighbours told me that the girl and her family had moved, as well, and when their house was being cleared of things, there were dozens of rats roaming on the kitchen counters, hallways, rooms, and so on. No wonder the girl would run away from home! It was said that her mom was quite friendly, but she never invited anyone to the home. MEEP!

        • Angela Tung says:

          holy crap! that’s weirdness on many levels.

        • Judy Prince says:

          You got that right, angela! Weirder is that I never saw a rat hanging around our properties, but one day a year before I moved, a city worker came and put a rat trap in my back yard!

          I knew the guy (an antiquer, used-furniture shop owner) who took out all the stuff left behind in the Rat People’s house. He told me about seeing all the rats on the kitchen counters; it made him physically sick.

  12. […] little later, she murdered our two hamsters. Berry, Ed’s older sister, has not the heart to murder a small animal. Once she tried to examine […]

  13. Elizabeth says:

    Great piece, Angela, witty and funny and disturbing.

    I’ve also heard that rats are highly intelligent, and I have friends who love having them as pets, but I don’t know. Call me crazy, but I guess I draw the line at things crawling on your face. Plus the whole multiplicity thing, which I find horrifying.

    By the way, when we were children, my brother and I had cannibal mice. Two fluffy white mice who shared a cage. One died while we were at school, and the other ate it.

    Think I’m gonna stick with dogs.

  14. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    When I was in college, I got a hamster. She went into a mini-coma one night, and for some reason, I had the bright idea to give her a little water mixed with sugar. She roused within seconds. I took her to the vet the next day and was told my hamster was hypoglycemic! Ha! Strange though, she never had another episode like that.

    You would die if you saw what we have in Louisiana. Nutria rats. Look them up. As if oil industry destruction and hurricanes weren’t enough, those little creatures are nibbling away at our coastline.

    • Angela Tung says:

      poor hamster!

      i probably *would* die seeing a real live nutria. there was this show hosted by the comic Dave Attell called Insomniac, in which he’d tour all night around whatever city he was in. when he was in New Orleans, he went with nutria hunting with some guys. holy crap, i almost fainted seeing them pull up a water-logged critter by the tail.

  15. Simon Smithson says:

    One word, Angela.

    Willard.

    • Angela Tung says:

      first of all: YIKES! that movie poster!

      secondly, that movie seems rife with weirdness, aside from the plot. produced by Bing Crosby, of all people? and then the Ben sequel with theme song sung by Michael Jackson??? now i will have to see the original Willard and possibly the remake with the appropriately creepy Crispin Glover.

  16. Amanda says:

    Rat taste!!! Eeeek!

  17. […] whole yogic free-your-mind thing seems to have eluded her, although she totally gets the notion of being what you most fear […]

  18. […] wrote about my war with rats. Some Frisky readers gave me some […]

  19. I thought the movie was garbage and this poster isn’t really my thing either.

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