This Saturday, January 25 is Lunar New Year, when we leave behind the year of the pig—and enter the year of the rat. Specifically, it’s the year of the metal rat. A zodiac year has never felt so appropriate, but it’s up against eons of anti-rat propaganda. Rats are mere vermin; we’re masters of the universe. Rats are disgusting; we yearn to be pure. Rats carry disease; we’re doing a detox. Rats have always been considered lowly. But aren’t we kidding ourselves if we think we’re above them?
In this year of the rat, it’s time for a rat reassessment.
I live in New York, so I am, quite literally, above rats. But I’m also below, next to, and generally surrounded by them, too. In New York, the rat is a constant companion. To walk down the street is to experience rats. To wait for the subway is to experience rats. To enter a building is to enter a fortress, a fortress where the walls may be teeming with rats. We see them. We hear them. Psychologically, we feel them. There they are every morning, promenading on the subway tracks. Busting out of trash bags, jogging along the gutters. Skittering around the edges of an abandoned construction site. Burrowing into the recycling, where they’re licking our pizza boxes clean.
This rat that inspires, the New York City street rat, is usually called a brown rat. It is not a rat that is easily deterred.
It’s the rat that the subway authority, the MTA, has been dosing with medicine to turn them sterile since at least 2013. Is it working? Hard to say; one pair of rat lovers can produce 15,000 offspring in a year. There’s no New York mayor without a special rat policy: In 1997, Rudy Giuliani was spending the city’s millions on rat traps and poisons, a desperate bid to win votes in the neighborhoods that hated him. Michael Bloomberg, mayor of stop-and-frisk, was comparatively soft on rats: he slashed the budget for city pest control in 2010—during the middle of what some said was a rat population boom. Bill de Blasio watched gleefully in 2018 as city workers shoveled dry ice into a rat burrow, part of his $32 million plan “to make the greatest city on Earth the worst place in the world to be a rat.” Last fall, Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams, while announcing a new kind of rat trap the borough was trying out, proudly showed journalists a bucket of rotting rat bodies.
Still, rat sighting reports to the city helpline are only going up. And those are just the people who bothered to call.
In New York, a rat is supposed to signify blight. It’s a failure of infrastructure, of hygiene. This performative rat-killing is supposedly for us. But it’s not clear that New York elites like our poorest human neighbors any more than they do rats. While De Blasio was icing rat burrows and calling for “more rat corpses,” New Yorkers have been pushed out of their own habitations. Over the last decade, the city’s home prices have effectively doubled—a disaster for the 3.5 million New Yorkers working low-wage jobs. It’s no surprise that nearly 80,000 New Yorkers experience homelessness. Last year, nearly 40 percent more unhoused people died than the year before. And meanwhile, another gentrification side effect scampers around our feet: the rats flushed out of their hidey-holes by nonstop construction. New York’s true infestation is speculative real estate.
Can we really accept that this is how it should work? A rat would never.
There’s a story about the rat in Chinese mythology: The rat is the first animal in the zodiac, the beginning of a new 12-year cycle. As legend has it, the Jade Emperor had the animals race to claim their order in the zodiac. The rat knew he could never win, so he hitched a ride with the faster, dumber ox. When they reached the finish line, the rat jumped off the ox and landed in front—winning the race and securing his place.
This year, at least, let’s take a moment to learn from these feisty creatures. Yes, New York rats can be rather greasy. But it’s not their fault. They endure their commute just like us. They grab a slice. They get their kicks. There are uptown rats and there are downtown rats, and the two stay distinct because neither kind likes midtown. Giuliani reviled them, Bloomberg dismissed them, and now they run circles around Bill de Blasio. There’s a reason why the giant, inflatable Scabby the Rat became an icon of union protest, posted outside job sites to say “union-busting within”: rats send a message, from the little guy to the big. Everybody seems to want rats dead, but New York’s endure, two million strong.
I have a confession: In the year of the pig, I kicked a rat. I was walking around Williamsburg after a too-pricey dinner, with a scarf wrapped so tightly around my head and neck I could barely look down. I was swinging my boots blindly along the trash-strewn sidewalk when my foot hit—something. I tripped, nearly fell; I felt a weight on my boot like a big, squirmy beanbag. The beanbag screamed. I screamed. I kicked. It struggled against my ankles, before, finally, dislodging itself and dashing into the street.
This run-in was disturbing, like a look in the mirror at the end of a rough night. But mostly I felt guilty. Who are we to live here, in this place, creating perfect conditions for ratty life, then kicking rats around like it’s not their city too?
You’ve got to give it to rats, the unkillable proletariat of the animal world. They’re always nibbling, always undermining, always moving and reproducing too fast to be stopped. They run and amble, climb and forage. They’re shameless. They’re determined. The rats will find a way. So, this year, let’s think rattier. Let’s find a way to embody their energy: dashing wildly underfoot, too low for our foes to reach.
Madeline Leung Coleman is a writer and editor in Rat Town, USA.