6 Creepy Realities Of The (Shockingly Real) Rat Hunting Game
When you hear the word "ratcatcher" you probably picture a character from a Charles Dickens novel. Instead, you should be picturing people like Richard Reynolds, leader of the Ryders Alley Trencher-Fed Society (or R.A.T.S. for short), who hunts rodents in New York using terriers and dachshunds. We reached out to Reynolds to learn more about his artisanal approach to pest control, and he told us that ...
Ratcatching Isn't Just For Exterminators
Nothing important ever goes away -- it just evolves -- and today the tradition of ratcatching lives on through professional exterminators and amateur rat-hunting groups that prefer to use well-trained canines instead of poison.
An adorable weapon for a more civilized age.
Reynolds explains: "The Ryders Alley Trencher-Fed Society hunts throughout the five boroughs of New York City, and there is another fellow that hunts his dogs on farms in and around the California Wine Country. All of these groups are bound by a common interest in working with terriers, dachshunds, lurchers, and long dogs. All of them use diverse breeds of dogs for their hunts."
There are apparently also several active ratcatching organizations in the United Kingdom, which, according to Reynolds, mainly hunt rats on "farms, pheasant shoots, rubbish tips, and other rural sites" with the speed and efficiency of mafia hitmen. In 2005, one British ratting group harvested 407 rats in just a few hours. A year earlier, a Cornwall group visited another farm and killed over 2,000 rats with just 10 terriers.
"Who's a bloodthirsty boy? You are! Yes you are!"
But believe it or not, the members of R.A.T.S. and other ratcatchers out there are all huge animal lovers, particularly and especially of dogs that have been bred for hundreds of years for the sole purpose of killing vermin. In fact ...
The Hunt Also Does The Dogs Some Good
Despite the appearance of corgis and Chihuahuas, all dogs descend from some of the finest four-legged killing machines nature can produce. And that killer instinct is still inside every pooch, as is the desire of some breeds to annihilate rodents.
"Many breeds were developed to ensure prowess at vermin control while serving other purposes as hunting or farm dogs," Reynolds told us. "Little or no thought was given to beauty or aesthetics at a cost of function. Many of those standards and the elements within them survive to the present day."
It's subtle, but it's there if you look closely.
When R.A.T.S. goes on one of their hunts, they don't "sic" their animals on the rats. They just let them investigate places where rats are known to congregate and let nature take its course. You can criticize ... if you don't mind sounding like a vegan complaining that their cat still refuses to eat tofu. Which, just like keeping a dachshund or a terrier from hunting rats, is bad for the animal's mental and physical health.
"There are tests that may serve as preliminary indicators of a dog's success at rat hunting," Reynolds explains, "but the extensive pursuit of these artificial situations will eventually reduce the ability of a good working terrier or dachshund, because they are the diametric opposite of the behavior you seek for live hunting. Almost no dogs that are proficient at live hunting are any good at the tests."
"I was literally born for this. Let's go."
According to Reynolds, "Rat-hunting is about 50 percent instinct and 50 percent training. Most dogs want to catch the critter but need to learn how to go about it safely and efficiently. That learning curve may extend for weeks, months, or even years before they get it perfected. The dogs are trained to hunt by scent and only to hunt certain quarry (rats) while ignoring other tempting species like mice, squirrels, chipmunks, and other rodents" -- presumably to ensure they don't maul some guy dressed up like Dale from Rescue Rangers.
Ratcatching Is Not Without Peril
"Although R.A.T.S. takes every precaution possible, including carrying emergency supplies and being accompanied by a veterinarian or veterinary technician, the safety of the dogs is always at stake," Reynolds explains. All the dangers of the mean streets of New York are there during a hunt, including traffic, poison bait stations, diseases, construction sites, unsafe buildings, and even attacks by the rats themselves. And when it is needed, help can be hard to come by.
"My major scare came when we had a new Jack Russell terrier out with us for the first time," Reynolds said. "There was new construction going on, and in New York that can involve an excavation up to 100 feet deep. As it was, the JRT hit the ground running and picked up visual on a rat almost immediately, but then they both disappeared into a narrow opening between the excavation and a newly constructed cement wall. The space they went into was about 14 inches in width and, as it turned out, 35 feet deep."
245 in dog feet.
Thankfully, the dog was fine (and still chasing the rat), but then came the task of getting it out of the hole. The group tried borrowing a ladder from the construction site but they were told to piss off because they were technically trespassing. "Having cellphones, we called the fire department for assistance. 'No' -- they wouldn't handle that sort of thing. We called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. 'Sorry, we have no manpower nor equipment for such a thing.' The police department? 'Not our job.'"
"Although, hang on, this means that your dog is off its leash, right?
Stay there -- we'll send someone over to write you a ticket."
Help finally arrived in the form of a cruising police team who turned out to be huge animal lovers. Fortunately, the group found a small access point to where the dog had fallen and managed to get her out, but it wasn't a complete happy ending: The rat got away. The dog was depressed for weeks.
Ratcatching Also Benefits Science
In 2015, biologists at Fordham University were studying rat control and migration in New York using state-of-the-art DNA analysis. Unfortunately, they required so many samples that, short of posting a classified ad for a freelance Pied Piper, it just wasn't practical. Then the scientists recruited R.A.T.S. and their dogs ...
Which technically makes this a contract killing.
Reynolds explains: "The biologists with whom we worked initially thought it an easy task to set live traps for rats, catch them, and dispatch them humanely, according to required scientific protocol, in order to obtain their DNA samples. Their return rate for their traps was about 4 percent, meaning that for every 100 traps they set, baited, and checked, they obtained only four usable samples."
Enter R.A.T.S., whose 18th-century methods of ratcatching were simpler, cheaper, and didn't corrupt the specimens. The cooperation reportedly quadrupled the number of the scientists' rat samples.
And made the collection only 50 percent more terrifying.
"The DNA results will serve to identify families of rats in New York," says Reynolds, "then localize their breeding ground and track rat migration through the city. All of this may lead to targeted vermin control and the eventual management of New York City's most unwelcome inhabitants."
Well, aside from tourists.
It Brings The Entire Neighborhood Together
"Bystanders and passersby are frequent and universally favorable," Reynolds told us. "We have never had much criticism in public. Public reaction ranges from a squeamish 'Ewwwwwww' to more than a few standing ovations from large crowds when major colonies are taken out. If the people have a dog, they want to try, and we always let them have a go at it under controlled conditions. Many ask that we come to their neighborhood."
R.A.T.S. also has done a bit of community service by bringing food and drink for the local homeless population, who absolutely love them. Not just for the food but also for reducing the number of things they have to worry about every day from "a shitload" to "a shitload, but now thankfully without the rats."
It's amazing how much we take not having to fight off diseased rodents for granted.
And the homeless show their appreciation. As Reynolds explains: " actually scout rat movements and heavy infestations for us. They are our intelligence network. One homeless guy, Linwood, is actually a computer genius and assembles major machines from units that companies discard. He taps power from a nearby light pole and sets up shop outside some commercial WiFi zone. I find it difficult to convince the world that my knowledge of NYC rats comes from a homeless guy that uses the Internet."
All right, how in the hell hasn't this story been sold as a kick-ass sequel to Willard?
Rats Are Amazing Creatures
R.A.T.S. operates in New York because that's where the rats have lived for centuries.
"The lowest estimate of rats in the city is 2 million, while the highest is one rat for every person . Consider the numbers: A doe rat comes into 'season' every three days, has a gestation period of 21 days, and then has a litter of 10 to 12, about 90 percent of which survive to weaning. The young are capable of reproducing at five weeks of age, and reproduce they do. Beginning with a single pair of rats today, you could have 24,000 rats on this date next year."
Their sheer numbers are just one of the reasons why Reynolds feels his group was never very significant in the grand scheme of rat control. The other reason is that rats straight-up have superpowers.
Aside from gangbanging.
"The rats themselves are an amazing animal," Reynolds said, kind of reminding us of Patton talking about Rommel. "A brown rat's sense of smell can detect contaminants in its food as low as two parts per million. This very fact is what makes rats difficult to trap or poison. Moreover, a full grown rat at 17 inches long, weighing a pound can fit through an opening a half-inch wide, roughly the space between its ears."
Then again, the part about rats being able to smell poison a mile away almost feels like overkill, considering that they seem to be immune to most toxins. "We see some of that immunological resistance in the lack of efficacy of a Warfarin (a common poison) derivative on rats that live where it is heavily used." Thankfully, the rats still haven't developed immunity to the jaws of an excited terrier.
Despite years of continuous "vaccination."
Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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