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On the trail of those dirty rats

Robert Sullivan says they're vile. So why does he pay so much attention to them?

April 28, 2004|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

A man in a black Brooks Brothers suit walks the alleys of downtown Beverly Hills. It's after 9 and things are pretty much shut down, the clothing stores, the smoothie parlors. The man could be on his way to or from a fancy dinner -- with his floral print shirt and matching tie, with his natty square cuff links. He could be scouting movie locations or walking off an unsuccessful date. That might explain why occasionally he kicks a dumpster.

But it doesn't.

"This is great," he says, peering down a tributary alley behind a restaurant. "Oh yeah, this is great." His gaze traces the roofline, taking in the power lines, the maze of pipes that lattice the brick wall, his smile broadening at the sight of the open dumpsters. "Smell that?" he says, breathing in the rotting garbage, the rusty stagnant water. "Yeah," he says again, "this could be our place. Only," he says, suddenly disappointed, "no palm trees."

Robert Sullivan is looking for rats. Specifically, the black rat or roof rat. Even more specifically, the Beverly Hills palm-tree-dwelling roof rat. Sullivan has just written and published a book called "Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants." The book is doing very well, considering the high repulsion factor of its subject. Sullivan, who has a talent for presenting a lot of information in a very engaging manner, has gotten very good reviews and a fair amount of airplay, including here in Los Angeles. But the book is set in New York, and so are the rats. Sullivan has never seen an L.A. rat and he really, really wants to.

Los Angeles rats are very different from New York rats. New York rats are the fat, mean and ugly brown rat, or Norwegian rat. Los Angeles has some Norwegian rats who came West via the railroad and can be found mostly downtown, but the dominant species here is the black rat, sometimes called the ship rat because it arrived, along with many other unpleasant things, when Europeans discovered the coastline.

Black rats are sleek and graceful; they like to live in high places like attics and trees, to do a little traveling, though more often alone than in teeming ratty hordes. Black rats tend to have a healthy diet, eating fruits and vegetables whenever they can, which, given the state of L.A. backyards, is often. Their tails are quite long and slender.

Norwegian rats, on the other hand, are big and lumpy. They prefer subterranean living and garbage, especially cheesy stuff found behind Italian restaurants. Beyond the requisite alley scrambling, often shoulder to shoulder with lots of other rats, they are pretty sedentary, which may explain the weight problem.

To some, this pretty much sums up the difference between Los Angeles and New York. For Sullivan, it is just darn exciting to be in a place that has both strains of rats. The two do not always coexist easily; in New York, the brown rats drove the black rats out more than 200 years ago.

"This is a crossroads of history," he had told a small group of people at Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore earlier that evening, gesturing with his hands like someone who has just been presented with a wonderful birthday cake. They smiled back, more at his boyish enthusiasm perhaps than the information he was sharing. Boyish enthusiasm is pretty much a prerequisite for a job that involved leaving his wife and two children most evenings for a year and hanging out in a particularly ratty New York alley; Sullivan has it in spades.

On his mind

At 41, Sullivan is a successful freelance journalist who has written two other well-received books, "The Meadowlands" and "A Whale Hunt." The first book is about sifting through the old New Jersey swamp, ostensibly to find Jimmy Hoffa. (He didn't find Hoffa, but he did unearth many other interesting things, including the remnants of the old Penn Station.) In fact, with his fair expressive face and short hair, Sullivan looks very much like the kind of kid who could spend all summer poking through an old dump with a stick.

But he wants people to know he is not some weird rat lover. "I just want you to know," he says by way of introduction, "that I do think rats are vile and disgusting." But still, he cannot stop talking about them, thinking about them, looking for them.

When he recently interviewed Ben Stiller in Paris for Vogue, Sullivan found himself prowling the alleys, looking under dumpsters. A few weeks ago, he went ratting in Chicago, where he found a surprisingly large rabbit population. "A year with the rats makes you look at things differently," he says. "Squirrels, for instance -- rodent, essentially a rat with a fluffy tail. Rabbits -- again better tail and the ears, but still, rodent."

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