Matt Combs, a graduate student and research assistant at Fordham, is spieling a SparkNotes-like summary of his research on Manhattan's rat population as we wait on a subway platform. He tells me that while there is no dearth of rats in Manhattan, there is a lack of concordant study regarding just how un-dearth-like the rat population is. A common narrative claims that there are as many rats as people living in New York City (8.4 million), while a more recent study estimated a population closer to 2 million based on a statistical analysis that combined catch-and-release data and information from 311 calls.
Combs uses some of this data to determine population densities and plans his sampling accordingly, but he is ultimately interested in other findings. "Our research seeks to understand how rats inhabit this environment," he explains, "what makes them more or less successful, and how they travel through a dense urban matrix like Manhattan."
New York is of particular interest for rat studies, so much so that New York's rats have their own Wikipedia page. As Combs tells me, "the city is a novel ecosystem for wildlife, with a unique physical landscape and selection pressures driven by human development and lifestyles."
By observing patterns of genetic connectivity between rat DNA sampled from different parts of the city, scientists at Fordham aim to develop "modeling tools to understand the effects of physical factors, such as subway tunnels and parks, as well as socially derived landscape variables, like average income and human density."
To do this, Combs and company spent much of the summer collecting samples from traps he set throughout the city. But eventually, he discovered a collection method that was, among other things, more efficient.
Cue R.A.T.S., or Ryders Alley Trencherfed Society, a name coined by organizing member Richard Reynolds, the man Combs is taking me to see on Avenue B and 10th St. From there, we'll be hunting rats in Tompkins Square Park with a " trencherfed" pack of terriers kept by Reynolds and his R.A.T.S. compatriots.
When discussing rat numbers, Reynolds is a guy who prefers the poignant ambiguity of a simple "I don't know," with no interest in talking about "statistics whose input is predicated by morons." He's also a guy who discusses things dryly, with a comedic frankness that comes off as erudite. He knows the 311 research's conclusion might be compromised by socioeconomic factors that affect how frequently residents call 311 for assistance with house mice.
He's been approved by the American Kennel Club to judge dog shows, he's been a Master of Foxhounds, a keeper of half a dozen successful dogs certified by the American Working Terrier Association for their earthwork, and he's worked as a senior partner at an investigative financial consulting firm—basically a private detective for white-collar crime. And on nights like tonight, he's a guy who likes to hunt rats with dogs.
Given his background, it doesn't seem like such an eccentric pastime. He's a dog breeder who enjoys hunting. At his age, it makes more sense to take his terriers down to the city from his home in Tenafly, New Jersey, for a night hunt rather than mount a horse and spend all day chasing foxhounds chasing foxes.
Plus, rat hunting is way less bourgeois and more badass than fox hunting, in addition to being less morally concerning for humans and our sympathetic whims. Fox hunting might be more of a well-known pastime, but it's arguably less socially acceptable because humans tend to have a higher regard for foxes than rats, even though foxes aren't supposed to be killed during a fox hunt.
Rats, though, are fair game. This is especially true for R.A.T.S.'s diverse group of ground dogs, selectively bred for the ease with which people can get them to hunt the type of animals we usually call "vermin." Sometimes, Reynolds says, he lets his dogs—like Catcher, the Bedlington he brought with him tonight—chew on frozen rats when they're young to develop a taste for it. Otherwise he takes them out as pups, and around two years of age, they begin to display their genetic knack for the task.
The Bedlington is skilled for both ground work—tracking down and flushing rats out from their underground refuges—and the chase. Meanwhile, the other dogs with us tonight include Paco, a feisty guy best suited for chasing rats once they've been spooked by the terriers: a Westy, a Border terrier, and a Dachshund.
Their predatory pack behavior is endearing, and the carnage is actually kind of cute. In just a few hours, the group nabs six rats, four of which were dealt their final blows by the Westy (aptly named Hunter), a breed that comes just halfway up your shinbone. When a rat is caught, the nearby dogs take turns treating the dying mass like a pair of dirty socks before it's plucked by Combs's latex-gloved fingers from the ground, measured, sampled, and interred in a nearby trash can.
At one point, as Combs weighs two corpses and snips their tails for DNA—one of which marks the milestone 200th collected specimen—Catcher picks the rat up and drops it in front of my feet. The rat's eye is doing that thing that eyes do in horror movies, when they've fallen out of a face but are still attached to the head by some fleshy musculature that you don't want to look at long enough to name.
As you might imagine, our crew provides something of a spectacle for passersby. And m uch like their dogs, the R.A.T.S enjoy the attention. They always describe their mission proudly, especially because there are virtually no objections. Instead, they're used to fielding questions like, "What do you do with the bodies after?" or "Will the dogs get diseases?" or "Good for you for doing this!"
And should any of the spectators be interested in joining the fun, Reynolds tells me that "anybody can come once if they'd like." If, however, you or your dog don't hunt well, you won't be invited back. The only thing that really gets in the way of R.A.T.S. is a lack of organization among hunters. Legally, they're not doing anything wrong; a license is usually needed to conduct other types of hunts, but cops are actually glad to help out by pointing the pack in the right direction.
Whatever the actual population is, it's safe to say that rats are a significant menace and have thrived in dense areas where they are least wanted. This is among the reasons why the research Combs is involved in is so interesting, because it looks at how, despite residents' best efforts, rats continue to subsist and grow at incredibly rapid rates. So much so that each time some people spy one, they swear it must be the biggest they've ever seen.
As the night wears on, the members of R.A.T.S. start to saunter away with their dogs toward the places both creatures comfortably call home. As we say our goodbyes, Reynolds and Bill Reyna, Paco's handler, profess their "tremendous respect" for rats like a pair of all-knowing characters from a Faulkner novel.
R.A.T.S.'s actions here won't affect how well rats live in the city; they're not trying to eliminate the rodents, because then what would they have to hunt? Instead, on two counts—with the involvement of Combs and the groundwork standards they're setting for urban sport hunting with dogs—they're helping us better understand how both animals' genes affect modes of operation in ecologically unique systems.