While recession, foreclosure, and crumbling urban infrastructure grate on us humans, there's one pretty smart mammal who's living the life of Riley right now: the sewer rat.
American cities are on the verge of a rat invasion, warns small-mammal biologist and self-described "rat pack" member Dale Kaukeinen (in college "all the good animals were taken," he says) in a new study. And redemption, it turns out, is both personal and political.
"The problem of rats is just a symptom of a declining and weakening infrastructure, and it's one of the more visible symptoms of depressed cities struggling to face their problems," says Mr. Kaukeinen in an interview.
Partly to blame are politicians' budgetary choices, the economy, and, yes, even greenie environmentalists who propose wide-open green spaces that, it turns out, usually evolve into urban versions of a Sandals resort for rats.
But 162-year-old Atlanta, the city too busy to hate anybody but rats, shot up the ranks to No. 2. A glimpse into why indicates that the plight of those yellow-toothed rodents are closely intertwined with the politics of the day.
The study took into account dozens of environmental, demographic, economic, and political factors, including budgetary priorities. Turns out that rat-friendly Atlanta has one of the highest poverty rates (20 percent) and highest foreclosure rates (five times the national average).
And Atlantans are paying attention. In its mayoral race, one frontrunner's main campaign promise is combatting foreclosure-related blight, which has increased as budgets have been gutted, city finances mismanaged, and building inspectors fired.
Sure, Hollywood likes rats. So do political commentators. Fox News' Glenn Beck recently described White House "regulatory czar" Cass Sunstein as "a man that believes that you should not be able to remove rats from your home if it causes them any pain. Rats could attack us in the sewer and court systems if all of Cass Sunstein's writings became law."
Perhaps more worrying than Mr. Sunstein's concerns for rat welfare is news that scientists have found a way to make rats smarter. (The bumpersticker version: "My rat is smarter than YOU!") Read all about it here.
Even at their current levels of intelligence, rats deserve our respect, says Kaukeinen.
"He's not too big, not too tiny; he's got a good set of teeth and good eyes, good hearing, and he can live in very warm and very cold places," he says. "He's not afraid of people, eats almost anything. They're wild animals, but we don't have to go to the jungle to see them, but just into our own backyards."
Throughout civilized history, the rat has represented a mirror for urban existence, a gauge by which to judge the health, prosperity, and general welfare of cities.
Barring political response and better economic times, Kaukeinen sees a self-reliant counter-revolution to any future rat invasion.
"In an era of dwindling city resources, people are going to have to roll up their sleeves and [rat-proof their properties] on their own," he says.
Or just get a cat. Just not this one.
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