Of Rats and Men

Jon Orbach

A vigilante team of humans and terriers has been tormenting Manrattan’s rodent population for 30 years. But what’s their goal?

Transcript

ORBACH 1: It’s 1 a.m., you haven’t eaten dinner and you’ve just witnessed 26 rats die, each in a separate but equally violent confrontation. That was my Friday night. But I’ll get there in a second. 

((MUSIC!!!!))

If you’ve spent any amount of time in New York City, you know: Rats are everywhere. In dumpsters, in sewers; in ceilings and walls; above us and below us; on the subway and at Subway. Studies suggest there are about 2 million of them among us in the city.

And while I don’t like them, I don’t go around systematically killing them at regular intervals with a cabal of hunter and terrier friends in the Lower East Side. I leave that for a certain sect of society.

((Sound: Yo, they’re all in here. They’re all in here. Yo, get your dogs here.))

ALEX 1: I’ve seen rats ripped in half probably 100 times. That’s pretty fucking wild. I’ve grabbed a rat by the tail off a fence so that the dog could crush its head. I’ve stepped on a rat’s tail and stopped it from running and then the dog got it. 

ORBACH 2: Yeah, this group is no joke. It’s called Rhyders Alley Trencher-fed Society, or RATS for short. It’s a handful of people who take their dogs to hunt rats in Manhattan. It all started 30 years ago when Richard Reynolds, the team’s talisman, was scouted by a park superintendent after he got his terrier to kill a rat.

Richard was kind enough to let me spend a Friday night with RATS as their beloved pets indulged their primal instincts. I spent about 3 hours with the group, starting at 10 p.m., as they encircled the Baruch Houses, tall public housing buildings in the Lower East Side. 

((Sound: Drop. Now. NOW. Good boy. It’s dead bro, its head is like a fucking pancake)

ORBACH 3: Here’s what they do: They hop fences, slide behind shaky gates, open dumpsters, drop the dogs into dumpsters and kick over trash bins, leaving rats scurrying for their precious lives as their loved ones die by bite. 

((Sound: Come in and close that gate))

ORBACH 4: I’d somehow never hunted rats before, so it was all a bit of a shock. I saw some pretty weird shit. Like that one time… .

ORBACH 5: No way! There’s a rat in the tree? (Yeah) Always?!

ORBACH 6: Yeah, there was a rat in a tree. I didn’t even know they could do that. Or that time when a different rat, moments before losing its short life, darted right at me.

ORBACH 7: Here’s a rat running right at me. Holy shit the rat. Wild dash.

ORBACH 8: Perhaps the most unsettling moment of the evening, though, came at the end. Imagine a bunch of athletes playing tug of war. 

((SOUND: Here, get the microphone, hear its fucking head. Watch.)) 

Yeah. Now swap the hands for dogs’ fangs and the rope they’re fighting over for a moribund rat. These are everyday scenes for RATS veterans.

REYNOLDS 1: Until you have been attacked by a one-pound critter coming at you with the firm belief that it can kill you, you haven’t really seen a New York City rat yet. 

ORBACH 9: That’s Richard. And while he’s a dog show judge and trainer by day, his team gives him a lot of credit for his nighttime gig.

ALEX 2: He’s the most legit dude for this, of like rat hunting. 

ORBACH 10: Is he the most legit in the world do you think?

ALEX 3: I don’t know a lot about overseas, but I would say in North America for sure. Like on this side of the planet, for sure.

JIMMY 1: Yo don’t get it twisted he’s the only motherfucker on the East Coast, straight up // East Coast is Rich. Nobody else is fucking with rats in this country. There’s two groups, no real talk. 

ORBACH 11: Yeah, no, I believe you…

ORBACH 12: Richard has a gray beard and is deaf in one ear. He can sometimes be found without suspenders but never without his signature beret. Beyond seniority and style, though, Richard and I have one stark difference. And it’s kind of surprising. 

REYNOLDS 2: I like rats. 

ORBACH 13: He likes rats. 

REYNOLDS 3: I breed rats. We breed a special type of rat to train the dogs with. We have people that support us and have hunted with us that keep rats for pets in their living room and knit them little hammocks.

ORBACH 14: Little rat hammocks. 

REYNOLDS 4: Rats that are pets are basically lab rats, and they have genes that affect their temperament. They’re not aggressive. They can be tamed. You can pet them, you can sit them on your shoulder, you can play kissy face with them. The street rat will just as soon kill you as look at you.

ORBACH 15: But when the group isn’t playing kissy face, it’s playing killy face. But Richard insists his rat-killing initiative is all about the dogs. 

ORBACH 16: Why is rat hunting so important to you? What, what’s so bad about rats in the city? 

REYNOLDS 5: Nothing. It’s not about rats. It’s about the dogs. // Most of our dogs are bred to do this. The genes are in their blood to control vermin. And if you see how happy the dogs are, and how eager they are to do this, you’ll understand why we do it. We want to entertain these mutts.

ORBACH 17: It must be said, though: A lot of it seemed to be for the humans. 

JIMMY 4: Yo after all that. Yoooo. What the fuck? (what just happened Jimmy?) That was the fucking rundown of the fuckin century.  Good boy. Drop. NOW. Holy shit, what a motherfucking rundown.

ORBACH 18: Between the competition among hunters, the photos taken throughout and the big base of fans both abroad and at the projects, there was a lot of spectacle to the whole thing. 

RESIDENT: I wish they’d come every day.

ORBACH 18.5: As the night ended, the team emptied its backpack. Can you guess what was inside? 

BILL 1: 470!

ORBACH 19: Could you describe what you’re doing, Bill? 

BILL 2: We’re weighing them. 

ORBACH 20: The 26 dead rats they’d collected over the course of the evening. 

BILL 3: And we weigh them in grams mainly for our European fans.

ORBACH 21: He’s putting a clip onto one of the feet of the rat, etc.

BILL 4: 390, that’s a lightweight.

ORBACH 22: After he weighed every critter, Bill, the multitasking photographer, set up a timer on his DSLR for the whole squad of hunters and their owners to take a photo. With all of their rats lined up on the floor, one after another.  

While it might seem like a public service, and indeed many residents seem to appreciate it, RATS’ purpose and impact seem  unclear. If the numbers are right, and there are 2 million rats in the city, killing 25 of them a week accomplishes… well, basically nothing. The only clarity I came away with was the passion behind every member there. One had driven 3 hours one way just for this. Some do this every week. 

So, if it’s not about the rats, and it’s only partly about the dogs, then what’s the point? The sense of community? The thrill of chasing down a rodent and seeing it get torn apart? I’m not really sure, but hey, at least it’s just rats they hunt.  

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