Rats on Rat Island, correspondence with Carolyn Kurle, PhD
Skimming the internets looking for whatever I can feast my eyes on, I found this crazy paper written by Carolyn Kurle, a researcher in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at UC, Santa Cruz. Written in 2003 it’s an account of her fieldwork in the Aleutian Islands, trying to establish the impact of invasive species (Norway rat, same as what we have in NYC) on intertidal flora and fauna (crabs, algae, seabirds). Her conclusion is that the invasive rat species, while not entirely destructive, has decimated a large swath of the native species and steps should be taken to eradicate them. It’s not named Rat Island for nothing.
Interestingly, rats have been successfully eradicated from over 240 islands worldwide to preserve native wildlife. I guess that’s one way to make-up for the problems we cause with our own migration… I downloaded the paper from her website, read it and emailed her with questions pertaining to my NYC rat project. Her enthusiastic response is below. I sent a follow up, also below, and will update this post with further correspondences.
Dear Miss Kurle,
My name is Arturo Vidich and I am a graduate student at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. I am embarking on a project to track wild rats in New York City with the aim of gaining insight into their secret social lives when they’re in the burrow, as well as out and about. This project will be funded (hopefully) by iLand arts residency and other funding bodies I’m currently researching. Your studies on Rat Island caught my attention as I was researching tracking devices.
I would be very interested to hear more about the specific processes by which you managed to trap, anesthetize, and affix tracking devices to wild rats. Furthermore, I’d love to know more about the hardware/software you used to aid in tracking and data logging. Collecting data via GMS or less robust methods of telemetry (2.4Gz RF mesh network modules such as Xbee Series 2) might be viable options. I am currently in the market for some collaborators, including programmer/web developer, exotics veterinarian or field scientist equivalent, documentary artist, and electronics guru. If you know of anyone off-hand who is local (New York City), and might be interested in this project, please let me know.
As you are well aware, the Norway rat is not indigenous to New York. They were brought over on ships from Europe centuries ago, landed on multiple sites along the waterfront and planted themselves quite successfully. This project is not meant to be an exclusively scientific endeavor– there will be some sort of artistic output that take a closer look into the lives of these long-stigmatized immigrants of the New York underworld through the lenses of wildlife tracking science, and literary or cultural metaphor as movement and text.
Please respond at your convenience. Thank you.
Your project sounds really interesting and I like the component of art in your study. It’s always good to mix disciplines and mixing some good old fashioned ecological monitoring with a potential art project sounds really promising.
I did put small radio tracking devices on rats and it was really hard to track them and I didn’t find out much about their behavior. First, you have to catch them and anesthetize them to put the radio tracker on and that was difficult. It was hard to anesthetize them enough to get them to stay asleep while I epoxyed the tracker to their back without anesthetizing them too much so that they died. I ended up capturing them in sherman traps (medium cages) and then sticking the whole cage and rat into a big dry bag (the kind of bag you’d get at REI to carry your camera equipment or something else precious in to keep it dry) with cotton balls soaked in isofluorane which is an anesthetic. The rats would go to sleep and I’d have to work on them with their head still in the bag or else they’d wake up.
The better method for finding out what the rats were doing was to sit on the beach (we were in the Aleutian Islands in the middle of nowhere) with night vision binoculars and watch them. We were totally surrounded by rats fighting, running, and foraging for food and it was extremely cool to watch them go about their business through the night vision binoculars. It wasn’t creepy at all because when you’re out in nature, the rats just seem like any other wildlife creature (say a squirrel or chipmunk) and they had no interest in us because they hadn’t learned to associate us with anything related to food or harm, etc. as there are no residents on the islands I worked on. I think it would be creepier to sit in an alley in NY and do the same thing.
Have you read that book by Robert Sullivan called Rats: A Year with New York’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants? It’s here: http://www.amazon.com/Rats-Year-Yorks-Unwanted-Inhabitants/dp/1862077614
That might give you some insights.
Finally, Dr. Kate McFadden is a professor and conservation ecologist at Columbia University and she might be interested in your project. She’s got a lot of experience trapping small mammals and she’s one of my best friends. Her email address is: k————-
Good luck and let me know if you end up with a final product at some point. I’d be interested to see what turns up.
Also, there are folks doing a special on the World Without Rats and they have been contacting me lately about working on that. You can email them.
Here’s a copy of an email they sent me:
[removed for privacy]
Thank you for such a speedy and enthusiastic response! I really appreciate it. I’m glad you are into the art aspects of this project– mixing disciplines just makes everything richer. I co-direct a non-profit arts organizations that advocates just that (it’s www.culturepush.org in case you’re interested. We run symposia and other events that bring together creative minds from diverse backgrounds for lateral exchange of knowledge).
I have experience with isofluorane, which was the anesthetic of choice at the veterinary clinic I worked at for 2 years. It’s a good anesthetic, but it is harder to regulate the animal’s sedation using that than with desfluorane, which is more expensive. I imagine that working in the field with limited resources must have been a challenge. The soaked cotton balls are a great tip. Given what my vet friends have access to isofluorane will probably be the #1 choice, though I have yet to research the limits of use within NY State law (I believe it’s controlled).
If you have a moment, could you let me know which tracking devices you used and where you got them? I’m considering building my own to cut costs. Night vision goggles are not that hard to make. Observation is a great suggestion.
I just ordered the book you recommended. Having had many pet rats as a kid I’m not grossed out at all, even by wild NYC rats. That’s probably because my family never had problems with infestation. Again, thank you for the resources, I’ll get cracking on correspondence, and I will keep you in the loop as interesting developments arise.