First week back at ITP, and already planning for projects outside. This semester I’m planning to be smart about it. If possible, the non-ITP projects will be supported and informed by the classes I’m taking and colleagues, who have skillz.
Last week I received a call for submission for the iLab residency, which is one of the many offerings of iLand, an arts organization that brings movement practitioners, artists, and scientists together for collaborative projects that deal with the New York City landscape and its inhabitants. I’m friends with Jennifer Monson, the director of iLand, so I’m familiar with the organization. As soon as I read the call, though, something massive clicked into place and I envisioned a project.
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. Currently the Norway rat is the most successful species on the planet second to humans, they live on every continent except Antarctica, and have infested many small islands around the world with disastrous results. What is a day in the life of an NYC rat really like? How do we live with rats? What do they mean to us and how far are we willing to acknowledge them? I want to problematize this ongoing relationship we have with rats, show that it is not so cut-and-dry that they are “evil”. When a species is demonized it makes it very easy to eradicate them. 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.
I am hoping Wildlife Observation Tools class led by Tom Igoe will give me insight into the methods of obtaining behavioral and movement data. Telemetric devices are expensive and I’d like to try building my own. The interest in tracking wild rats in New York City to find out more about their secret social lives when they’re out and about, as well as in the burrow. To this end, I’m eager to figure out if there is a way to attach a video capture device as well.
Current areas of interest/questions:
-Documentation is something I’m thinking about differently than how it is usually done. Part of the project I’m envisioning is an experimental approach to documentation using video and still photography, as well as raw data from tracking devices. How the documenter uses his or her body could be planned or self-directed based on play and animal behavior. I’m imagining something like “authentic documentation”. This is how I work when I document others, so I would probably be deeply involved in the execution of that particular aspect. That said, I’m interested in partnering up with someone who is damn good with cameras for the times I’m otherwise occupied.
-Rats can sometimes get out of collars and chew through harnesses, so I am looking into biodegradable/ingestible glue solutions to affix the tracking devices. That way I don’t have to catch the same rat twice– the device will fall off on its own, and on the off chance the device is found it can be returned. Another option I’m looking into is a harness or collar that has a biodegradable clasp that will cause it to fall off within 7-14 days. Anesthesia is usually a controlled substance. How to trap and anesthetize rats?
-Given the short nature of the study period (a few weeks this summer), a stronger signal with a shorter battery life would seem to make sense. The area I’m going to cover (pending rat movement range assessments) will probably not be very large, but I’m concerned about on-board data storage when the rats go into enclosed areas– I want to be sure that as much in-burrow activity as possible will be stored for logging later when the rat emerges. This is essential for video as well. Is that even possible?
-The Brooklyn Greenway Initiative seems like the right place for this project, given that the Norway rat is not indigenous to New York. I am going to email one of the leaders of the iniative, Meg Fellerath to see if she’d have time to discuss the Greenway in more depth, in terms of sites, permissions, and other ideas. She is interested in having one of the two iLab residency projects take place on the Greenway.
-I am planning to collaborate with an urban wildlife specialist or New York wildlife historian, a programmer, a rodent-specialized veterinarian, a technologist who knows about tracking devices, and maybe others, or people who know about more than one area mentioned above (multi-taskers). Since the residency is aimed at producing collaborations, I am not thinking about an end product just yet. I’m eager to get other people on board so the project can evolve and take a more well-rounded, solid shape in reality.
I have been in touch with some rat scientists and companies that produce telemetric tracking devices. Email responses to follow in a later post.