This week, we’re fishing up stories about urban animals of all species.
The big thing I remember about rat fishing is how, after you got over the weirdness of the enterprise, it felt a lot like regular fishing.
The story went like this: For three years in the early 1990s, an East Baltimore bar called the Yellow Rose Saloon, now defunct, sponsored a “rat fishing tournament,” with participants using light fishing tackle to catch live rats in the alley behind the bar. The lines were baited with bacon and peanut butter; the rats, once hooked, were set upon by men with baseball bats and beaten to death. After a weekend of this, whoever reeled in the heaviest rodent was declared the winner. I forget what the prize was.
The organizers of this event were sort-of trying to draw attention to decaying conditions in their neighborhood, and it sort-of worked; animal rights protesters and news crews swiftly descended, and the contest went 90’s-style viral. By 1995 the New York Times was obliged to weigh in. There’s a YouTube video, of course. Chuck Ochlech, the lead instigator of the thing, told a reporter that the mayor called him and begged him to call off the contest, which was the sort of brutal and squalid spectacle that Baltimore was trying to unburden itself of in the 1990s.
I covered the tourney in ’94, which was the last year they used actual hooks. (Bowing to demands from authorities, the fisherpeople thenceforth flung baited glue traps, which seemed less effective.) As part of my reporting, I took a turn with a rod and tried my luck. The whole thing was pretty medieval and objectionable, but, it must be said, not without its sporting elements. The trick, I was told, was to set the hook in the rat’s teeth, since otherwise it would just rip out. Rats are a lot wilier than fish, however, and it took patience to wait for one to grab the glob of bacon. I failed to land the big one. But when I did manage to briefly get one on the line, the effect was weirdly thrilling, in the same way that a largemouth bass strike is—you feel this direct, kinetic connection between you and a desperate, fleeing creature; the predator drive is awakened, and for an electric moment, human-world and rat-world are one.
Rats may be among the most familiar and least beloved of the wildlife that thrive in urban spaces, but they are hardly alone in their rekindled willingness to claim cities as their own. As sport hunting has declined and rural areas have emptied out, cities worldwide are seeing a resurgence of charismatic predators like bears, bobcats and coyotes, the latter of which occasionally emerge from the shadows to thrill New Yorkers and are now common in the greater Chicago area (where some lawmakers have encouraged their return, noting that they keep the rats in check). Other urban animals are of the domestic nature: They arrive invited, ride public transit in little bags, and demand their own infrastructure.
This week, CityLab will be rounding up stories about all kinds of city-dwellers, from pigeons and crows and bugs to dogs, deer, and horses. Urban interactions with creatures great and small can be sources of wonder and horror, but they are also important reminders that the human-engineered environments we have temporarily imposed upon the planet are not ours exclusively: The urban ecosystem is just that, an ecosystem. There’s a transgressive thrill in certain encounters with urban wildlife, simply because we’re convinced that they’re not supposed to be here. But life, famously, finds a way. When we marvel or gripe about a species “invading” the city, whether it’s the mountain lions that haunt Los Angeles or the wild boars besieging Rome, we sometimes forget who the true invaders are.
Coming home after dark, I’ll often come face-to-face with one of my neighborhood’s many foxes, another species that has adapted to city life with startling success (one U.K. city has an estimated 23 foxes per square kilometer). The fox tends to use the sidewalk on his evening rounds, and he doesn’t seem particularly furtive about it anymore. When we meet, we might freeze for a moment and exchange startled looks, each of us wondering the same thing before we go about our mutual business: What are you doing here?