Rats have a rough life in the Big Apple. They are feared, even hated. In many subway stations there are signs warning people to be careful because rat poison has been sprayed in the area. A few months ago, I walked into a subway station and watched a rat that must have been about three quarters of a foot long just walk around as though he owned the place — with no problem. That was not the case last Friday, when people in Penn Station proved that even though we have passed the time of the gladiators, the mentality has not left us.

I was in Penn Station last Friday as I was traveling to Princeton Junction to visit my mother and stepfather for the weekend. There was a little bit of a commotion as I entered the station but I dismissed it, thinking people were just rushing to get to their train. This turned out not to be the case, however. There was a small group of people that kept on moving about with no particular direction and a few of them seemed really upset for no apparent reason.

Eventually it became clear enough why people were getting agitated and it came in the form of one person yelling out, “There’s a rat!”

As soon as that person yelled out that there was a rat, the real panic began. It took me a few minutes to identify the actual location of the rat. People kept on pointing and screaming at the rat as though it were a bomb that was ready to detonate. At this point things really started to get ugly.

One or two people went to a police officer that was on duty and said something to him — probably to tell him to please do something about the rat that was running around terrorizing people. One person, then a few, and then more and more people started yelling out at the police officer — for him to kill the rat. “Kill that thing!” one woman shrieked. The police officer picked up one of the signs with its large weighted base and started chasing the rat around.

As the officer followed the rat, people started to gather towards the officer and rat and cheered him on, encouraging him with rather vitriolic language to destroy this foul rat. I shuddered as I wondered what would happen to me if I were to lunge forward with a suggestion to try to relocate the rat, or to perhaps try to kill the rat in a more humane way if at all possible than a large weighted sign base.

I thought of the story of Aaron, brother of Moses, who attempted to quell a large crowd that wanted a replacement deity rather than wait one more day for Moses to come down the mountain — he feared that if he didn’t give in to their requests, he would be savagely murdered. I did not want to be brutally beaten — verbally or otherwise — in my attempt to find a little bit of humanity for the sake of the rat who probably was just out and about looking for a snack.

The rat eventually made its way into an elevator, where the police officer — with increasingly loud excited cries for blood from the Penn Station Arena — cornered the rat. The rat, incidentally, could not have been longer than the average handsbreadth of an adult male. This was not the sort of rat you would see dancing around the stage during The Nutcracker Suite.

The police officer raised the sign nearly over his head and brought down the base on the rat. He must not have been satisfied because he proceeded to do this at least three or four more times. When the rat fully stopped moving, I was expecting some kind of applause from the Arena but there was none — people just stopped looking and went back to doing what they were doing as though nothing had happened.

The intercom in Penn Station buzzed and a request was made for a cleanup crew. A simple cleanup crew, as though somebody had accidentally dropped their milkshake and needed a good mopping rather than the horrific bloodshed that actually took place. The manner in which the crowd went from frenzied to pacified was astonishing, like a piranha swimming peacefully after satisfying its bloodlust.

I stood there, perhaps ten feet away, shaking in disgust and anger. I didn’t know what to do but took a few pictures on my iPhone that you’ve seen here.  Sorry they didn’t turn out particularly well, most likely due to the fact that I was trying not to be too obvious about taking them and risking the wrath of another madding crowd.

When I got to my mother’s house, I tried explaining what had happened to my mother and stepfather but they had no sympathy whatsoever for the rat. They said that it deserved to die and that rats carried diseases and infected people. I wasn’t sure how better to express that there are different ways to remove a rat but I certainly failed to communicate it to them.

When I lived in Seattle, I knew a few people who actually owned rats as pets and they were some of the most adorable, quirky, fun loving little critters. They would probably be even more horrified than I was at the behavior of the officer and the crowd — perhaps they may have even stepped up to the defense of the animals, feeling a stronger connection to them.

It’s interesting how people can easily make the distinction between animals which are adorable and cuddly and therefore should not be killed and animals which are disgusting and therefore should be exterminated. I don’t feel that I am qualified to make this sort of distinction.

Every year people publish articles about the horrors of animals that are eaten in “exotic” countries — they cannot bring themselves to believe that there are people who have no problem eating cats — but these same people have no qualms sitting down to a nice Thanksgiving meal of turkey, bison, and many other animals that are not nearly as cuddly or cute as a cat.


  1. This is a great article, Gordon! Your empathy and passion shine through. Can you explain more about the Aaron story and why that stopped you from getting involved rather than stepping forward?
    The rat was more terrified than the people. If it had been offered a safe escape, I certain nobody would’ve ever seen it again in Penn Station: Rat Lesson Learned.
    I guess we should be thankful the police officer didn’t use his gun! One clean shot, however, would’ve been a much more humane end.
    It was a good thing you were there to document the crowd mentality in images and their want, nay need, to kill. When their bloodlust was met — they were able to continue on with their lives… which is sadly what they should’ve done in the first place.

  2. I guess I saw all of them and one of me and thought, I’m in the super unpopular minority here! In the Aaron story he knew that he was the sole voice of reason and that the people were so worked up that they could kill him! I’m very curious as to why they don’t have humane traps at every mta station given the abundance of rats. Tells you where they stand on the grand pecking order!

  3. I wonder if they didn’t use the gun because of “safety” reasons — or didn’t want to start a panic in the crowd from the loud sound a gun inherently makes. I hope no child was scarred from the incident. I know I was.

  4. You’re right that they could not use a gun and the cop probably did the only possible thing available when dealing with a frightened crowd of people.

  5. Wow. So much fireworks just for a rat. It reminded me of a proverb in my language – “…firing a machinegun to kill a mosquito…”…
    I belong to a tropical village and there is a small river pretty close to our house. We used to see all kinds of weird creatures crawling in our backyard. I remember having a 5 ft long, adult, king cobra (I am serious, Gordon!) as a guest once. My father noticed it first in the yard at night, he was naturally petrified and called our neighbors as he was clueless about what to do with it. The cobra was even more scared with all the hoopla made by our neighbors and it took shelter behind a couple of huge flower tubs we had there. All our neighbors wanted it dead and was planning for the required “ammunition”…it was one of my uncles who wanted to find a way to get the snake back to the river and it was the “little me” who kept on crying saying “…don’t hit it, let it go…”
    Finally, my uncle and I won. It was almost close to a rocket science to plan a safe escape for the grand cobra without being beaten but that’s a different story.
    Feel for the poor rat, a clean gun shot would have been more humane indeed.

  6. Great proverb, Katha, and great story! I’m glad you and your uncle won out in the end!

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