Harvard University unleashes plague of rats

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On Monday, the Boston Herald reported that Brighton, an area near Harvard University, is suffering from a huge rat problem. According to residents, the school's "big dig" -- a huge building construction project -- has unleashed a flood of "giant" rodents that have taken over the neighborhood, raiding trash cans, frightening residents, and inspiring dark talk of lawsuits.

Rats are, of course, a somewhat variable problem. In New York, where I live, they are a way of life: they populate the subways, hang out in trash areas, and -- at least according to some reliable witnesses -- completely take over certain public parks at night. Although my wife and I have become somewhat inured to their presence, the first glimpse can still provoke a "flight or fight" reaction.

Although rats often seem huge in retrospect, when viewed at close range, it's fairly apparent that most weigh only a pound or so and are under a foot long. Of course, that isn't to say that they can't get pretty huge: this Chinese specimen, for example, weighed six pounds and had a 12-inch tail. For that matter, other rodents like the nutria or capybara often grow to a pretty impressive size.

Ultimately, size is less important than number. For most people, even one rat is far too many, and a huge colony of marauding rodents is sure to be horrifying. In this context, one
resident's assertion that the rats were "big enough to put saddles on" says more about his terror than it does about the glandular monsters stalking the streets of Brighton.

That having been said, the problem is no laughing matter. Brighton, like much of Cambridge, has old housing stock and a lot of very wealthy people. Given that the town is a very fertile ground for both rats and lawsuits, it would be wise for Harvard to get on top of the problem now. After all, while there is much to be said for super-strong trash cans, they pale beside the joy of a rat-free neighborhood!

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