New York City’s urban legends abound. Alligators in the sewers, killer pennies dropped from the Empire State Building, the Hudson River ghost ship, and Liberty Island’s buried treasure are all part of the lore that makes New York… well… New York.
Maybe you’ve heard as well about a small band of dogs that patrols the streets of the huge city in search of its most unwanted inhabitants—rats! And like the other urban legends, there’s a grain of truth in this one, maybe more.
The Ryder’s Alley Trencherfed Society, like the other legends, doesn’t really exist. There’s no club, no dues, no bylaws, no members, and no officers. The group exists in the minds and spirit of those who, along with their trusted canines, believe that a dog should have the opportunity to test and apply its hard-wired skills. We’ve been called vigilantes (and a few other things less romantic), but for us, it’s all about the dogs.
It wasn’t until 2004 that the strange group actually acquired a name. We hunted often in Ryder’s Alley, a two-block long backstreet that was populated at the time by several Irish bars and other folksy establishments in Lower Manhattan. The fact that it was just a stone’s throw from the site of Kit Burns’ very active rat pit on Water Street during colonial times kind of added to the ambience. Oh, and the rats… there were literally thousands of them.
Back in England, hounds hunted by the fashionable packs of the Midlands lived in the hunt’s kennels and ate together from one or more long troughs in the kennel feed room. Lesser packs, sometimes called “scratch packs,” came together only to hunt, and those hounds were kept in the homes of the hunters. They, of course, ate from bowls, or “trenchers,” as opposed to the troughs. Eventually, they became known as trencherfed packs. Since that’s what we are, the name was adopted. Besides, it conveniently lends itself to the acronym, R.A.T.S.
Not surprisingly, R.A.T.S. was born at an AKC dog show. Palisades Kennel Club used to hold its showsat Liberty State Park, a wonderful venue of New York harbor which offered a magnificent view of the Manhattan skyline as well as the Statue of Liberty’s well-robed butt. There’s an old railroad terminal there which at one time started thousands of immigrants who had passed through Ellis Island on their way to new lives in America. Back then, though, it served another purpose: providing food and shelter for rats.
Handlers liked to place their setups near the building, and Wendy Kellerman was no exception. By mid-morning, though, her grooming area was overrun with a collection of rats welcoming their new visitors. To say that the rats outweighed some of her very fine Chihuahuas was not the slightest exaggeration. Almost by accident, a couple of terriers appeared on the scene and made short work of several of the intruders—and kept the rest at bay. That incident was witnessed by the Park Superintendent who asked if we could bring the dogs back after the park closed and help with the problem on an ongoing basis. The acorn was planted.
Life changed on September 11, 2001, and both Palisades Kennel Club and the group of terriers that would become R.A.T.S. had to leave Liberty State Park. PKC moved to suburban New Jersey and the terriers went to take on the huge number of displaced rats in Lower Manhattan.
Although we certainly don’t look it, R.A.T.S. operates basically like a subscription foxhunting pack. We try to go out once a week, usually on Friday nights. A “fixture card” is sent out via e-mail to more than 80 people who might be interested (we don’t have members). The first ones to respond are in for the hunt, while the remainder are waitlisted. On any given night, the pack is limited to eight dogs. Experience has shown that eight is the perfect number for maximum effectiveness and maximum safety for the dogs, and it is small enough to avoid a spectacle on the streets. The actual site for the “meet” is chosen based on numerous requests and reports of rat activity received through our Facebook page.
The use of dogs for vermin control dates back hundreds of years. We owe most of our terrier breeds (and some others as well) to the desire for a working animal, properly constructed and of a specific temperament to tackle specific quarry in a specific locale. Most of the dogs that today brave the means streets of New York are sourced from dedicated breeders who have a desire to see their stock used for its original purpose.
We started out with mostly all show dogs, many of whom were conformation champions and all of whom participated in a variety of dog sports. All dogs were welcomed to “try out for the team,” but it was the terriers and Dachshunds that brought the inherent ability and staying power to the game. They still do, although I’m not sure whether it’s the dogs themselves or their dedicated owners that make it happen.
Few of the dogs begin their career as natural hunters. It takes a varying amount of time, sometimes weeks, sometimes years, for the light to go on. A veteran woodchuck hunter calls it “The Epiphany,” where the dog realizes that it can and should hunt quarry. Different breeds have different waits for The Epiphany. In Jagdterriers, it comes early; in Dachshunds, much later, but once the fire is lit, it burns until the dying day. (Come to think of it, that’s true of most of us as well.)
All of the dogs eventually choose their own roles in the hunt for vermin. Some, mostly the short-legged terriers, want to work close in, to burrow or warren where the rats live. They quite willingly dive and burrow through dumpsters, piles of garbage bags, or narrow openings where critters hide. That’s where the loose skin, compressible chest, and stuff like that comes in. Other dogs with different
conformation, such as Whippets, feists, Kerries, or SCWs, usually take a position as a “catch dog” and wait for the other dogs to bolt the quarry. Here again, it’s the dogs making the decision on their own, but it’s based on their ability which is, in turn, based on their conformation.
If you’ve attended many of the cookie cutter Judges’ Education Seminars, you’ve undoubtedly heard the inevitable “The Trivet Hound was originally bred for…” Horse foofies! If you look hard enough you’ll find that, somewhere, that breed is being used for its intended purpose and that someone still has that purpose as one of the prime objectives of their breeding program.
A few years back, Fordham University began a study of rat breeding and migration in the City of New York. The study required thousands of DNA samples. Protocol required a certain method of trapping and preservation of the samples, and the student trappers soon learned that for every 100 traps set they were lucky to catch four rats. The scientists turned to R.A.T.S., and we were able to supply thousands of samples over the life of the project. The point here is that 21st century science can be dependent on much older dog breeds doing what breeders have made sure they can still do. (As a result of the Fordham project, we can now differentiate between an Uptown rat and a Downtown rat. It’s not quite Ancestry.com, but it’s close.)
The exploits of R.A.T.S. have been well chronicled by the media. We’ve appeared on television all over the world. We’ve had mayors of major cities as guests, and such celebrities as Mike Rowe and Larry the Cable Guy have been out with us.
The New York Times did a two-page spread, and we did a two-hour live broadcast to Beijing. Why? As dog show people, we’ve worked hard to promote purebred dogs to the public. AKC has spent a gazillion dollars on our behalf to get the dogs some of the recognition they deserve. It’s not easy. While it’s difficult to interest the media in purebred canines, it’s much easier to interest them in dead rats and a time-honored approach to dealing with the problem. For every media event, there is a large dose of purebred dog information included. For the last thirty years or so, that’s all been positive.
There have been a few Take Your Dog to Work events; however, many a Friday, my dog takes ME to work, doing his hard-wired, time-honored job and making us all look good in the process. It’s because of Preservation Breeders that he can do this at all, and it’s because of Preservation Breeders that this work will continue for many years to come. The secret’s in the genes.