Watching the New York City rat make its way down the steps of a subway station with a big slice of pizza really had an unexpected effect on me. I found myself not feeling an ounce of disgust at the sight of the animal. Somehow, carrying a pizza profoundly defamiliarized it. The rat was now as cute as a cat or a puppy. How was this possible?
Without that pizza, all I would have seen is an animal I want dead right now; with the pizza, I see a potential pet. Without the pizza, I'd see those awful little pink legs, that gross coat of hair, the slimy tail; with a pizza, it's transformed into a curious little thing with big and almost lovable eyes. Without the pizza, I'd have recognized a natural enemy of humankind; with the pizza, I see a regular New Yorker.
The last time I came even close to this kind of affection for a rodent was while watching the Pixar movie Ratatouille. And that rat had the benefit of not being real and having its features neotenized by its animators. The rat also had a name, Remy, and it hated its kind and wanted to be more like humans (the clean animal). Indeed, I described Remy as a self-hater in this short piece I wrote in 2001:
Because Remy the rat loves humans, loves their religion of cleanliness, their sensitivity to beauty, their ability to prepare exquisite dishes—because he loves the things that humans most love about themselves, he hates what he is, a rat.
Pizza rat is nothing like Remy. It's still a rat to the core. For example, it does not care that the slice its pulling and carrying has been all over the filthy subway floor. It wants the pizza, and it's going to eat that pizza with all the crap on it. Yet, somehow pizza rat disarmed my hardest defenses, diffused all of my hatred, and found its way to a soft spot in my soul.
By the way, Seattle ranks 7th in the US for rat sightings.