My Name is Esau and I’m a Thigmophiliac
Thigmophilic: used by biologists to describe animals that love to touch things, or be touched
“Hello. My name is Esau, and I’m a thigmophiliac. Or thigmophile. Whatever.”
Well, hey, you may say, I like to be touched, too. Who doesn’t? But when scientists call a species “thigmophilic,” or touch-loving, they’re not talking about back rubs, caresses or a scratch behind the ears. They’re talking about animals that, as Robert Sullivan says in his fascinating, information-packed book, Rats, “prefer to touch things as they travel” or otherwise go about their essential business. Often, they’re talking about rats.
Rats, specifically Rattus norvegicus, the familiar – some might say, too familiar – city rat, like to keep their bodies in contact with walls as they scurry along on their rodentine missions. Wall-hugging, which protects them from attack on one side, appears to create a kind of kinetic map: it helps the rats learn favorite routes.
Until I read Sullivan’s book, I had no idea a word existed to describe my dog Esau’s love affair with walls.
Most of the time, I don’t let him hug his beloved walls, because, well, NYC walls are filthy, particularly down at Esau’s level. I don’t even want to think too much about what’s on those walls. But on a recent trip to Morningside Park, I conducted a not very scientific experiment: I let Esau walk where he wanted.
The results? No surprise: He hugged the walls.
He hugged buildings, railings and hedges.
He hugged the side of Saint John the Divine, and the stone steps that lead into the park.
If an object could, by any stretch of the definition, be considered a wall, Esau hugged it.
Back inside, he hustled along the interior wall.
Is this a case of the hunter coming to resemble the hunted? How peculiar that Esau, the mighty rat hunter who snatches street rats from beneath piles of trash, should share with his prey the unusual trait of thigmophilia.
“So I’m a thigmophiliac. What’s it take to get a drink of water around here?”
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