My Name is Esau and I’m a Thigmophiliac

Thigmophilic: used by biologists to describe animals that love to touch things, or be touched

My name is Esau and I'm a thigmophiliac

“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.

Wall hugger

Hedge hugger

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.

Rail hugger

Retaining wall hugger

The results? No surprise: He hugged the walls.

He hugged buildings, railings and hedges.

Cathedral hugger

Stairwell hugger

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.

Hustling wall hugger

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?”


Explore posts in the same categories: 2010, In the City, July, Morningside Park, NYC Parks, Rodents (other than squirrels), Wildlife/Natural History

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13 Comments on “My Name is Esau and I’m a Thigmophiliac”

  1. Great post. I eagerly await to use thigmophile in a scrabble game or trivia night.

  2. I’ve been meaning to start following your blog for months now, and am happy to start with this entry… but for all its charms and truths, it made me recall with some sadness the elephant and bear at the old Central Park Zoo … how they’d pace back and forth, back and forth, pushing their shoulders hard against the cage bars all the way, their coats worn down at those spots of impact to bare, callous skin. Guess in fact this same thigmophile comforting impulse gone nuts is as good an example of neurosis formulation as any. …

    • Yes, I remember the old Central Park Zoo well. Such a sad image – all those bare 19th Century prison cages. It’s a happier place now with mostly smaller animals in larger habitats. I love to watch the rambunctious snow monkey children acting up and teasing their parents over on their island. Glad you’ve discovered the blog!

  3. Jill Says:

    what a great post (very interesting!) and what an absolutely adorable pup – love the little guy!

  4. Oxo in Harlem Says:

    hi esau,
    i thought you’d like to know that i was out walking the dog this morning and saw our four geese in morningside park. they were grazing with the pigeons.
    enjoy your walks and, as my old mother used to say, keep in by the wall ;-)
    oxo in harlem

    • Hurrah, great news! Maybe they spent a couple of weeks at their country house in Central Park. Delighted to hear they’re back.

      • Checked on the geese this morning. I’m not so sure it’s the same family. The original goose family had four goslings, two with very noticeable angel wing. These are four in total, all with healthy wings, and I can’t tell who is a baby and who’s grown. Hmm. Whoever they are, I’m delighted to see them in Morningside Park.

  5. Charlotte Says:

    I think Kurt has a point, and since he has a PhD I go with him: the dog in question is a rat in costume, except for maybe the one in the lobby where the “dog” is desperate for a drink. Does this dog drink out of a bottle hanging upside down? Or does he lap up his drink from a bowl? That will tell you his true nature.

  6. Kurt Mantooth, PhD Says:

    The purported dog in the photo is not actually Esau but a rat in a custom made dog suit that can be purchased at Pierre’s Costumes and Mascots in Philadelphia, PA for a pricey sum. Noble Esau would never hug walls and can stand alone. Rats have resorted to faux doubles when they are in dire need of role models since the Jurassic Age.

  7. pat hoey Says:

    Thigmophiliacs are everywhere; the human ones can be found hustling towards banquettes and chairs against the walls in cafes and restaurants everywhere. After all, you never know what’s gonna be comin’ through that front door…

  8. mthew Says:

    Probably also something of a odorophile. All the good smells are found on walls.

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