NEW YORK’S RATS HAVE ALREADY WON
Category: Environment/ClimateVia: hallux • last year • 4 comments
By: Xochitl Gonzalez - The Atlantic
Every saturday morning when I was in high school, I would take two buses across Brooklyn to my cousin’s exterminating business, where I worked the front desk. I dispatched crews to dismantle hornet nests, helped identify mysterious bugs in Ziploc bags, and fielded panicked calls about animals—raccoons, squirrels, mice, and, of course, rats—being where animals shouldn’t be. Back in that storefront in Flatlands, I believed that pests of all kinds could be controlled. Little did I know that across the city, tunneling below my feet, one of those creatures was—litter by litter—besting man.
About a month ago I Zoomed with Robert Corrigan, a fellow Brooklynite and one of the world’s foremost rodentologists. When I told him about my exterminating experience, he said, with some delight, “So, you speak the language.” A slight man with graying hair and an accent that would have been at home at my family’s dinner table, he has been studying rodents since he took a job as an exterminator, installing baits in the city sewer system, to put himself through college back in the late 1970s.
For a decade, Corrigan has been sending out surveys to pest-control professionals around the city, asking questions such as “Have rat calls gone up each year?” Corrigan also looks at rat sightings and the number of restaurants failing health inspections. “When I put that trifecta together,” he told me, “there are more rats. The question we don’t know is: Is it 20 percent more rats? Is it 36.6 percent? Empirically, we’ll probably never get that answer.”
What we do know is that recorded rat sightings in New York are at an all-time high. In December, Mayor Eric Adams posted, with great fanfare, a job announcement: The city was looking for a “highly motivated and somewhat bloodthirsty” candidate to take on the newly restored position of rat czar. (A brilliant idea, I thought; I had, after all, suggested that he take such action in an open letter .) Yet, three months later, the position still hasn’t been filled. A few weeks ago, the mayor himself had to pay a $300 fine for failing to control rats at a rowhouse he rents out to tenants.
The coronavirus pandemic certainly brought more rats into our peripheral vision. Rats long dwelled in or near the city’s subways, where sloppy commuters and takeout restaurants provided a reliable food source. Empty offices and barren subways forced rats aboveground to forage by our dining sheds.
But Rattus norvegicus , the brown rat, has been in America for about 250 years. And although dining sheds may be the easiest of scapegoats, they are the least of our problems. Over the past half century, changes in climate and the way New Yorkers dispose of their trash have given the rat population an unprecedented opportunity to boom, an increase unabated by man and undeterred by politics.
Rats are gross, but they can also be dangerous. In New York City, cases of leptospirosis—a bacterial infection that can lead to kidney and liver failure and that is predominantly transmitted in rat urine—are on the rise. In 2021, 14 New Yorkers were diagnosed with the disease and one died of it—far more cases than in any previous year. In November, researchers discovered several COVID-19 variants in sewer rats, opening up a whole new range of concerns. Studies have found that people living near infestations are more likely to report feeling anxious or depressed.
I’m somewhat familiar with this phenomenon. In 2021, a dream of mine came true. I was able to buy an apartment. Not just any apartment, a garden apartment. I tricked out the tiny backyard: tables, chairs, lounge furniture, sun umbrellas, daffodils, roses, hydrangea bushes—everything that would make someone want to spend every possible moment that they could outside, which was exactly what I planned to do. Until I met my neighbors. A lot of them.
My apartment is on the border of Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, an area deep in the throes of gentrification and not too far from the mayor’s rental property. No sooner had I gotten the yard sorted out than a construction project broke ground next door. This drove the rats to the surface, where they turned my backyard paradise into a subway platform. I prohibited trash in the yard; I stomped burrows; I sprayed mint oil; I called exterminators. Nothing worked. It turned out that my whole neighborhood was besieged. Rats were nesting in car engines, popping up in toilets, grazing legs at outdoor eateries. One day, I attempted to toss a doggy bag into a trash can and made hand-to-paw contact.
I felt fairly certain that I’d never seen so many rats in New York. But were there more of them or was I just seeing more of them? The answer turned out to be a little bit of both.
N o one can say with certainty exactly when the brown rat first came to America from Europe, but almost everyone agrees that it was sometime early in the American Revolution and that the rats’ first landing place was likely New York City. Even if, like the animals in Noah’s Ark, only one male and one female rat boarded a ship in England, they and their descendants could have numbered in the dozens by the end of a four-month transatlantic crossing and, under ideal conditions, 15,000 by the end of a calendar year. Rats are randy, having sex as many as 20 times a day. They have about six litters a year, and each litter includes an average of eight to 10 but sometimes as many as 20 rat babies, which will live for about two years.
Rats quickly became woven into the infrastructure of the city. Rats are tunnel-shaped for a reason: They are born to burrow. Sewage pipes, electric pipes, broken laterals from the earliest days of indoor plumbing provide the perfect habitat. “We have built, down below our feet, coming right out of our houses, all these rat apartment buildings,” Corrigan told me. “But we can’t see ’em and nobody pays attention to ’em.”
The transformation from urban menace to public enemy took place in the 19th century. The first rat attack I could find on record took place in 1860 , when a baby was eaten in Bellevue Hospital. Her mother, an Irish serving girl, gave birth unattended in the night, and the child may already have been dead; the mother remembered “a cat or rat on the bed, but could not tell which.” The women’s wing of the hospital, a reporter for The New York Times explained, was built on land reclaimed from the marshes of the East River, on top of rock and rubbish and sewers, “and by these sewers the vile, gregarious, amphibious and nomade vermin, swimming in crowds from place to place, have been induced to stop.” In the female wards, the reporter wrote, “the rats in the night-time run about in swarms … This sounds like fiction, but we are assured that it is true. Myriads swarm at the water side after nightfall, crawl through the sewers and enter the houses. In a bath-tub, last Monday night, forty rats were caught.”
After 1893, when electric trolleys replaced horse-drawn ones, rats had to leave the stables where they’d snacked on grain and turned more often toward human residences. They eventually flocked to Rikers Island , which the city had begun using as a dump in 1894. Later, a prison farm opened on the island. Rats devoured the prison farm’s vegetables, pigs, and other livestock. At one time, more than 1 million rats were estimated to be living on the island. By the 1930s, the rats had begun to swim to other parts of New York, including the suburbs of Long Island, and serious exterminating measures were finally undertaken.
Still, the rat problems of yore were mild in comparison with those of modern times. The fear of rats loomed larger than the populace itself. Despite the myth that there was a “rat for every New Yorker,” one study put the real number at about 250,000 by 1950. By 2014, that had grown to about 2 million—an 800 percent boom in fewer than 65 years. (But humans are still winning, at 8.5 million residents.)
The rat population has not only grown exponentially; it has also spread. In 1974, another rat survey of New York found that only about 11 percent of the city was rat-afflicted. Today, Corrigan puts the estimate at 80 to 90 percent.
G lobal warming isn’t helping. This winter, New York City broke the record for the most days without a snowfall. This January was the second warmest on record . A degree or two of difference may not sound like much, but it goes back to food and opportunities to forage.
Rats do not hibernate, but they do slow down their reproductive cycles. Cold, frozen streets have fewer people, and less food. “It’s not a great time to have a healthy family,” Corrigan told me. “They have to shut it down. And the research is very strong on that. So let’s say we have a global decade of warmth. Now let’s just say we take this animal who produces logarithmically as it gets going, and it squeaks out one more litter. We’re talking a lot more animals. But it’s so gradual. It’s so insidious. Who’s going to be paying attention to that kind of thing?”
Perhaps the most pivotal development in the booming rat populace can be found in your own kitchen: the plastic trash bag. Plastic bags were invented in 1950 and became widespread in the late ’60s. Before then, residents used metal trash cans and restaurants used dumpsters. Today, Corrigan told me, we put everything in these bags, “from dog manure to half-eaten lunches to, at night, big, giant, 60-pound bags of food waste that the restaurants put on the curb waiting for several hours to be picked up.” Considering that a rat’s teeth are strong enough to cut through copper wire, a measly little trash bag is no match for their hungry little mouth.
In October, Adams held a splashy press conference to declare a “war on rats.” The major initiative announced at this event was a new rule restricting the hours when garbage from large apartment buildings can be put out on the street to after 8 p.m. on the night before garbage pickup. But rats are both nocturnal and adaptable. As the exterminator Matt Deodato told Curbed , “You throw your garbage out at midnight, they’ll just come out at 12. It’s almost like ringing a dinner bell.”
The city’s Department of Sanitation has been piloting a program around containerization (or the return of garbage pails). But Deodato thinks it’s never going to happen. “I do buildings in Manhattan,” he said . “The amount of garbage pails you’d need for buildings of this size would take up half a block. And these aren’t cheap containers; they can run $200, $300 each. Imagine if you’re robbed. It could be tens of thousands a year on top of everything else these buildings pay for.”
T here is, out there, a land without rats. Well, mostly without rats. Alberta, Canada, boasts of being a rat-free zone, which, it explains on its official rat-control webpage, “means there is no resident population of rats and they are not allowed to establish themselves. It does not mean we never get rats.” In contemplating the scope of work awaiting New York’s incoming rat czar, I was curious to learn how Alberta did it.
Rats emerged in nearby Saskatchewan in the 1920s, putting Alberta on its toes. “By the time they hit our border,” the then-head of Alberta’s Rat Control Program told the BBC in 2019, “we had a department of health and a department of agriculture, and we had a system ready that we could actually do something.” This currently includes a “border patrol” area, a force of pest-control officers to police it, and a poisoning program to deal with any reported infestations.
But Corrigan quickly dashed any hopes I had that New York could learn a thing or two from Alberta, explaining that the two locales are “apples and oranges.” The brutal winters and low population density of Alberta give it a natural advantage.
So where does this leave us? I called for the rat czar, but what can any one individual do after decade upon decade of infestation? Is it even possible to wrangle the rat?
V igilance and anti-rat enthusiasm aren’t enough, which is a shame because New York has these in spades. For nearly as long as we’ve had rats in New York, we’ve had people who wanted to kill them. John James Audubon shot rats on the waterfront in the late 1830s. A midtown florist named Peter Drapp made headlines in 1897 when he attempted to harpoon a rat with scissors and hit a policeman instead. People have gone after rats with baseball bats. The infestation on Rikers Island? Before using poisoned bait, the city considered populating the island with snakes.
The city’s first “rat specialist” was appointed in 1949. In 1979, a woman was attacked by rats in an alley in Lower Manhattan. The head of the city’s pest-control bureau was at a rat convention upstate when the incident occurred; Mayor Ed Koch made a point of summoning him back.
Rudy Giuliani’s administration had no shortage of rats or political theatrics about tackling them. In 1997, after dealing with the squeegee men and the nightlife, the mayor declared his own War on Rats, established the Interagency Rodent Extermination Task Force, and gave it $8 million in annual funding. But in 2000, after a massive outbreak in the Lower East Side, residents protested at City Hall. “One rat, two rats, three rats, four. Everywhere I look, there’s more and more,” the crowd chanted. That same year, Giuliani appointed the first rat czar—the famous civil servant Joseph Lhota. Giuliani’s task force was expanded under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who also created a three-day “rodent academy” to give public employees a crash course on infestation basics.
Though the rat problem keeps getting bigger, the rat budget hasn’t been so consistent. Bloomberg was rather famously a rat-problem denier. In 2003, a Queens firehouse was overtaken by rats, part of a rodent uprising that many blamed on Bloomberg for reducing the frequency of outer-borough garbage pickups. In 2011, an uptick in rodent complaints revealed short staffing in the city’s pest-control force.
Mayor Bill de Blasio committed $2.9 million to anti-rat efforts in 2015, and then another $32 million in 2017. But when COVID hit in 2020, the city went on a “wartime budget,” slashing trash collection on public litter baskets from 736 pickups a week to 272. (An outcry from the private sector forced de Blasio to reverse the decision.) For all of the current administration’s tough talk, outside of funding the containerization pilot program and a $14.5 million investment to “ Get Stuff Clean ,” the biggest direct investment in rat control is the future czar’s salary: up to $170,000.
Some citizens are taking the scourge into their own hands. Though R.A.T.S., a gang of independent, pro bono rat hunters on the Lower East Side, has been in existence since 1995, the Bat-Signal (Rat-Signal?) for its services has been sounding off more than ever these days. Membership includes both lay New Yorkers with a passion for taking down rats and animal-related professionals, such as vet techs. If you want to join up you’ll have to get on the waiting list; it’s about a six-month wait to participate in a “team tryout.” Their hunts—which usually rely on a pack of half a dozen dogs—take place at night, mostly on Fridays, and have had varying degrees of success. R.A.T.S. has achieved some notoriety on YouTube, and the members, and their dogs, enjoy a kind of local celebrity.
Of course, not everyone is a dog person. After rats were reported at Adams’s rental property, Curtis Sliwa, the public provocateur and Adams’s Republican rival in the last election, showed up outside the rowhouse, offering the services of two of his many cats . “It’s time that we revert to the best measure that’s ever worked. And that’s cats,” he told reporters.
Sheila Massey, a retiree in Washington Heights, started Hard Hat Cats several years ago with this same idea in mind. The program places spayed and neutered “cat colonies” with large businesses prone to rats. Although my colleague Sarah Zhang convincingly disputed the effectiveness of cats as a form of rodent control in this magazine , Massey begs to differ. While they may not be effective rodent murderers, they are, she says, very good deterrents.
But why pit animal against animal when there is alcohol? The more innovative solution on the rat-fighting scene has been the Rat Trap, which debuted before the pandemic and was beta tested in Brooklyn while Adams was borough president. The contraption lures rats up a ladder with bait, then drops and drowns them in an alcoholic pool. But, in addition to facing complaints from animal-rights activists, the high-tech traps are expensive. I know; I looked into one for my own backyard. It was $250 a month to rent, plus service fees.
I n rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants , Robert Sullivan recounts a 1969 news story about a parade of rats crossing Park Avenue to dine in the posh trash cans of the Delmonico’s Hotel at 502 Park Avenue. The rats were described as “refugees from Harlem.” But rats, studies show, are hyperlocal creatures, rarely venturing more than 660 feet from their home turf . Harlem’s rats were likely still in Harlem. These were Park Avenue rats. They just weren’t, in the residents’ estimation, meant to be there.
Living among rats comes with a stigma, and presumptions about cleanliness and hygiene rooted in racism and classism. There were , in 1969, huge rat infestations in predominantly Black Harlem, the Puerto Rican Lower East Side, and sections of Brooklyn where more Black and brown people lived. Such outbreaks cemented the public perception that rats were not just a problem for New York’s poor people of color but a problem caused by these communities. Like many by-products of racism, this belief ignored systemic explanations, such as the infrequency of trash pickups in these same neighborhoods, as well as the proliferation of slumlords who failed to properly maintain their buildings’ garbage and infrastructure.
Rats are still not distributed evenly across New York. A 2014 study found that areas of the city with less educated residents and older apartment units were associated with higher rat density. Though the temperature on the rat heat map has turned up citywide, the hottest spots remain largely consistent.
It’s possible that the people have changed more than the rats. As New York has gotten wealthier and whiter , perhaps the biggest difference between our current rat war and those of the past is that although rats are now everywhere, there are fewer and fewer places New Yorkers think they should be.
W hen i suggested hiring a rat czar, I saw rats as the least controversial, most politically expedient way for the mayor—and New Yorkers—to get a much-needed win. The rats are the window dressing on a stage set of blight. The streets of post-pandemic New York are full of unhoused people, open drug consumption, empty offices, and, yes, rats. The first three are complex, potentially intractable challenges. The rats seemed easier. I see things differently now.
History shows that rats arise, the public cries out, and a mayor declares war and sends an army of civil servants armed with press releases to wage a public-relations battle on what is actually a biological war.
When I typed this in February, a rat was outside my window. After an especially warm December and January, this critter had likely sired an extra litter of pups—up to 40 bonus rats living on my block, under my house, in old pipes that existed long before the house did. No snake or cat or dog or vigilante or politician can make a real dent in this issue, because this is a matter not of politics but of science.
Rats’ purpose on this planet is to procreate; they are in the business of creating more rats. Rats are what is known as an R-selected species: They breed so much because they die so fast. Last night, Tom the Rat might have gotten hit by a car, Rosco the Rat just met his demise chewing an electrical wire, Calvin the Rat keeled over after ingesting poison—no matter! As long as they left behind pregnant female rats, they led good, productive rat lives.
Short of a nuclear winter, or going back in time before those Revolutionary rats landed in the new world, is there any way to defeat the rat?
I asked Corrigan what it would really take. To reduce the population enough that it wouldn’t just bounce back, he said, we’d have to eradicate 96 percent of all rats in the city. “If we could get 90, I would be ecstatic. Like, Oh my God, this is fabulous ,” he said. But at this point, even if we undertook the most holistic anti-rat campaign in history—clearing streets of trash bags, mass poisoning efforts, working with the private sector on rat prevention—Corrigan thinks it’s probably too late. We could maybe, best-case scenario, get rid of 50 to 60 percent of the rats, but that just wouldn’t be enough, he said. We’d be missing the target “by forever . We’re missing it at 40 percent on an R-selected species? Forget about it!”
The link to the rat-czar job posting was taken down some time ago because so many people were sending in their résumé. This week, Kate Smart, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, told me that the hiring process is ongoing as the administration works through “nearly 900 applications.” As long as the post remains vacant, I thought perhaps an amendment might be made to the job requirements: Rat Czar wanted; must be highly motivated, somewhat bloodthirsty, and naively optimistic.