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New Yorkers vs. the Rat

by Gotham Gazette Staff, Nov 26, 2007
 

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When the newly renovated northern end of City Hall Park officially reopened in October, organizers planned a celebration complete with performances on the freshly cut lawn. But, said Skip Blumberg, a major force behind the park renovation, they thought better of it. The performances were to take place after dark, and the rats that frequent the park along with lunching city workers, might have stolen the spotlight.

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Nine months after the rats of Taco Bell had their time in the limelight, attention more recently turned to rats in city parks, particularly in City Hall Park. But while such incidents capture headlines, they represent nothing unusual. Rats, said pest expert Dale Kaukeinen, are a constant presence in New York, whether or not they make the evening news -- or star on You Tube.

"No one should have to live with rats," the New York City health department says on its Web site. That may be true -- but we all do.

"If the presence of a grizzly bear is the indicator of the wilderness of an area, the range of unsettled habitat, then a rat is an indicator of the presence of man," wrote Robert Sullivan in Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants.

Rats bite, are linked to disease and can cause damage by gnawing through walls, wiring and just abut everything else. Many of us find them downright terrifying. So, as long as rats have live in the city, New Yorkers have fought to control them.

Rat Census

Estimates of the problem vary. Although many say that New York City has one rat per person -- for a total of about 8 million -- others figure there could be as many as almost 100 million rats in New York City. More optimistically, several experts, including Sullivan, put the population as far smaller.

But rats do frequent many, if not most, parts of the city. While the rats of City Hall Park have attracted attention recently, rats are found in many city parks. “I don’t know of a park where you won’t see them,” Geoffrey Croft, president of NYC Park Advocates, a nonprofit group, told the New York Times.

The city received more than 30,000 rodent complaints last year, according to the Mayor's Management Report. And rats have been known to plague city schools, housing projects and cavort along even fashionable streets.

The People Triumph

There was, however, a golden age for rat control. At a so-called rat summit held in 2000, several speakers noted that federal and city programs kept the rat population in check from World War II until the 1980s. In 1949, according to Sullivan, a rat expert from Baltimore trapped rats in New York to try to determine how many lived here. He estimated there were 256,000.

"New York was the model for the country," wrote Jenny Laurie. "Restaurant owners and landlords were required to dispose of garbage properly and to keep sidewalks and basements in good repair (no cracks) -- or they were fined. The rat population was well under control."

That changed in the 1980s when, under President Ronald Reagan, the government cut funding for urban programs, including pest control. With the city facing a budget crunch, the rats roared back.

Fighting Back

Overall, New York may be almost as attractive to rats as to foreign tourists seeking bargains. A report released in October found New York to be the major U.S. city most vulnerable to rats. Kaukeinen, who co-authored the report with another pest expert, Bruce Colvin, said New York City's age, moisture and poverty rate combine to make it particularly enticing.

The black garbage bags, which some have described as a nightly banquet for rats, only exacerbate the problem. Some locations, such as parks with ground cover, prove particularly enticing. Blumberg noted that the catacombs in lower Manhattan provide hiding for rats, making City Hill Park vulnerable to the rodents. Our own bad habits make matters worse. Food left behind and carelessly dumped garbage cans serve as rat magnets.

Faced with the burgeoning rat population, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani formed a rat task force in 2000. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has stepped up the effort. As part of it, the city has tried to shift the emphasis from poisoning to depriving rats of their food. This has included advising people not to feed pigeons and squirrels because rats enjoy the leftovers and trying to enforce sanitation rules.

"You can bring a trainload or boatload of rodenticide into the city," Edgar Butts, who works on environmental health for the city, told the New York Times. "But as long as you have food and harborage, you'll have rats."

Kaukeinen said, under the circumstances, New York is doing fairly well. "New York is on the ball, " he said praising the administration for having hired consultant Robert Corrigan to train city workers to combat rats.

But, Kaukeinen said, fighting rats is a huge task that competes with other issues for money and other resources. Those involved in New York City, he said, "know what needs to be done, and they'd probably like more money to do it."

Cities can strengthen their program by aggressively enforcing garbage codes. Some, Kaukeinen said, have replaced the black plastic garbage bags piled at the curbside with rollout bins where people must place their garbage. No such proposal, though, appears to be in the works for New York City.

Changing behavior would also help. "We want rats to go away but we keep trash under our desks. We want the city to kill the rats, but we throw McDonald's bags out the car window," Corrigan has said. "This is a big complex problem for which there is no easy solution."

Some people, though, believe we should accept the rats in our midst. Writing in Gotham Gazette in 2000, Elaine Sloan, a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said New Yorkers might want to clean up their city to reduce the number of rats, but she also advised city residents to change their attitudes about the rodents. Rats, she wrote, " are intelligent, curious and sensitive animals" who are "meticulous about cleaning themselves and take very special care of their young."  

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