Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Pest or Pet?

My constituents complain about it every day.

"I can hear them running in the walls and across my ceilings," cried one who visited my office.

Another stopped me in the street on my way to a meeting: "They're taking over," she explained frantically. "They don't even move when they see you coming down the sidewalk. The rats are no longer afraid of us."

They're in our parks, in our houses, in our subways, and on our streets. I personally have been forced to walk in traffic in order to avoid them. They are out in the open, scampering undisturbed, and growing to phenomenal sizes. Some estimates tell us that there are as many as six rats for every one New Yorker. If that is accurate (and nobody really knows), that means there are close to 44 million rats in New York City. The situation is out of control. Something has to be done.

That is why I am holding a series of hearings, the third and latest on Monday, July 24th, focusing on the epidemic of rats in our city. As Chairman of the New York City Council's Committee on Pest Control, I am attempting to bring together experts in many fieldsÂłthe fields of health, environment, housing, food services, and members of the communityÂłto stomp out this daunting problem.

The testimony has been sobering. Rats can cause damage to property. By gnawing on electrical cables, for example, they present a fire hazard. Rats also pose a potentially serious health threat. They can carry many bacterial diseases, such as salmonella and leptospirosis, and can be hosts to disease-carrying pests, such as ticks and fleas. Rats also bite; there were more than 150 recorded rat bites last year. There is some evidence as well that asthma can be caused, or at least exacerbated, by rodent infestation.

Concerns have also been raised about the amount of toxic pesticides that members of the community are using to combat the vermin, which brings its own set of problems. Pets can ingest the poisons by accident, and there is an apparent relationship between these pesticides and the aggravation of asthma.

They also clearly lower morale in our communities.

The increased visibility of rats, some say, is due to the increase in construction in the city, thereby disturbing their nesting areas. It is also said to be due to New York's use of those black plastic bags for our garbage, rather than the secure metal cans. I myself have seen those bags seem to come alive because there were rats scurrying around in them.

But I think another reason is that attitudes have been too blase about the whole thing. Decades ago, with the help of the federal government, there was a concerted effort to drive down the rat population, not waiting for complaints but acting proactively. About 15 years ago, the resources for such an aggressive effort dwindled, and so did the effort.

The Mayor announced this month that he is beginning a task force on rats, after seeing some on his porch in Gracie Mansion. This puzzles me. This same mayor announced something he called the Comprehensive Rodent Control Initiative back in 1997. Is this the same task force being re-announced? If so, what has it done in the last three years? If not, what happened to the other one?

While some money that was initially taken from the rat control budget has been restored -- the budget is about $13 million in this fiscal year, and the city employs some 23 exterminators -- the Administration is fuzzy even about the extent of New York's pest problem. And there is not a complete accounting of the effectiveness of the pest control methods employed. There is no clear plan of attack nor measurable objectives.

What has been lacking is, to put it succinctly, money and coordination. The efforts of the City agencies like the Departments of Health, Parks, Environmental Protection, and Sanitation, as well as New York City Transit and the Housing Authority, have to be coordinated to be effectiveÂłto make sure the beneficial actions taken by one are not accidentally undone by another. We had testimony that showed that New Yorkers don't even know to whom they're supposed to complain.

New York needs to undertake a plan that combines public education, vigorous inspection (of both public and private buildings) and enforcement, extermination, and follow-up. We need to monitor places that are prone to infestation.

We must look to other cities that have been more effective; Chicago, for example, uses hard containers, not plastic bags, for their garbage. We must learn from innovative programs, such as the pilot program at Lehman Village Houses in East Harlem, the Integrated Pest Management Program, which attempts to control pests without the use of toxic pesticides. The tenants themselves take responsibility for inspecting the building and individual apartments, ke eping surfaces clean, filling gaps in walls, using sealed trash cans, and otherwise taking the advice of a button I've been known to wear: "Starve a Rat Today."

Bill Perkins is a member of the City Council representing the ninth district, which includes the Upper West Side, Central Harlem, East Harlem and Morningside Heights.

Rats are People Too

by Elaine Sloan

Rats are intelligent, curious and sensitive animals. They're shy; they'd rather run than confront a potential threat. They're meticulous about cleaning themselves and take very special care of their young. In so many ways, rats are like dogs, cats, horses, seals and the more popular "poster children" of the animal kingdom.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has always encouraged compassion toward all animals, not just the ones thought to be cute or cuddly. And that is why we recently protested the cruel killing of rats and sea creatures on the CBS television series, Survivor. The show's "Pagong tribe" members were shown giggling as they clubbed live rats; "Tagi tribe" member Richard beamed as live manta rays flopped around helplessly at the end of his spear. PETA's protest made front page news, causing some New Yorkers to balk at the notion that anyone would stick up for rats.

Would viewer reaction have been any different if the peckish Pagongs had bludgeoned a bloodhound? You can bet your last coconut it would. Viewers would have reacted differently here in America, yes, where dogs are revered as "man's best friend." But in Indonesia, Fido is considered a disease-carrying pest: The government recently ordered the estimated 90,000 dogs in the Ngada region of Flores Island killed in the wake of a rabies outbreak. Officials report, "We are beating the dogs...and shooting them. We are killing them in any way we can." Is Indonesia's mass extermination of dogs by bludgeoning cruel? Absolutely. But beating dogs to death is not any more or less cruel than beating smaller fur-bearers to death. That's why PETA has mugs with the slogan: "Rats have rights."

Some New Yorkers pooh-pooh PETA's concern over the Survivor slaughters, citing the city's much-ballyhooed rodent population as some sort of justification for the televised slaying of rats on a remote island thousands of miles away. "Black Plague and rat bites!," paranoid New Yorkers holler, forgetting, apparently, that humans spread far more diseases than rats do (AIDS is a much graver threat to modern city dwellers than the bubonic plague), and dogs bites are far more common than rat nibbles.

You can't really blame New York City's rats for choosing to live where there are ample food sources and shelter. Alleys are lined with piles of trash and the city's garbage cans are overflowingÂłto rats, our city's streets are four star restaurants, our dilapidated buildings are their Four Seasons. Tidy, well-maintained properties don't face the dilemma of how to evict uninvited rodents. If we cleaned up the city, it would be less appealing to uninvited, furry visitors.

Even if you don't care about rodents, consider this: FBI profilers and psychologists know that cruelty to animals is very often a precursor of violence towards humans. The recent rash of deadly school shootings have all had one thing in commonÂłthe young shooters first "practiced" on animals. Do you care about kids? If so, you should be very concerned about the cavalier killing of animals on Survivor by its snickering contestants. It sends a very dangerous message, especially to impressionable children.

Not so long ago, PETA made headlines for suggesting that lobsters in supermarket tanks should be released back to the ocean rather than boiled alive. "Ridiculous!" exclaimed a nation of crustacean crunchers. Editors everywhere panned PETA for liberating lobsters. But PETA's campaign struck a nerveÂłslowly the lobster lovers started crawling out of the closet. Sure, people continue to purchase lobsters, but many are plotting their own lobster liberations. The sitcom, Ellen, featured PETA supporters Mary Tyler Moore and Ellen DeGeneres liberating a lobster. Syndicated columnist Dave Barrry wrote about his soft spot for lobsters. Drew Barrymore recently told Seventeen readers that it is her secret desire to "save all the little live lobsters in restaurants and throw them back in the ocean." (Just don't throw them anywhere near Pulau Tigua, Drew!)

It's no longer considered quite so "kooky" to suggest that it's cruel to throw live creatures into scalding water. It's true that everyone hasn't stopped eating lobsterÂłbut scores of people have. Now PETA receives calls from people all over the country who are eager to rescue lobsters and send them home to the Atlantic.

Just as many Americans have developed a soft spot for hard shells, so it's inevitable that they'll also warm up to pink noses and twitching whiskers. Don't forget that countless folks voluntarily share their homes with rats. They adore their rodent companions, as much as devoted dog "parents" care about their canine "kids." The difference between "pet" and "pest" is one teensy letter -- and, of course, personal prejudices. But perspectives can -- and do -- and will -- change.

Elaine Sloan, a television commercial producer who lives in midtown, is a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals