New York intensifies its war on rats

Rats at the Union Square subway station in New York City. Agencies across the city are working to control their numbers, estimated in the millions, by tracking down and attacking "reservoirs" where the rodents gather.
Rats at the Union Square subway station in New York City. Agencies across the city are working to control their numbers, estimated in the millions, by tracking down and attacking "reservoirs" where the rodents gather.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

City to spend $4m in latest effort to hunt down and destroy the vermin

NEW YORK - For centuries, New York City's white whale has been the common rat.

Traps have been set and poisons brewed, to little apparent effect. Emergency conclaves have been called at City Hall. There have been 109 mayors of New York and, it seems, nearly as many mayoral plans to snuff out the scourge.

Their collective record is approximately 0-108. "Just follow the numbers," said Mr Joseph Lhota, once the designated "rat czar" as a deputy mayor under Mr Rudolph Giuliani. "Anybody who's in charge of eradicating rats in New York knows exactly what Sisyphus felt like."

Yet, across the city, a new administration is betting that New York might just be due. The city budget, agreed upon this week, includes US$2.9 million (S$3.9 million) in rat-plan money.

Mayor Bill de Blasio described the rodents, with a touch of swagger, as "one New York City institution that we're happy to get rid of".

Along avenue medians and inside tree pits, beneath sewer grates and deep in the thickets of park foliage, the city's vermin vision is taking hold. Inspectors have stalked neighbourhoods, scrubbing problem areas for signs of rat behaviour, including compressed grass and rub marks left by the lanolin in rat fur.

Teams have been assigned caseloads by location - a social worker's approach to varmint slaughter, officials said.

Solar compactors and other "rat-proof bins" are being provided to the Sanitation Department. And through the halls of some half a dozen city agencies, a message has been handed down: Think like a rat.

"They're just like us," said Mr Rick Simeone, the director of pest control for the city's health department, scouring the bushes of downtown Brooklyn for telltale signs one recent morning. "They don't give anything back. They eat and reproduce."

The city's new effort is premised on attacking so-called rat reservoirs - stretches where rats subsist in large enough numbers that eradicating just some on the surface is likely to have little long-term effect.

Anything overlooked - a crack in the sidewalk, a discarded sandwich, a trash can without a lid - could imperil the fragile peace.

The city says there is no reliable measure of the rat population, despite many past claims to the contrary. A 1949 article in The New York Times detailing Mayor William O'Dwyer's "war on rodents" estimated the total at 15 million.

A more recent rule of thumb held that there was a rat for every resident, although research suggests that the figure would be overstated by about six million.

In fact, experts are even unsure about whether the population has waxed or waned in recent years. But optimism abounds over the latest push to control the rats.

During Mr Lhota's tenure as chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, from late 2011 to 2012, the agency devised plans to place rat sterilisation products strategically across the subway system. Officials said the early returns were promising.

The city has likewise reported progress from a pilot programme that targeted rat reservoirs in Manhattan and the Bronx last year. Across six test locations, the administration said, rat sightings had decreased 80 to 90 per cent.

Constituent reviews at one site, along Broadway on the Upper West Side, have been mixed. "Big, big improvement," Mr Jay Donaldson, 40, said of the neighbourhood's current rat population. But Ms Diane Reese, 51, said a rodent she encountered recently on 108th Street was "bigger than my cat".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2015, with the headline 'New York intensifies its war on rats'. Print Edition | Subscribe