They crawled to the surface when a coronavirus pandemic swept through New York City, running out of underground nests into the open air, feasting on shorts of scraps in the streets, parks and garbage dumps. As lunches lingered in the open-air dining room, so did urban rats.
Now urban data show that observations occur more often than in ten years.
In April, people called about 7,400 rats on the city’s 311 service request line. That’s more than about 6,150 over the same period last year, and more than 60% more than about the first four months of 2019, the last year before the pandemic.
In each of the first four months of 2022, the number of observations was the highest, recorded since at least 2010, with online records available for the first year. For comparison, for the whole of 2010 there were about 10,500 observations, for the whole of last year – 25,000 (most often in the warmer months).
Whether the rat population has increased can be debated, but the pandemic could have made the situation more noticeable.
If more people spend time outdoors, when the temperature gets warmer, will the observation of rats increase even more?
“It depends on how much food is available to them and where,” said Matt Fry, a New York-based pest control specialist at Cornell University.
Although the return to the regime before the pandemic “is exciting after two years of lifestyle changes imposed by COVID,” Fry said in an email, “it also means a routine attitude to problems with rats that are directly related to human behavior.”
Pest for generations
Rats have been a problem in New York since its inception. Each new generation of leaders has tried to find the best way to deal with the rodent population and is struggling to show results.
When Mayor Eric Adams was president of the Brooklyn district, he annoyed animal rights activists – and upset some journalists’ stomachs – by demonstrating a trap using a bucket filled with vinegar, a toxic soup to drown rats tempted by the smell of food.
Former Mayor Bill de Blasio has spent tens of millions of dollars on efforts to reduce rats in target areas through more frequent garbage collection, more aggressive housing inspections and replacing dirty basements in some apartment buildings with concrete ones.
The city also launched a program to use dry ice to strangle rats in their burrows, once demonstrating equipment to reporters at an event where workers chased – but never caught – one of the fleeing creatures.
During a recent press conference in Times Square, Adams announced the city’s latest efforts: a locked-in trash can designed to cut large piles of garbage bags that turn into a rodent buffet.
“You are tired of rodents, you are tired of the smell, you are tired of seeing food, waste and spills,” said the mayor.
Rats not only cause fear among the easily disgusting, they can also be a health problem.
Last year, at least 13 people were hospitalized – one died – from leptospirosis, a disease that affects the kidneys and liver. Most human infections are related to rats.
As some cities are considering making outdoor lunches permanent – an option that is necessary during a pandemic – they are mindful of further increasing the rat population. Even before the pandemic, experts noticed an increase in the rat population in some of the country’s largest cities.
Steady and resourceful
Rats can survive on less than an ounce of food a day and rarely travel more than a quarter to find food, according to rat scientists.
Some New York restaurants have set up canopies so that vigilant diners can dine outside. But the unfinished dishes left behind at the tables sometimes attracted cheeky four-legged thugs – a la Pizza Rat, who became famous in 2015 after a video surfaced online showing a rodent pulling a slice of pizza down the subway stairs (the debate unfolded in time on whether the video was delivered).
After all, fewer people used the subway, and fewer delicacies that can be enjoyed in the tunnels.
“During the pandemic, your restaurants closed,” said Richard Reynolds, whose rat hunting team has periodically taken out dog sleds for years to sniff out – and kill – pests. “When dinner came out, there was food again.”
In the seating boxes near the dining room rats lurk any fallen crumbs. They are hiding in storm sewers, ready to rush.
These are nightmares for Brooklyn resident Dylan Wiener, who recently accidentally knocked down a dead rat with his bike. In recent months, he and his friends have noticed an increase in the number of rats outdoors.
“I’ve always had a phobia of rats. I don’t feel sorry for snakes or bedbugs, but rats, they have something, ”said Weiner, a transplant worker from London who likes to stay away from pests. “It’s okay to see them near the subway rails. It’s when you see one jump out in front of you and rush out of the trash can into a dumpster or restaurant … that’s when you feel a little disgusting ”.
He recalled a recent walk to the West Village, where one of the creatures landed.
“I shouted and ran,” he said. The rat may have also howled.
“Mine was so loud,” he said, “that it’s hard to tell if it’s mine or a rat.”