NYC rats: They’re in the park, on your block, and even at your table
Brittany Brown and her friends were finishing an outdoor dinner in Chelsea recently when, out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw something near the edge of the table.
Moments later she thought she had seen it again.
Then she made eye contact with a man sitting nearby and he confirmed what worried her: there was a rat on the table. As if that wasn’t disgusting enough, another one slipped through the restaurant shed as she left.
“It’s gross and kind of annoying,” said Ms. Brown, an editor who has lived in Manhattan for four years. She didn’t want to name the restaurant and pick it up after what she thought was a bigger problem.
“This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” she said.
Rodents are a permanent feature of New York. But across town you can hear the same thing: They’re running amok like never before.
As of Wednesday, more than 21,000 rat sightings had been reported this year, up from 311 compared to 15,000 in the same period in 2019 (and about 12,000 in 2014). The rate of the first health inspections to detect “active rat signs” has almost doubled in the past fiscal year. That year there were also 15 cases – most since at least 2006 – of leptospirosis, which can cause severe liver and kidney damage and which typically spreads via rat urine in the city, according to health officials. One case was fatal.
So add a rat plague to everything else New York faces when it comes to recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic. Taking some measures may have eased the problem a bit before the coronavirus hit. But the rodents have since roared back thanks to a clash of factors.
The tip is mostly in areas that have long been known to be infested, health officials insist. In one such area, Manhattan’s East Village, it was evident on a Friday night recently.
Jean O’Hearn, a lawyer, said she had never seen so many rats on her block on East Third Street between Avenues A and B in 28 years. As if on cue, one of them sped out from under a white SUV about two meters away and crossed the sidewalk.
“Oh there they are!” called a neighbor, James Gilbert, as the rodent slipped through a side door into a courtyard behind Ms. O’Hearn’s building. Seconds later, two more rushed off the street towards several garbage bags.
“They are everywhere,” said Mr. Gilbert.
Another neighbor, Maria Cortes, intervened: “They’re everywhere – and they’re fat!” Ms. Cortes, a 45-year-old tenant of the building, said she jingled her keys as she approaches the front door To get rats out of their way.
According to experts, exterminators and city officials, the perfect pandemic storm scenario behind the flood looks like this:
When restaurants closed, rats had to tidy up more outside. They found that gutters and street corner baskets were clogged with trash because the plumbing department’s budget was cut last year. Illegal dumping increased. Since most of the people were stuck at home, the municipal waste was also left over.
A few months after the city closed, the burrow that drives rats outside and, like everything else, had stopped, returned with gusto. Outdoor dining expanded as restaurants struggled to survive.
Along the way, inspectors, who normally hunt for evidence of rats, were deployed elsewhere, including mass vaccination centers and restaurants, to make sure they requested proof of vaccination.
A summer that was wetter than usual, coupled with other effects of a warming climate that helped the rats thrive, compounded the problem, health officials said. By October, the animals that breed productively had reached their annual population peak in the city, said Jason Munshi-South, associate professor of biological sciences at Fordham University.
Now that temperatures are dropping, rats may be a little less visible. But they will reappear en masse in the spring, ready to feast.
If they do, critics say, the restaurant sheds that helped save an industry become potential feeding grounds. Abandoned rodents are already playpens.
In a lawsuit filed last month to block the permanent expansion of outdoor dining, a group of townspeople cited the structures’ rat attractiveness as objections.
A plaintiff, Marcell Rocha, who lives on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side, said he often went on the street to avoid rodents.
“I don’t remember there was that much rubbish,” said Mr Rocha of the neighborhood, a popular nightlife destination.
Edward Grayson, the sanitary officer, admitted that the sheds, especially those that protrude over the curb, make the department’s job difficult and place more responsibilities on the restaurants that he expects them to fulfill.
“You’re not going to eat in a disgusting place,” said Mr. Grayson in an interview.
The budget cuts of last year have largely been restored and the ministry has “done everything to keep the streets clean”.
But Antonio Reynoso, a Brooklyn city council member who heads the sanitation committee and is the new district president, said those efforts were lacking.
“The city feels dirtier,” said Mr. Reynoso, expressing a popular opinion.
In Bushwick, the fourth most rat sighted neighborhood this year, Anjali Krishnan said “one of the most disgusting things” she saw was “a moving garbage bag that walks down the street and finds a rat inside is located “.
The “craziest” was someone who stepped on a rat, Ms. Krishnan said in an interview at Maria Hernandez Park, where rodents roamed near the bushes while people enjoyed games, music and food.
“I think I heard the rat and the person’s scream,” Ms. Krishnan said of the episode.
Rashanna Lee said she was impressed with the rats’ audacity.
“I just saw a rat when we were walking into the park and it was still light,” she said. “And I thought damn it was bold.”
Andy Linares, president of Upper Manhattan’s Bug Off Pest Control Center, said rats have undoubtedly “grown bolder in their search for food and shelter.” He described someone appearing under a dumpster and “strolling” across the street before sliding over a sewer grate.
“It was a jaywalk,” said Mr. Linares, who has run the business for 40 years.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned last year that rats could display “unusual or aggressive” behavior during the pandemic. However, a health ministry spokesman said there was “no evidence” that they were acting differently than usual.
Daniel Barber disagreed.
Mr. Barber, the citywide head of tenants’ associations for the New York City Housing Authority, recently took a reporter and photographer on a lunch tour of the Andrew Jackson Houses complex in the Bronx.
At about the same time the day before, Mr Barber said a pregnant rat ran through a garden near a group of men playing dominoes.
“It was huge,” he said.
No rats were seen that day, but there was ample evidence of their presence: caves and tree pits blocked with stones to prevent nesting – a pointless exercise, experts say.
New York’s most recent anti-rats initiative, a $ 32 million program in 2017, targeted the three most contaminated parts of the city, said Mayor Bill de Blasio: the Bronx’s Grand Concourse area; Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn; and a section of Manhattan that includes the East Village, the Lower East Side, and Chinatown.
Much of the money was earmarked for improving conditions in public housing, and some data suggests the program has met its targets of reducing rat activity in these areas by 2019. Now that rodents are on the rise again, the future of the program is unclear.
Stuffing dry ice in caves is one way the city is now waging war on the rats. Mr Linares, the exterminator, said poisons, bait boxes and other devices remained popular and that sales had increased during the pandemic. (The City website reported last month that rat poison had killed at least six birds found dead in local parks since January 2020.)
Eric Adams, the next mayor, previously touted what he called “an amazing device” in a radio interview in October: a toxic dunk tank that drowns rats in deadly soup.
“We’ll see these rat traps set up all over town,” Adams said in the interview.
Mr. Linares said the device was not new. Professor Munshi-South said it would do little to solve the problem. Both agreed that there was an urgent need for action, particularly with regard to restricting the food supply for rodents.
As for the sheds, Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, a trade group, said most restaurant owners have carefully kept buildings clean and prepared for strict sanitation if outdoor dining is to be expanded permanently.
“Perhaps it will be the trigger for New York to change the way it handles its trash,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ms. Brown cannot get rid of the memory of a rat having joined her at the dinner table.
“I had the feeling,” she said, “as if I had now survived eating outside.”
Michael Gold, Matthew Haag, Chelsia Rose Marcius and Talia Smith contributed to the coverage.