Rats in New York City
Rats in New York City are prevalent, as in many densely populated areas. For a long time, the exact number of rats in New York City was unknown, and a common urban legend was that there were up to four times as many rats as people. In 2014, however, scientists more accurately measured the entire city's population to be approximately only 25% of the number of humans; i.e., there were approximately 2 million rats to New York's 8.4 million people at the time of the study.
The city's rat population is dominated by the brown rat (also known as the Norway rat). The average adult brown rat is 16 to 20 inches (410 to 510 mm) long and weighs 1 to 2 pounds (0.45 to 0.91 kg). The adult rat can squeeze through holes or gaps the size of a quarter (0.955 inches (24.3 mm), leap 4 feet (1.2 m) laterally, survive a five-story drop, and tread water for three days. Each litter has up to a dozen kittens. Rats can mate at the age of two or three months and produce a new litter every two months. They live about a year.
New York City rats carry pathogens that can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and fever in humans, especially in children. The pathogens they carry include bacteria such as Clostridium difficile (C. diff), Salmonella, E. coli, and Leptospira. Bartonella bacteria cause cat scratch disease, trench fever, and Carron disease. These bacteria may be spread through contact with rat feces, saliva, or urine. Rats can carry disease-causing viruses such as sapoviruses, cardioviruses, kobuviruses, parechoviruses, rotaviruses, hepaciviruses, and Seoul virus. Rats carry fleas that are vectors of diseases such as bubonic plague, typhus, and spotted fever. In addition, some people have an allergic reaction to the presence of rodent feces, hair, or urine.
New York City rodent complaints can be made online, or by dialing 3-1-1, and the New York City guide Preventing Rats on Your Property discusses how the New York City Health Department inspects private and public properties for rats. Property owners that fail inspections receive a Commissioner's Order and have five days to correct the problem. If after five days the property fails a second inspection, the owner receives a Notice of Violation and can be fined. The property owner is billed for any clean-up or extermination carried out by the Health Department.
Rarely seen in daylight, rats have been reported in New York City since early colonial days. As recently as 1944, two distinct species were prevalent: the brown rat (Norway rat) and the black rat (ship rat, roof rat). Over the next few decades, the more aggressive brown variety displaced the black rats, typically by attacking and killing them, but also by outcompeting them for food and shelter. By 2014, the city's rat population was dominated by the brown rat.
The brown rat is 16 to 20 inches (410 to 510 mm) long and weighs 1 to 2 pounds (0.45 to 0.91 kg). It is brown or gray in color, with a lighter-colored belly. It is nocturnal, and sleeps approximately 10 hours a day.
Rats are elusive by nature, and public health officials have not developed any reliable way to estimate their numbers. An often-repeated statistic is that there are more rats than people in the five boroughs of New York City (8.4 million in 2014), with some estimates putting the number of rats far higher at as many as four rats per person (33.6 million). However, a 2014 study by Jonathan Auerbach, reported in the Royal Statistical Society's Significance magazine, estimated that there were closer to 2 million rats in the city.
In 2014, the television channel Animal Planet named New York City the "Worst Rat City in the World", and rodentologist Bobby Corrigan called New York City the "USA's No. 1 Pestropolis." Studies indicate that compared to other cities within the United States, the city is particularly well-suited for rats, taking into account such variables as human population patterns, public sanitation practices, climate, housing construction standards and other variables. Experts consider that the actual population varies, depending on climate, sanitation practices, efforts to control the population, and season.
Food and shelter
Rats only require an ounce (28 grams) of food and water a day to live. Rats primarily find food and shelter at human habitations and therefore interact with humans in various ways. In particular, the city's rats adapt to practices and habits among New Yorkers for disposing of food waste. Curbside overnight garbage disposal from residences, stores, subway and restaurants, as well as littering, contribute to the sustenance of the city's rats. Rats almost always use the same routes to their food sources. Rat infestations have increased as a result of budget reductions and more wasteful disposal of food.
Rats burrow underground or create nests in suitable soft material, with a small group of rats in each nest. Brown rats prefer to live at ground level or below. They congregate in colonies of 30 to 50 rats. Rats live 100 feet (30 m) to 400 feet (120 m) from their food source.
The rat can squeeze through holes or gaps the size of a quarter (0.955 inches (24.3 mm)), because unlike many mammals its skull is not plated together so it can change the shape of its head and squeeze through a very small opening. They are able to leap 4 feet (1.2 m) laterally and can fall five floors without any injuries. An adult rat can tread water for three days. They typically travel tight, well-worn paths. Each litter has up to a dozen pups. Rats can mate at the age of two or three months and then produce a new litter every two months. The rats live about a year, rarely traveling more than 600 feet (180 m) from where they were born.
Disease, allergies, asthma, and damage
The greatest danger to humans is from diseases rats can transmit. City-dwelling rats carry pathogens that can cause diarrhea and vomiting in humans. Disease-causing bacteria commonly carried by rats include E. coli, Clostridium difficile (C. diff), and Salmonella. The bacteria can be spread by contact with rat feces, saliva, or urine. Viral diseases spread by rats include rat-bite fever and hemorrhagic fevers caused by Seoul hantavirus.
A survey conducted by Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health in 2014 studied 133 brown rats from residential buildings in Manhattan. The rats carried numerous pathogens that can cause serious illness in humans, including bacteria (Salmonella and E. coli) that cause food poisoning and dermatitis, pathogens that cause fevers (such as Seoul hantavirus and Leptospira), sapoviruses, cardioviruses, kobuviruses, parechoviruses, rotaviruses, and hepaciviruses, including some never before seen in New York. While at least 18 of the viruses found are known to cause diseases in humans, it is unclear how infectious the rats are to residents. Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit scientific organization that researches links between human health and wildlife, called the study "shocking and surprising". Given the close quarters shared by rats and New York City residents, he found it to be "a recipe for a public health nightmare."
A 2015 joint study by Columbia University and Cornell University found that the rats are infested with fleas, lice, and mites that carry bacteria that can cause disease in humans, including bubonic plague, typhus, spotted fever. They found an average of four fleas per rat, a sharp increase from a 1925 study that found four out of five rats had no fleas at all. Bartonella pathogens (which can cause cat scratch disease, trench fever, and Carron disease) and various viruses were also found in New York City's rats in this study. These results were confirmed by a study published in 2015 in the Journal of Medical Entomology. A higher risk of allergies and asthma is linked to exposure to rodent hair, droppings, and urine, especially in children.
The NYC Health Department recommends that people bitten by a rat seek immediate medical attention, as bacteria from the rat's teeth can cause tetanus as well as rat bite fever, which can be fatal.
The problem of rats in New York City is a longstanding one. In 1860, The New York Times reported that a newborn infant had died after rats had eaten part of its face and one foot. The NYC Health Department undertook an anti-rat campaign in 1921 that involved rat-proofing as well as trapping and killing rats.
Rats in New York have been known to overrun restaurants after hours and crawl up sewer pipes, as well as enter apartments through toilets. They have attacked homeless people, eaten cadavers in the city morgue, and bitten infants and young children to get food off their faces. Babies are frequent victims, especially if left alone with food or a bottle.
In 2003, a fire station in Queens was condemned and demolished after rats had taken over the building. In 2007, a morning news program featured a live report of a pack of rats overrunning a pair of fast food restaurants in Greenwich Village. According to New York City Health Department statistics, there were 86 rat bites reported in 2010. Many bites go unreported. In 2011, a video of a rat climbing on a sleeping man's face on the subway went viral. Rats are so common that ex-Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer quipped in 2013, "The rats don't scurry. They walk right up to you and say, 'How are you, Mr. Borough President?'"
In 2014, New York City Councilman Mark D. Levine said at a public hearing that "We've had rats who are going into cars and eating out electrical cables. We have rats that are entering homes." He described the problem as "epidemic" on some streets in Manhattan.
In 2014, YouTube videos of rats on subway tracks and in a subway car in New York City went viral, as did videos of rats in a Dunkin' Donuts in Manhattan. In June 2014, residents at adjacent Upper West Side buildings started a rent strike, demanding an end to the rat problem. Also in 2014, Allerton Coops in Bronx Park East received three Notices of Violation from the Health Department and was fined for their inadequate response to a severe rat infestation.
In 2015, a YouTube video of a rat carrying a slice of pizza in the subway went viral. The video was trending worldwide on Twitter and Facebook within 15 hours of the YouTube upload, and garnered 5 million views within two days. and spawned similar staged videos with trained rats such as Selfie Rat.
The New York City Department of Health handles enforcement of rat infestation problems in New York City. Local authorities in New York have long recognized that eliminating rats from the city is unrealistic, but have made various efforts to control their prevalence. The approach has traditionally been reactive: after receiving complaints of infestation, officials would commence control efforts at that site by placing rodent poison, traps, or contraceptives.
In recent years, the city adopted a more proactive approach to rodent control known as integrated pest management, which focuses on preventive measures. Such efforts include developing a rodent control map using geotagging to focus countermeasures more systematically, instituting a "Rodent Control Academy" that trains city employees on rat behavior and control, and emphasizing building integrity and garbage disposal. In 2009, the Health Department began offering a half-day course in combating rat infestations. In 2010, the city cut its budget for rodent control programs by $1.5 million to help reduce an overall deficit of $2 billion.
In 2013, it was announced that New York municipal authorities would implement a plan for mass sterilization of the city's rats, using a chemical to neutralize the reproductive systems of female rats. Bait stations loaded with the chemical were to be deployed. The chemical's effects were to gradually shrink the number of kittens a female rat can have in a litter, eventually rendering them infertile.
The Upper West Side and the Upper East Side logged the most rat complaints to the Health Department from 2010 to mid-2014. In 2014 the Health Department hired 9 new inspectors to augment its staff of 45. With $611,000 in funding, the new squad was tasked with targeting major infestations in the South Bronx and Manhattan.
New York City property owners and managing agents are legally responsible for keeping their properties rat-free through maintenance measures and the use of pest control professionals. Conditions both inside and outside of buildings, including on public property, that contribute to or allow the establishment of rat populations constitute violations of Article 151 of the Health Code.
Maintenance measures include proper storage of garbage, removal of water sources, and elimination of environments suitable for nesting. Garbage cans need to be rat-resistant and made out of metal rather than plastic. Because rats easily chew through plastic, the Health Department recommends placing plastic garbage bags inside rat-resistant metal garbage cans. Garbage should be placed out on the street close to the pickup time, rather than the night before.
New York City publishes a guide for property owners and tenants, entitled Preventing Rats on Your Property: A Guide for Property Owners and Tenants, that discusses how the Health Department inspects for rats, and how to control rats, including looking for evidence, cleaning up, starving them, shutting them out, and wiping them out. The guide covers the use of traps, rat poison, and wire mesh at the base of trees, as well as the new rules for garbage pickup, with landlords bringing out garbage in the morning immediately prior to pickup rather than the night before. Rodent baiting is suggested as an effective approach to wiping out rats.
New York City property owners and residents are advised to watch for signs of infestation like gnawed wood and plastic and evidence of rat trails. Property should be inspected to look for entry points such as gaps around pipes.
An online map created by the New York City Department of Health enables people to search specific addresses for rat issues. The Village Voice asked readers to email them about incidents of rat sightings.
Government complaints and inspections
The New York City guide Preventing Rats on Your Property discusses how the NYC Health Department, through its Pest Control Services program, inspects private and public properties for rats. Property owners that fail an inspection receive a Health Department Commissioner's Order and have five days to correct the problem. If after five days the property fails a second inspection, the owner receives a Notice of Violation and can be fined. If the Health Department feels it must itself exterminate or clean up the property, the property owner is billed (about $1,000 a day in 2004). Unpaid charges become a priority lien against the building, preventing property owners from selling with a clean legal title. Failure to comply with an order of the Commissioner is a misdemeanor, and subjects the landlord to criminal prosecution, a fine and/or imprisonment, as well as additional civil penalties. The penalty for each rodent violation was as high as $2,000 in 2004.
In 2014, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer criticized the Health Department as “weak” in investigating and fixing residents' rat complaints. From fiscal year 2012 to fiscal year 2013, pest complaints, including rat problems, increased 10 percent in the city, and 24 percent of the time Health Department workers failed to inspect the complaints in the 10-day target period, an audit by the comptroller found. In 160 cases, the Health Department failed to carry out any field inspection. Caroline Bragdon at the Department of Health said: "The inspection is only as good as the inspector on that day and time. If you feel we're really missing the boat, which sometimes we do, let your community board and elected officials know."
- Wilsey, Sean (March 17, 2005). "Some of them can read". London Review of Books. 27 (6). pp. 9–10. Retrieved April 5, 2010.
- Caroline Winter (October 30, 2012). "NYC Rats: Stronger Than Sandy". Business Week. Retrieved August 11, 2014.
- Robert Sullivan (2008). Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 5–6. ISBN 1596919175.
- Ryan Bradley (April 23, 2015). "The Rat Paths of New York; How the city's animals get where they're going." The New York Times Magazine
- Netburn, Deborah (November 3, 2014). "Eight million rats in New York? Not even close, a new study says". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 5, 2014.
- Megan Gannon (November 6, 2014). "Turns out rats don't outnumber people in NYC". Retrieved June 7, 2015.
- Sarah Matheson (September 1, 2014). "The Relentless Rats of New York City". The Epoch Times.
- Chan, Sewell (October 4, 2007). "New York Tops a List for Rat Risk Factors". The New York Times. New York. Retrieved April 5, 2010.
- Emily Frost (August 1, 2014). "How To Fight a Rat Infestation on Your Block". DNAinfo New York.
- Marshall, Lauren (November 13, 2000). "Columbia Hosts First Rat Summit; Experts Seek to Control City's Rodent Population". Columbia University Record. New York: Columbia University.
- Amy Zimmer (October 3, 2014). "How to Prevent and Fight Rodent Infestations". DNAinfo New York.
- Kleinfield, N. R. (July 12, 2000). "Rats Love New York; That Doesn't Make Them Welcome". The New York Times. Retrieved January 9, 2016.
- Joel Rose (August 29, 2014). "Rats! New York City Tries To Drain Rodent 'Reservoirs'". NPR.
- Barry Bearak (July 14, 1994). "New York Losing the Rat Race: East Side, West Side, vermin are all around the town. But budget cuts and a trash incinerator ban have made this an especially miserable summer for weary residents and wary exterminators.". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 9, 2016.
- Samantha Tata (October 15, 2014). "NYC's rats are crawling with diseases: study". New York's PIX11-TV.
- Peyton Guyion (March 3, 2015). "Bubonic plague-carrying fleas found on New York City rats". The Independent.
- Zimmer, Carl (October 14, 2014). "Rats and Their Alarming Bugs". The New York Times. Retrieved October 15, 2014.
- Lindsay Deutsch (October 15, 2014). "Researchers uncover the disgusting truth about NYC rats". USA Today.
- Meredith Engel; Kerry Burke; Dareh Gregorian (March 3, 2015). "Oh rats! Study finds New York City rodents found with fleas that could carry bubonic plague, other more dangerous viruses". Daily News. New York. Retrieved January 9, 2015.
- "New York City rats, fleas could carry bubonic plague". CBS News. March 3, 2015.
- M. J. Frye; C. Firth; M. Bhat; M. A. Firth; X. Che; D. Lee; S. H. Williams; W. I. Lipkin (March 2, 2015). "Preliminary Survey of Ectoparasites and Associated Pathogens from Norway Rats in New York City". Journal of Medical Entomology.
- Alison Bowen (December 26, 2014). "100 New Yorkers bitten by rats each year". Metro.
- "Rats at Bellevue Hospital.; The Case of the New-born Child Gnawed by Vermin – Investigation by the Commissioners of Public Charities—How the Hospital is Overrun". The New York Times. June 23, 2014. Retrieved November 3, 2015.
- "Quarterly Bulletin (New York (N.Y.). Dept. of Health). 1921–22".
- "See How Easily a Rat Can Wriggle Up Your Toilet". National Geographic. Retrieved August 23, 2015.
- Cilgann, Corey (August 7, 2003). "A Detested Emblem of Decay Is Scurrying Back. Ah, Rats!". The New York Times. Retrieved April 6, 2010.
- Chan, Sewell (December 5, 2006). "In Epic Battle, the Rat Patrol Adjusts Its Aim and Digs In". The New York Times. New York.
- Sikuver, Caleb (February 23, 2000). "Taco Bell Rats are Stars for a Day". CNN.
- Josh Sanburn (January 14, 2011). "Shocking NYC Subway Rat Video: Some Say It's Staged, But New Yorkers Know Better". Time.
- Rebecca Hiscott. "City Fights Back Against Upper West Side Rat Infestation". Observer.
- Tina Susman (May 30, 2014). "New York City declares war on rats". Los Angeles Times.
- Andrew Ramos (August 18, 2014). "WATCH: Massive NYC subway rat attacks straphanger". New York's PIX11/WPIX-TV.
- Christopher Mathias (April 9, 2014). "This Is What Happens When A Rat Rides The New York City Subway (VIDEO)". The Huffington Post.
- Sarah Boboltz (May 15, 2014). "Subway Rats Are Actually The Ultimate New Yorkers, So Stop Hating". The Huffington Post.
- Ashley Collman (April 2, 2014). "Rats feast on croissants and climb up curtains at Manhattan Dunkin' Donuts in video that's enough to turn you off breakfast". Daily Mail.
- Michael Walsh; Lee Moran (April 3, 2014). "Rats scurry through food at Dunkin' Donuts in Manhattan (VIDEO)". Daily News. New York.
- Ransom, Jan (July 1, 2014). "Upper West Siders reaffirm rent strike, protesting rodents, 'slum' conditions". Daily News. New York.
- Cunningham, Jennifer H. (April 15, 2015). "City steps in to save Allerton Coops from rat plague; The Health Department has launched an aggressive extermination campaign to rid the Allerton Coops of the large rodents menacing residents. Tenants say landlord Chaim Schweid, and property management company Bronx Park East LLC, have failed to tackle the ongoing severe infestation". Daily News. New York.
- Cunningham, Jennifer H. (April 2, 2014). "Bronx's Allerton Coops under siege by large rats". Daily News. New York. Retrieved November 3, 2015.
- Cunningham, Jennifer H. (February 12, 2014). "Tenants of the Allerton Coops say their complex is overrun with drug dealers, poorly maintained". Daily News. New York. Retrieved November 3, 2015.
- Respers France, Lisa (September 22, 2015). "Pizza Rat: Our newest obsession". CNN. Retrieved September 23, 2015.
- See also: New York City rat taking pizza home on the subway (Pizza Rat). 2015. Retrieved 2016-02-12.
- "The three stages of going viral in 2015, according to the Pizza Rat meme". The Washington Post. September 22, 2015. Retrieved September 23, 2015.
- Zardulu as the subject of an episode of the podcast Reply All
- Sylvia Shapiro (1998). The Co-Op Bible: Everything You Need to Know About Co-ops and Condos; Getting In, Staying In, Surviving, Thriving. Macmillan.
- Christine Gorman (December 15, 2008). "Mapping the Rats of New York city". Time.
- Segal, David (March 20, 2007). "New York Tackles Its Gnawing Rat Problem". The Washington Post.
- "Rodents winning New York rat race, but humans fight back". Daily News. New York. June 15, 2014.
- Christine Gorman (December 15, 2008). "Mapping the Rats in New York City". Time.
- "NYC Rodent Control Academy". New York: City of New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
- "Rat Information Portal". City of New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
- "An Upper West Side Condominium Battles Rat Infestation". Habitat Magazine. December 1, 2014.
- Carvajal, Kathy; Luke Funk (March 31, 2010). "New York City Rat Control Worries". MyFoxNews.
- John Metcalfe (April 1, 2013). "The Surprisingly Gentle Science Behind New York's Plan to Sterilize Its Rats – CityLab". CityLab. Retrieved August 11, 2014.
- "Aww, rats! Residents near Central Park complain about rodents". New York Post. August 30, 2014.
- "Central Park Rats – Upper West Side Rats". The Real Deal New York. August 31, 2014.
- "New York City launches new attack on problem of rats". ABC7 New York. May 29, 2014.
- "Rat Information Portal". New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene.
- "Article 151: Rodents, Insects, and other Pests" (PDF). New York City Department of Health.
- "Rats: Let's Stop Them" (PDF). New York City Department of Health. June 2004. Retrieved January 9, 2016.
- "New York City launches new attack on problem of rats". ABC7 New York.
- "Preventing Rats on Your Property: A Guide for Property Owners and Tenants" (PDF). New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene.
- "Rodent Problem: Where to Look For a Mouse in the House or a Rat Infestation". Knockoutpest.com. 2012. Retrieved August 11, 2014.
- JoAnna Klein (January 23, 2015). "Are New York City's Rats Really Partial to Chinese Food?". The Village Voice.
- "Rodent Complaint Form". City of New York.
- "Rodent Complaint Form". City of New York.
- "Rats, Mice, and Other Pests". New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene.