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, though there is also a sizable Norway rat population. The average brown rat grows to be 16 inches (410 mm) long and weigh 1 pound (0.45 kg), though some have been known to grow to be 20 inches (510 mm) long and weigh 2 pounds (0.91 kg). The rats are able to chew through pipe and cinder block. Each litter has up to a dozen pups, and newborn rats can mate at the age of two or three months and produce a new litter every two months. The rats live about a year.
New York City rats carry pathogens that can cause serious illness, diarrhea, vomiting, and fever in humans, especially in children, with symptoms that can range from mild to severe. The pathogens that they carry include bacteria that cause food poisoning (e.g., Salmonella and a strain of E. coli that causes terrible diarrhea) and dermatitis, pathogens that cause fevers (such as Leptospira), viruses from groups that contain important human pathogens including E. coli, serious and sometimes fatal rat-bite fever, Clostridium difficile (C. diff), sapoviruses, cardioviruses, kobuviruses, parechoviruses, rotaviruses, hepaciviruses, bubonic plague, typhus, spotted fever, Bartonella pathogens (which can cause a wide range of clinical syndromes in humans, some severe, including cat scratch disease, trench fever, and Carron disease), and Seoul hantavirus (which can cause hemorrhagic fever). These bacteria typically spread when rats leave behind saliva, urine, or feces that humans or their pets come into contact with. In addition, the rats carry fleas (including Oriental rat fleas), lice, and mites that can carry bacteria that can cause serious diseases in humans. In addition to disease risks, higher risk of allergies and asthma is linked to exposure to rodent hair, droppings, and urine, especially in children.
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 possibly fines. If the Health Department feels it must itself exterminate or clean up the property, the property owner is billed.
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 ship rat (black 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 because of their larger size.
By 2014, the city's rat population was dominated by the brown rat. The average brown rat grows to be 16 inches (410 mm) long and weigh 1 pound (0.45 kg), though some have been known to grow to be 20 inches (510 mm) long and weigh 2 pounds (0.91 kg). The "brown rat" is gray or brown 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 the prevalence of rats in the city. 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 renowned 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, etc. However, 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 places 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 all the time travel the same routes to their food sources. Rat infestations have increased as a result of budget reductions and more wasteful disposal of food.
For shelter, rats may burrow, nest, and hide in soft dirt, such as in the ground beneath trees in New York City. Brown rats prefer to live at ground level or below. As many as 9 of them live together in a burrow, and all told they live in families or colonies of 30 to 50 rats. Rats live 100 feet (30 m) to 400 feet (120 m) from their food source.
The Norway 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 for a maximum of five floors without any injuries. In addition, an adult rat can tread water for three days. The rats are able to chew through pipe and cinder block, though they typically travel tight, well-worn paths. Each litter has up to a dozen pups, and newborn 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, and throughout their lives, rats rarely travel more than 600 feet (180 m) from where they were born.
Disease, allergies, asthma, and damage
The greatest danger to humans is from the diseases rats can transmit. City-dwelling rats carry pathogens that can cause diarrhea and vomiting in humans. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, especially if the rats are carrying E. coli, Clostridium difficile (C. diff), or Salmonella. Serious and sometimes fatal rat-bite fever, and Seoul hantavirus — which can cause hemorrhagic fever — are also carried by rats. These bacteria typically spread when rats leave behind saliva, urine, or feces that humans or their pets come into contact with.
A survey conducted by Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health in 2014 recorded the DNA of 133 Norway rats trapped throughout Manhattan, focusing on those in residential buildings. The results showed the rats carried numerous pathogens that can cause serious illness in humans, including bacteria that caused food poisoning (e.g., Salmonella and a strain of E. coli that causes terrible diarrhea) and dermatitis, pathogens that cause fevers (such as Seoul hantavirus and Leptospira), viruses from groups that contain important human pathogens including sapoviruses, cardioviruses, kobuviruses, parechoviruses, rotaviruses, and hepaciviruses, and also including some never before seen in New York and some completely unknown to science. 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", and, in particular, given the close quarters shared by rats and New York City residents, said, "This is a recipe for a public health nightmare."
A 2015 joint study by Columbia University and Cornell University found that diseases including the bubonic plague, typhus, spotted fever, Bartonella pathogens (which can cause a wide range of clinical syndromes in humans, some severe, including cat scratch disease, trench fever, and Carron disease), and various viruses are carried by New York City's rats, and that the rats carry fleas (including Oriental rat fleas), lice, and mites that can carry bacteria that can cause serious diseases in humans. Fleas pass along disease by regurgitating rats’ infected blood and guts when they bite into human hosts. While a 1925 study found one out of five rats were carrying a flea, the Cornell/Columbia study found an average of four fleas on a rat. These results were confirmed by a study published in 2015 in the Journal of Medical Entomology.
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.
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.
The problem of rats in New York City is a longstanding one. In 1860, The New York Times reported on a newborn infant being mutilated by rats at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, the nose of the child, upper lip, a portion of its cheeks, the toes of its left foot, and a portion of its foot having been apparently eaten off. In 1921, the NYC Health Department engaged in an anti-rat campaign that required rat-infested areas in the city be rat-proofed, and the rats to be poisoned with barium carbonate mixed with flour, fumigated with cyanide gas, or trapped.
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 also attacked homeless people, eaten cadavers in the city morgue, and bitten infants and young children to get food off their faces. Babies are most frequently the rat-bite victims, especially if the baby is left 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. In 2010, there were 86 instances reported in which rodents bit New Yorkers, according to New York City Health Department statistics, though many bites go unreported. In 2011, a video of a rat climbing on a sleeping man's face as he was on the New York City Subway went viral. Rats were so common that ex-Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer quipped in 2013, "I live on 71st Street. The rats don’t scurry. They walk right up to you and say, 'How are you, Mr. Borough President?'"
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 demanded an end to the rat problem they said had reached epidemic proportions, and started a rent strike. Also in 2014, residents of the Allerton Coops in Bronx Park East said that the landlord and the property management company had failed to address an ongoing severe rat infestation, despite three Notices of Violation from the Health Department, as well as attendant fines.
In 2015, another YouTube video of a rat carrying a slice of pizza in the subway went viral. Within 15 hours of the YouTube upload, the video was trending worldwide on Twitter and Facebook, and within two days, the video garnered 5 million views.
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.
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, and noting signs of infestation such as burrows, droppings, claw marks, and gnawed holes, officials would target control efforts at that local site by placing rodent poison, traps, or contraceptives.
In recent years, the city adopted a more proactive and strategic approach to rodent control known as integrated pest management, by focusing 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 things such as rat behavior and control, as well as emphasizes building integrity and garbage disposal. In 2009, the Health Department began a Rat Academy open to members of the public, that offered a half-day course describing how to identify rat infestations and what to do about them. 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 pups a female rat can have in a litter, eventually rendering them infertile. Out of all neighborhoods in the city, 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 mayor approved a "Rat Squad", with $611,000 in funding, to target rat infestations in Manhattan and the South Bronx, and the Health Department hired 9 new inspectors to augment the 45 inspectors they already had. In 2014, Caroline Bragdon, a research scientist in the Department of Health, was known as the "rat czar" for her expertise on rat infestation problem.
New York City property owners and managing agents are legally responsible for maintaining a rat-free environment. The New York City Health Code requires property owners to: clean their properties, eliminate conditions that lead to rats, and when appropriate to hire a pest management professional. Conditions both in 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.
These include accumulation of garbage, waste material, water, conditions in which rats may find shelter or hide, and garbage that is not maintained in tightly covered rat-resistant trash cans. To address a rat infestation, property owners should use metal trash cans with tight-fitting lids. Because rats easily chew through plastic, the Health Department strongly recommends placing plastic garbage bags inside of garbage cans. Also, if property owners have a rat infestation, they should put their garbage out on the street only in the morning when it is close to the actual 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. In addition to traps, rat poison, mesh wiring at the base of trees along the sidewalk, new rules for garbage pickup are applied to address rat infestations, with landlords bringing out their 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 were advised to keep a keen eye out for signs of infestation like gnawed wood and plastic—rats chew to cut their teeth—and grease and dropping trails. As well as to inspect for places of entry like gaps around pipes.
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 their 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 possibly fines. 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), and the job may take several weeks. Unpaid charges become a priority lien against the building, preventing those sellers seeking to sell an interest in the building from selling with a clean legal title. Failure by a landlord 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.
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.
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.
In popular culture
In 2014, Simon & Schuster's Margaret K. McElderry imprint published the first book of the Mouseheart trilogy. In the children's series, a young mouse stumbles across a rat utopia below the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
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