Oh rats! As New Yorkers Emerge From the Pandemic, So Do Rodents

A rat leaves its burrow in a New York park. So far this year, people have reported some 7,100 rat sightings, up from around 5,800 in the same period last year, and an increase of more than 60% from the first four months of around 2019 , the last pre-pandemic year. Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

NEW YORK — They crawled to the surface as the coronavirus pandemic rocked New York City, rushing out of underground nests into the open, feasting on an assortment of leftovers in streets, parks and mounds of rubbish at the curb. As diners avoided indoors for alfresco dining, so did the city rats.

Now data from the city suggests the sightings are more frequent than they have been in a decade.

Through April, people called some 7,400 rat sightings to the city’s 311 service request line. That’s up from around 6,150 in the same period last year, and more than 60% from around the first four months of 2019, the last pre-pandemic year.

In each of the first four months of 2022, the number of sightings was the highest on record since at least 2010, online records from the first year are available. By comparison, there were about 10,500 sightings in all of 2010 and 25,000 such reports in all of last year (sightings are more frequent in warmer months).

Whether the rat population has increased is up for debate, but the pandemic might have made the situation more visible.

With more people spending time outdoors as temperatures warm, will rat sightings increase further?

“It depends on how much food they have and where they are,” said New York State pest control specialist Matt Frye, based at Cornell University.

While a return to pre-pandemic routines “is exciting after two years of COVID-enforced lifestyle changes,” Frye said in an email, “it also means business is business as usual for the rat problems that are directly related to human behavior”.

Rats have been a problem in New York since its founding. Each new generation of leaders has tried to find a better way to control the rodent population and has struggled to show results.

When Mayor Eric Adams was Brooklyn Borough President, he annoyed animal rights activists — and upset some reporters’ stomachs — by demonstrating a trap that used a bucket filled with a poisonous, vinegary soup to drown rats attracted by the smell of food.

Former Mayor Bill de Blasio spent tens of millions of dollars to reduce the rat population in targeted neighborhoods through more frequent trash pickup, more aggressive home inspections, and replacement of dirt floors in some apartment buildings with concrete floors.

The city also launched a program to use dry ice to smother rats in their burrows, once demonstrating the technique for reporters at an event where workers chased – but never caught – the rat. one of the fleeing creatures.

At a recent press conference in Times Square, Adams announced the city’s latest effort: padlocked curbside trash cans meant to reduce large piles of trash bags that turn into a buffet for rodents.

“You’re sick of rodents, you’re sick of the smell, you’re sick of seeing food, trash and spills,” the mayor said.

Not only do rats scare people who are easily disgusted, but they can also be a public health concern.

Last year, at least 13 people were hospitalized – one of whom died – due to leptospirosis, a disease that attacks the kidneys and liver. Most human infections are associated with rats.

As some cities consider making outdoor dining permanent — an option born out of necessity during the pandemic — they are aware of a further swelling rat population. Even before the pandemic, experts noticed an increase in rat populations in some of the nation’s largest cities.

Rats can survive on less than an ounce of food a day and rarely travel more than a block to find food, according to rat experts.

Some New York restaurants have erected curbside sheds to allow COVID-wary diners to eat outdoors. But unfinished meals left on tables have sometimes attracted cheeky four-legged bandits – at Pizza Rat, which shot to fame in 2015 after a video went viral showing the rodent dragging a slice of pizza down a subway staircase (debates raged at the time over whether the video was staged).

As fewer people used the subway, there were fewer bites to feast on in the tunnels.

“What’s happened during the pandemic is your restaurants have closed,” said Richard Reynolds, whose rat-hunting group for years periodically takes out teams of dogs to sniff out — and kill — vermin. . “When eating out came, there was food again.”

In the planters outside the dining sheds, rats watch for any fallen crumbs. They hide in storm drains ready to rush.

It’s the stuff of nightmares for Brooklyn resident Dylan Viner, who recently accidentally hit a dead rat with his bike. In recent months, he and his friends have noticed an increase in the number of rats out in the open.

“I’ve always had a phobia of rats. I’m not sick of snakes or bugs – but rats, there’s something about them,’ said Viner, a London transplant, who likes to keep his distance from vermin. “It’s OK to see them around the subway tracks. It’s when you see one jump in front of you and rush from a trash can to a dumpster or a restaurant… that’s when you feel a little disgusted.

He recalled a recent walk through the West Village, where a stride landed on one of the creatures.

“I screamed and ran,” he said. The rat could have screamed too.

“Mine was so strong,” he said, “that it’s hard to tell if it was mine or the rat’s.”

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