Sherzon Green, the president of the Mt. Morris Park Association, was clad in an elegant white skirt. She stood poised on the small step in front of the altar at Mount Morris Ascension Presbyterian Church in Harlem. She squirmed slightly as she spoke: “I called this meeting because the situation was just getting out of hand!,” she said. “It’s been crazy.”
For example Green said she no longer walks on the sidewalk, especially in the evenings, at the risk of getting hit by a car. “They pounce at you, from the lids on the trash cans. They jump,” she said, adding that she no longer leaves her grandchildren to play in the backyard, because “it’s not safe.”
The reason? Rats.
Men and women in fur coats and winter jackets chimed in from the pews, raising their hands and nodding in agreement, their voices echoing in the frigid church. They went around the room and talked about what cross-roads they live on, and how many they’ve seen there. “Yeah, they hold up the lids for each other! They’re everywhere,” said Jaennie Nedd, who has lived in Harlem for more than 20 years, many of them on 119th Street, where she is now a block association president.
The number of rats inhabiting New York City has been estimated from 250,000 to more than a million according to anthropological studies, but their population is notoriously hard to count precisely because of the dispersed and ever-growing nature of their colonies. In 2017, there were a total of 19,152 rodent complaints filed to the 311, and Harlem, together with the Upper West Side and Bedford-Stuyvesant, was at the top of the complaining neighborhoods chart.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $32 million, multi-agency plan to reduce rat activity by up to 70 percent in 2017. Manhattan’s Community District 10—where Mt. Morris Park is and where Nedd is block association president—has seen a surge in rat population in the past years according to residents, especially during the summer. To help combat the epidemic, the block association has enrolled in a Department of Health program to learn about safe and effective methods for rat prevention in their community, and get free rodent-resistant garbage bins.
Green passed the microphone to a short blonde woman in a teal green shirt with drawings of birds on it.
“Welcome to the rodent academy,” said Caroline Bragdon, the director of Neighborhood Interventions at the Bureau of Veterinary and Pest Control Services, AKA, the rat fighting boss of New York City’s Department of Health.
Bragdon stood before a group of 36 attentive, note-taking listeners and proceeded to detail methods on how to spot when rats are starting to appear on your property and what to do to prevent it. “Even when it’s just droppings, rats are already starting to populate your area,” she explained. Bragdon mentioned that some experts suggest using mint plants to shoo the rats away, but from the crowd a small woman squeaked back, and said she’d tried mint and had just “given them salad for their meals!” Asphyxiating rats by dumping dry ice into their boroughs and then letting them decay underground is also now a rat-controlling method, although it’s something only licensed pest control can carry out effectively, explained Bragdon.
Throughout the workshop, Bragdon explained that the reason more rats have moved into the Mt. Morris neighborhood is specifically because more families and more businesses, like small restaurants, have moved into the newly-popular area too. The growth in population leads to the growth in available waste, a sort of “dinner buffets for rats,” she said, especially when the trash isn’t being stored or collected properly.
New York City supplies copious data online to track where rats are and what their “status” is, including a “rat index” which maps out all the rat inspections conducted within neighborhoods. It’s available to the public on the city’s Department of Health rat portal, as is an interactive map going from single building to building.
The current climate situation has also helped create urban rat utopias across big cities in America. With hotter summers and milder, shorter winters, rats in New York City and elsewhere are experiencing a sort of baby-boom, giving rodent moms a longer period to breed and a possibility for more pregnancies. And that’s a big difference, when two rats in an ideal environment can turn into 482 million rats over a period of three years according to Rentokil, a pest control company.
Plus, rats aren’t just gross to look at.
They’re contributing to the public health crisis and causing economic damages. In the first study to look at what diseases New York City rats could transmit to humans, scientists from Columbia University found: E. coli, Salmonella, and C. difficile, that cause mild to life-threatening gastroenteritis in people; Seoul hantavirus, which causes Ebola-like hemorrhagic fever and kidney failure. However, this is just speculative work, because scientists still haven’t fully researched how much of an active threat rats are for people on a daily basis. Similarly, University of Florida conducted a study estimating that urban rats caused $19 billion of economic damage. They gnaw at electric cables and damage electric circuits in buildings; they perforate walls and doors, damaging insulation; they ruin merchandise for businesses, and in some specific neighborhoods they cause indirect losses from fees associated with pest-control professionals and rat prevention. They’re like a full-fledged community to take care of.
Rats are known as a “mirror species”—one which grows according to how population grows in a city, and as Robert Sullivan author of Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants put it plainly, one “thriving or suffering in the very cities where we do the same.”