New Construction Brings Unwanted Newcomers: Rats

Rats Poison Sign

One of the signs noting an area has been treated with rat poison. (NY City Lens/Tatyana Ilienko-Chung)

“They are huge,” said Iimani David, the president of the New York Literary Society and a resident of Crown Heights. He pointed at a piece of mesh hanging from the window that had been initially used as a protective wrap for an air conditioner. “They are like brown bears—live where the food is.”  “They” are RATS and more of them are on the way.

Rats in Crown Heights

Mesh is used to prevent rats from squeezing through gaps. (NY City Lens/Tatyana Ilienko-Chung)

Crown Heights, one of the neighborhoods in Brooklyn that is changing rapidly with the arrival of wealthy newcomers, the departure of the poorer long-time residents, and rising rent prices and housing values, is experiencing an unexpected and, rather furry, side effect: demolitions, tear downs and new developments not only annoy the locals but destroy rats’ nests and make them look for new havens. Rodents run to the nearby buildings, producing a deep howl of rage from the residents.

“Crown Heights is indeed an area of Brooklyn that experiences a high concentration of rat sightings,” said Dr. Michael Walsh, a professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health, whose research analyses the rats’ distribution in NYC from an epidemiological perspective. Though his work is concentrated on open public spaces, he said that “a construction site may also provide similar opportunities for human-rat interaction.”

Margaret English, who lives at 897 Park Place, said that she has noticed an increased number of rats in recent months and weeks: “There are no mice around,” she said, “only rats.” Just a couple of weeks ago, she found a rat “looking like a squirrel,” on the building’s front yard — in broad daylight. One of her neighbors killed it with a brick. “They are running from somewhere else,” she said. “Somewhere else” is the developments around Ms. English’s building. “In recent years there has been a lot of construction, especially in Brooklyn,” said an exterminator, Mack from Mack Attack Pest at 823 Park Place. “A lot of rats run down the streets.”

By overlapping a map from the New York real-estate website of current construction in the area with the map from Rat Information Portal (RIP) with past rodent inspections, it is possible to guess where the rats are coming from. St. Charles Place, where Iimani David lives, is located just one block away from 1515 Bedford Ave, a former address of the Fox Savoy Theater, which was demolished to be replaced by an apartment building. It is also the same address where the Department of Health conducted its inspection in 2011, with the result displayed on the map as “Active Rat Signs.” Ms. English’s building is also just a block away from 834 Sterling Place, a future 46-apartment condominium. The inspector who visited this place in 2012 found the same problems. A major construction site is underway at 564 St John’s Place, with 172 units in the eight-story building’s plan. Just a couple of months ago, a rat inspection also found strong presence of the species there.

“Basically, it is like an earthquake. In the earthquake what happens? People move towards safer areas. The same thing is going on here,” said a representative of Community Board 8, who, as she always does, asked to remain nameless. According to her, all construction sites, before they begin digging, are supposed to do pre-baiting, when poisoned bait is combined with a harmless bait: “Because when they start pre-grounding, that is what brings rats on surface.” Pre-baiting is a commonly used method to make rats acquire a new habit. Unlike mice who are curious, rats are neophobic: they are afraid of everything new. During the non-toxic stage rats become accustomed to certain types of food in certain places. Consequently, when poisonous food is introduced, rats eat it without fear or suspicion.

There is a lot of speculation about the exact number of rats in NYC. Some people still believe in the old “one rat per person” formula but not so many know that it was first suggested by W.R. Boelter in his study, The Rat Problem, in 1909 and applied to the English countryside alone, not the cities. In his 1949 research, ecologist David E. Davis estimated that the number of rats in NYC was “no more than 250,000, or one rat for 36 persons.” Nowadays, some experts argue that there are actually twice as many rats as there are people in the city. It is not surprising, given their rapid reproductive rate. Female brown rats can produce more than 12 litters a year with approximately 8 pups per litter. Being highly sociable animals, rats tend to live in groups and take care of all young together including orphaned baby rats, which also increase their chances to survive.

Rats are dangerous, however. Besides being simply unpleasant, they are frequent carriers of many diseases.  According to Dr. Walsh, “Rats in NYC carry the bacteria that cause leptospirosis and bartonellosis. Both can be serious, although transmission from rats to humans is not particularly common.” Dr. Matt Perzanowski, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, whose research is focused on understanding the exposures that lead to allergy and asthma, said that rats and mice have special protein that could be a culprit in allergic reactions and, though it is less studied, probably to asthma as well.

“The city needs to do something about it,” said Davis.

The city, according to the representative of CB8, is already doing something: “People call 311, the Department Of Health does an investigation.” If the rat problem is identified, the Health Department does baiting and bill a property owner after that. For those who want to take their knowledge about the rodents to a new level, there are half-day courses in rat management open to everyone offered by the Rat Information Portal.

In the meantime, residents can do their part to keep rats off their property. “The main things would be to make sure that, as best as possible, there are no openings inside the home through which rats can enter, and to make sure garbage is not collecting and sitting in open or common spaces in residential buildings,” said Dr. Walsh.