City rat sightings, complaints are up

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“When I stepped on it, my foot bounced back. Then it slid around my ankle, went right to my toe, and bit.” The tooth belonged to one of the very few rats that bit a human in New York City in 2004. The toe belonged to Alana Jay, who happened to wear flip-flops that day in the Lower East Side. She switched to boots the next day.

New York rats are Norway rats, though they are not from Norway, and they don’t have rabies, so Jay did not wake up the following morning with foam in her mouth. But their urine or feces can transmit seven-day fever or salmonella, two diseases that humans usually get when they work in close contact with rats, which is extremely rare in New York. In the worst case, symptoms are diarrhea, high fever or abdominal cramps. You will not get the plague either, which accounts for only 10 to 15 cases in rural areas in the U.S.

Rats do not eat our crops or make us sick any longer, yet New Yorkers are obsessed with them – judging by the immense media coverage caused by the infestation of a KFC/Taco Bell restaurant in Feb. 2007. The locale in Greenwich Village became a national story when rats were filmed running inside at night. A city inspector was fired for passing the place, and the Department of Health (DOH) quickly launched a new campaign to eradicate rats citywide.

But despite low risks and numerous city initiatives, more New Yorkers are complaining. In Fiscal year 2008, which ends in June 2008, about 80 New Yorkers called 311, the city services phone number, each day to complain about rats. The number jumped to 86 on average from July through September. That is up from 44 in Mayor Bloomberg’s first year in office in 2002.

The city’s brown rats never fight for food, because New Yorkers are generous enough to provide the daily ounce of food that each needs to keep its weight steady.

That ounce can be meat, grease, fat, dog feces – especially from old dogs, because they do not digest well.

The Lower East Side has historically been so infested with rats that the local Community Board convened a “rat forum” in mid-November for angry residents and business owners in quest of answers from the 19 city agencies in charge of rodent control.

But the city can only do so much.

“All the efforts that we’re making and the money that the city is spending in order to try to address that effort is going to be wasted if the communities themselves don’t take action,” explained Ray Carrero, Quality of Life Director at the Community Affairs Unit of City Hall.

Understand that New Yorkers are dirty. They litter the streets with half-eaten hot-dogs or greasy papers. Superintendents take the trash on the curbside too early in the afternoon, when it is only picked up the next morning—they should do it no earlier than 5pm. Landlords neglect their basements and allow nightly rodent visits through cracks and holes. Or they balk at purchasing rat-resistant trashcans, either metallic or at least made of thick plastic.

No law mandates trash to be put in metal or plastic cans, and the city cannot afford the investment itself. Many buildings simply lack the space to store the cans. This is why so many black plastic garbage bags seat on the curbside at night, ready to be devoured.

“It’s very simple when it comes to rats,” said Rick Simeone, director of Pest Control Services at the Department of Health. “Remove the food, remove the water, remove where they nest, and you will significantly reduce the rat problem in your area.”

This “integrated pest management” strategy turns away from the systematic use of poison to murder rodents.

Rats are explorers, but they are also “neophobic:” they avoid new objects including poison—even if you tried to wrap it in bacon.

The city has adopted this strategy eight years ago. Rudy Giuliani created the Mayor’s Rodent Control Task Force in June 2000 to coordinate the agencies involved. The task force still meets every Tuesday, chaired by the DOH.

Giuliani launched a pilot program in November 2001 in Bushwick, Brooklyn to identify rat presence and coordinate the repairs needed to prevent rats from accessing garbage.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg expanded the initiative to 1,500 blocks in August 2003, bravely threatening: “City to rats: Drop dead.” The number of inspections peaked in Fiscal 2005, as did complaints, and the city ended the program in December 2005.

Ten months after the KFC/Taco Bell incident, in January 2008, a new program equipped city inspectors in the Bronx with handheld computers.  They now track street-by-street any “active rodent signs,” such as rat droppings, burrows or rat sightings. The proactive inspections lead to summons and eventually fines of up to $2,000 a year for landlords if they do not comply. But fines cannot be collected until the building is sold, so it again comes down to the landlords’ good will.

Fond of transparency, the city has even launched an online “Rat portal” last November to monitor inspections down to the ZIP code or community district. This is how any New Yorker can see that inspections, like complaints, are up.

But the city has had a consistent answer to account for the increasing number of complaints: it has just become easier to complain.

The Mayor’s management reports have blamed successively “telephone service disruptions after the September 11th attacks” (2001), the addition of “a 24-hour complaint telephone line” (2002),  “increased public awareness” (2003) and “the ease of registering rodent complaints through the 311 Citizen Service Center” (2004 and 2005).

This year again, Simeone argues “it’s been a slight increase, and we think because of a lot of media attention, we have the rat portal now, it’s got a lot of press and complaints tend to go up during that time.”

The city’s rat portal shows for example that Bushwick, Brooklyn—where the successful 2001 pilot was conducted—was the Brooklyn neighborhood with the most inspections finding signs of rats in 2007, up 63 percent from 2006. In Manhattan’s community district 3, which covers the East Village and the Lower East Side, this number is up 35 percent.

Eventually, Carrero from the Mayor’s Office acknowledges the city can only deal with “maybe half, maybe a third of what needs to be done.”

But the residents still blame the city that once threatened rats with certain death.

Renee Rouger has lived four years at 507 E 13th street. She is so upset with the rats coming from the building next door that she asked the city to close it down. “Of course it’s not a very good idea to leave the tenants out, but the idea is to get tough with landlords so that they know that the building can be shut down so they would do something. “

Mary Spink does not get used to rats either. Now executive director and developer of the Lower East Side People’s Mutual Housing Association, Spink is a “fanatic” with the 40 buildings she manages, and “probably spends more than anyone else on exterminations.”

Spink is also obsessed with community gardens. There are 600 in New York City. Rats love digging their burrows there because humans rarely come.

One of Spink’s buildings was exterminated last year on E. 2nd street, but rats remained in the neighboring garden. “Lots of them are really good,” she said, “but then you got these gardens that people take as their backyard. That’s not fair, those are the ones that have rat burrows.”

As for the mother of all parks in East Village – Tompkins Square Park – there are so many rats that “the ground is ondulating at night,” according to Spink.

Just walk near a bush at night, and freeze. After a few minutes, you should hear some cracks, and see some leaves moving. Move a little, and the rat will run to another burrow.

Rats have been around humans for at least two thousand years, and humans never got rid of them. In the fifteenth century, as S. Anthony Barnett recalled in his book “The story of rats,” a Greek farmer was so helpless that he wrote a letter to its rodents:

“I adjure you, ye mice here present, that ye neither injure me, nor suffer another mouse to do so. I give you yonder field. But if I catch you here again, by the mother of the gods, I will rend you in seven pieces.”

Here’s something that the city has not tried yet.