Rodents on the rise: How NYC is dropping the rat battle

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Rodents on the rise: How NYC is losing the rat battle

In late summer 2019, Eric Adams stood over a pile of oily rat carcasses and outlined his plan to rid the city of its bug problem.

“A lot of people have made it normal to have rats in their community,” lamented the then-President of the Brooklyn Borough. “The unwillingness to think outside the box and embrace new technology is what’s really holding our city back.”

He watched in approval as a Rat Trap Distribution employee unveiled the innovative solution: a filing cabinet-sized contraption that lures rodents with Oreos and sunflower seeds before toppling them into their liquid grave.

Nearly three years later, the city is drowning in rat complaints ⁠-⁠ and the man whose rodent-killing machine Adams campaigned for as “amazing” is still waiting for the mayor’s call.

“He’s got a lot to do, I think in time, God willing, he’ll sort it out,” Pat Marino, who rents the crates through Rat Trap Distribution, recently told Gothamist. “Maybe he’ll put a big light in the sky with a rat and I’ll put on my cloak and run to City Hall.”

There is general agreement that New York is increasingly being overrun by rats. In 2021, complaints about rat sightings increased by more than two-thirds compared to the same period in 2019. That trend has continued this year: Last month saw the highest number of rat complaints in at least a decade since April data, according to the city.

Meanwhile, more than two years after pest control inspections were suspended in the early days of the pandemic, the city’s public health department has still not returned to full strength. In the first four months of this year, the agency conducted 20% fewer inspections than in the same period in 2019, according to data shared with Gothamist.

So it’s not like Marino isn’t busy. The Maspeth-based provider currently leases 300 units to agencies in Yonkers, as well as private residences and storefronts across the five boroughs. The Italian-made devices can hold dozens of dead rats, he said, an improvement over poisons that allow their victims to flee before they die and warn other rats of danger.

“Every rat in New York City hates my guts,” Marino boasted, then offered a more humble assessment of his progress. “We have an effect, we catch a lot of rats. But there are millions out there. I don’t want to be alarmist. But there are many.”

Eric Adams has touted this filing cabinet-sized device that lures rodents with Oreos and sunflower seeds before dumping them into their liquid grave. What happened?

David ‘Dee’ Delgado/Gothamist

As the weather warms, experts fear New York City is heading for its harshest summer on record, and solutions to prevent and combat the rodent invasion have not been in sight.

“It’s definitely increased. There are crazy rats,” said Zary Rivas, a 19-year-old Bushwick resident, as she and a friend walked next to a pile of garbage bags and greasy pizza boxes on the Lower East Side. “We were just chilling, a few minutes later like a thousand rats came out and just walked around. They’re not even scared.”

New York City’s efforts to eradicate rats, and their failure to do so, date back centuries. In 1865, The New York Times warned that the city “quickly gained an unenviable reputation” for producing more rats “than any other city in the Union.” Over the years, methods of defense have included guns, birth control, scented garbage bags, and terriers.

But while Adams once called Mayor Bill de Blasio’s rat-killing plan “a joke,” he has largely continued his predecessor’s strategies. These efforts include putting rat poison in public spaces and filling rat burrows with dry ice. The latter method is one of the most promising, but also one of the most labor-intensive, experts say.

A spokesman for the city’s health department attributed the increase in rat activity to the increasing availability of food waste, fueled in part by increases in outdoor dining. The spokesman added that the agency is focused on expanding enforcement and education, while urging the city’s property owners to play a role in reducing food sources for rats.

But despite Adams’ lofty campaign promises, officials and rat control experts said the city is not doing enough to curb the rat population. For one, the Adams administration has scaled back a planned expansion of composting, a key environmental initiative that would also reduce rat buffets on the street.

The Department of Health has scrapped an early pandemic rule requiring large residential buildings to store their waste in containers. A similar effort to provide containers for businesses that rely on private trucking companies is also stagnating.

Quantifying the rat problem in New York City has long proved as challenging as solving it. A statistical analysis gave 2 million as the high-end estimate for the above-ground rat population. Others have put the number closer to 250,000.

But Timothy Wong, an exterminator at M&M Pest Control for two decades, said he’s confident the city’s rodent population has reached new levels. He said he had discussions with the health department months ago about bringing new technology and training to the city’s rat-killing efforts, but hasn’t heard anything yet.

Without a major overhaul of its waste management program, Wong argued, the city has effectively given up in its war on rats.

They have about 300 garbage bags out there for seven or eight hours… What do you think is going to happen?

Timothy Wong, exterminator at M&M Pest Control

“They have a building with about 400 residents, and they have about 300 bags of garbage out there for seven or eight hours,” Wong said. “What do you think will happen?”

Sandy Nurse, the chair of the city council’s sanitation committee, echoed the frustration, telling Gothamist she would like “a more aggressive rat control strategy, especially in areas with a lot of ailments, like public housing.”

At a recent community meeting, Nurse said her constituents in Bushwick and East New York were often left behind by the city’s rat control efforts, which often focused on wealthier ZIP codes.

The council is currently asking the mayor’s office to increase its current budget by $22 million to expand basket pickup service to twice daily instead of once daily and to fund an additional $5 million for rat control services.

Adams’ office didn’t say if the administration would support the increase, but offered a statement from the mayor reaffirming his commitment to clean streets.

“I’m open to exploring innovative and effective new tools to keep our streets clean and rat-free,” the statement said. “New Yorkers deserve cleaner streets, and rat control has to be a part of that.”

Catalina Gonella contributed to the coverage.