- Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura
Rats Have Ruled New York for 355 Years. Can a Mystery Bucket Stop Them?
Traps. Poison. Birth control. Dry ice. And now, what city officials are touting as a high-tech solution: drowning. New York has attempted to eradicate its teeming rat population for 355 years and counting. On Thursday, the latest tactic in the Sisyphean effort was unveiled, with great fanfare, by Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president. It was, in effect, a bucket that would lure the rodents and send them plunging to their deaths in a mysterious vinegary concoction. The toxic potion, according to its maker, Rat Trap Inc., prevents them from rotting too quickly and emitting a stink. A dozen reporters were gathered around Mr. Adams when he gleefully displayed a plastic bin containing blobs of rat floating around in a mouse-gray stew; it was a ghastly spectacle and the odor was stomach-churning. Sign up for the New York Today Newsletter Each morning, get the latest on New York businesses, arts, sports, dining, style and more. SIGN UP “Sometimes you need to see for yourselves to get the shock effect,” Mr. Adams said. “Are you serious?” said one of the reporters present, while another turned his face away. “That’s disgusting.” Mr. Adams said he wants to install the newfangled traps, which cost between $300 and $400, in several locations in Brooklyn. If successful, he said he would look to expand the methodology citywide.
The pilot program has already hit one snag. Mr. Adams’s office initially placed five boxes in and around Brooklyn Borough Hall, but one was disabled by a very large rat. “It was so big it broke the spring mechanism in the box so that it was no longer functioning,” said Jonah Allon, Mr. Adams's spokesman. Though New York’s “War on Rats” is as old as the city itself, the methods keep changing. Back in 1865, an exasperated reporter for The New York Times wrote that “traps are of no use whatsoever,” and that the solution would be to “engage a Pied Piper to charm the vermin to their destruction.” Editors’ Picks A Nobel-Winning Economist Goes to Burning Man See How the Shadows of New York Create a Second City His Family Had Money. Mine Didn’t. More recently, after the Giuliani administration escalated the anti-rat campaign — using three kinds of rat poison — an exterminator in Manhattan and Brooklyn told The Times that the rodent population had been “astronomical for the last two years,” and added: “They are healthier than ever. You see them all bloated, either fat or pregnant.”
There was an attempt at rat birth control, first tested in 2011 and then rolled out by the Department of Health as a pilot program in 2017; it is still used in parts of the city. Then the Metropolitan Transportation Authority ran a six-month, $1 million trial of the “fertility management bait” in subways in 2013, and said in 2017 that it would expand to additional stations following “promising results.” But rodent and pest control experts said that while the plan may have slowed down breeding somewhat, it has not had a quantifiable effect.
In 2017, the de Blasio administration offered a $32 million plan, part of which involved killing rats by stuffing their burrows with dry ice, a method approved by the E.P.A. (In one Chinatown park, packing burrows with dry ice resulted in the deaths of 1,200 rats — suffocated by the release of carbon dioxide — and a reduction of rat burrows from 60 to two, officials said.) That plan is generally effective, said Jason Munshi-South, a professor of biology at Fordham University who has studied New York City’s rats. But it requires a lot of labor and energy; someone has to stuff the dry ice in thousands of burrows and then monitor the nests.
In unveiling his new rat trap, Mr. Adams — who held a so-called Rat Summit last year — went on a tirade against Mr. de Blasio’s 2017 plan, which included using mint-scented, rat-repelling garbage bags that, by many accounts, do not seem to work. He showed a video of rodents crawling inside one of the bags.“None of these have noticeable results,” said Professor Munshi-South, who said he had seen rats feeding from Mint-X bags. “The day-to-day experience of people in the city is that rats are a problem, and it’s getting worse.”Professor Munshi-South described Mr. Adams’s solution as a “dunk tank at a carnival where the rat falls in and drowns.” Still, he added, “It’s beneficial in that you’re not spreading poison.”But he said it will ultimately prove futile until New York solves underlying issues like proper garbage etiquette. Even if 90 percent of the city’s rats were killed, the survivors could potentially breed faster because of less competition for food, he said.“You may be harvesting rats like grains,” he said.Mr. Adams did say that the city’s human residents bear much of the responsibility for curbing the rat population in New York City.“New Yorkers need to understand that they have a role in stopping this,” he said. “I don’t believe we have built in a right culture of how to dispose of our garbage. People have not made the connection between what your neighbors are doing with their garbage, and how this feeds the problem.”
A news release for the event said that Mr. Adams would “display 90 rats caught during new pilot program,” but there were actually only about 20 in the new trap. Rat sightings reported to the city’s 311 hotline have soared nearly 38 percent, to 17,353 last year, up from 12,617 in 2014, according to an analysis of city data by OpenTheBooks.com, a nonprofit watchdog group, and The Times. In the same period, the number of times that city health inspections found active signs of rats nearly doubled. As the rats in New York City have swelled in numbers and physical size, so has the business for pest control. “It’s gross but it’s helping people,” Peter Golia, who runs Rat Trap Distribution, said as he held aloft a bag of rat carcasses. “If you put a dead rat in a garbage with poison, it’s degrading into the ground and contaminating the soil.” Still, he was coy about the trap’s precise rodent-killing recipe, calling it “an all-natural solution.” “It’s an alcohol, oil and vinegar-based solution,” he said vaguely, adding: “It’s organic!” “You could actually drink that and you probably wouldn’t die,” he said. “Well, maybe a little sick.”