As New Yorkers Emerge From Pandemic, So Do Rodents

NEW YORK — They crawled to the surface as the coronavirus pandemic roiled New York City, scurrying out of subterranean nests into the open air, feasting on a smorgasbord of scraps in streets, parks and mounds of curbside garbage. As diners shunned the indoors for outdoor dining, so did the city’s rats.

Now city data suggests that sightings are more frequent than they’ve been in a decade.

Through April, people have called in some 7,400 rat sightings to the city’s 311 service request line. That’s up from about 6,150 during the same period last year, and up by more than 60% from roughly the first four months of 2019, the last pre-pandemic year.

The number of sightings in the four first months of 2022 was at its highest since 2010, when online records were first made available. Comparatively, in 2010, there were approximately 10,500 sightings and in 2011, there were 25,000 reports (reports of sightings most common during the warm months).

It is unclear whether the population of rats has grown, although the pandemic could have highlighted the problem.

As more people spend time outside, the chances of seeing rat sightings will increase.

“That depends on how much food is available to them and where,” said Matt Frye, a pest management specialist for the state of New York, who is based at Cornell University.

While a return to pre-pandemic routines “is exciting after two years of COVID-imposed lifestyle changes,” Frye said in an email, “it also means business as usual for rat problems that are directly tied to human behavior.”

New York City has had rat problems since it was founded. The rodent problem has been a major concern in New York City since its founding. Every generation of leaders tried to solve the problem, but it was not easy.

When Mayor Eric Adams was borough president of Brooklyn, he annoyed animal rights activists — and upset the stomachs of some journalists — by demonstrating a trap that used a bucket filled with a vinegary, toxic soup to drown rats lured by the scent of food.

Bill de Blasio, former Mayor, spent millions on measures to decrease the number of rats in certain neighborhoods. This included more frequent trash pickup and more rigorous housing inspections. He also replaced dirt basement floors in apartment buildings with concrete ones.

The city also launched a program to use dry ice to suffocate rats in their burrows, once demonstrating the technique for reporters at an event where workers chased — but never caught — one of the fleeing critters.

During a recent news conference in Times Square, Adams announced the city’s latest effort: padlocked curbside trash bins intended to reduce the big piles of garbage bags that turn into a buffet for rodents.

“You’re tired of the rodents, you’re tired of the smell, you’re tired of seeing food, waste and spillage,” the mayor said.

Rats are not just a feared animal for the timid, but they also pose a health risk to the public.

Last year, at least 13 people were hospitalized — one died — because of leptospirosis, a condition that attacks the kidneys and liver. Rats are the most common cause of human infection.

As some cities consider making outdoor dining permanent — an option born of necessity during the pandemic — they are mindful of a further swelling of the rat population. Even before the pandemic, experts noticed a rise in rat populations in some of the country’s largest cities.

According to rats scholars, rats can live on less than one ounce per day. They rarely have to travel further than one city block in search of food.

To allow COVID-averse diners outside, some New York City restaurants built curbside sheds. But unfinished meals left at tables have sometimes drawn brazen four-legged leftover bandits — a la Pizza Rat, who gained fame in 2015 after a video went viral showing the rodent dragging a slice of pizza down a flight of subway stairs (debates raged at the time about whether the video was staged).

With fewer subway users, the number of tunnels was smaller.

“What happened during the pandemic was that your restaurants shut down,” said Richard Reynolds, whose rat-hunting group for years periodically takes out teams of dogs to sniff out — and kill — vermin. “When outside dining came along, there was food again.”

Rats wait in the planter boxes of dining sheds to find any fallencrumbs. Rats lurk around storm drains, ready to strike.

It’s the stuff of nightmares for Brooklyn resident Dylan Viner, who recently accidentally hit a dead rat with his bicycle. He and his friends noticed an increase in rats in open areas in recent months.

“I’ve always had a phobia of rats. I’m not squeamish about snakes or bugs — but rats, there’s something about them,” said Viner, a transplant from London, who likes to keep his distance from the vermin. “It’s OK seeing them around the subway tracks. It’s when you see one jump out in front of you and dash from a trash can to a dumpster or a restaurant … that’s when it makes you feel a bit squeamish.”

A stride struck one of these creatures while he was on a recent West Village walk.

“I screamed and ran,” he recounted. It’s possible the rat may have also squealed.

“Mine was so loud,” he said, “that it’s hard to know if it was mine or the rat’s.”

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