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Love N.Y.? Don't Look Down

Rat complaints are up, but the city has made little progress against the rodents. Maybe they're all looking for that big apple.

July 05, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Ask Bertrand Saint Victor if he's seen any rats lately, and the 30-year-old parking lot attendant laughs wearily.

"Rats?" he said. "This place is full of rats, all over."

Nearly every evening, they scurry along the alley between the apartment buildings that border the paved lot on Lexington Avenue in East Harlem, and no one seems able to stop them.

"Help -- it doesn't exist," Saint Victor said.

He's far from the only one in New York who feels overwhelmed by the rat population. Last week, in an audit of the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's rodent control efforts, the city comptroller chastised officials for taking a month, on average, to respond to rat sightings.

Officials said there was a reason for the slow response: After the city opened its 311 complaint and information line in the spring of 2004, rat complaints spiked by 40% and reached more than 31,000 in 2005. So far this year, the city is on track to register a similar number of complaints.

The audit of the city's rodent control efforts is just the latest marker in the unending struggle against the seemingly indestructible brown rat, a battle that has preoccupied New Yorkers for more than a century.

"It's a huge challenge," said Jessica Leighton, deputy commissioner for environmental health, noting that rats account for one of the leading complaints to the health department. "We've made a huge amount of progress, and we need to continue to make progress."

No one knows how many rodents prowl the city's sewers and alleyways. The most commonly cited statistic -- that there is a rat for each of the 8 million-plus residents in New York -- is dismissed as overstated by most experts, who contend that the true figure is unknowable.

But there's no question that rats are an ever-present plague of city living. They creep out at dusk, eliciting squeals as they skitter across sidewalks and poke out of garbage bins. They prance boldly along the subway tracks, casting lumpy shadows that draw disgusted looks from passengers waiting on the platforms.

Brown rats -- formally known as Rattus norvegicus, or Norway rats -- probably made their first landing in America in New York after hitching a ride on ships from Europe around the time of the Revolutionary War.

The burgeoning city, with its dense population, mounds of refuse, and labyrinth of subway tunnels and sewer pipes, proved to be a fertile habitat.

Since the rats' arrival, New York has been fighting the hardy creatures with all manner of traps, poison and public education campaigns. But no matter what they do to beef up rodent control efforts, city officials acknowledge that they harbor little hope of ever being able to eradicate the rat population.

One reason: virility.

"Most likely, if you are in New York while you are reading this sentence or even in any other major city in America, then you are in proximity to two or more rats having sex," Robert Sullivan wrote in his 2004 book "Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants." He noted that rats could mate up to 20 times a day, meaning that one pair could have 15,000 offspring in a year.

Three years ago, New York officials decided that their rat control efforts were falling short and took a new tack dubbed the NYC Rodent Initiative. The program aimed to corral the efforts of 19 city agencies in eradicating the conditions in which rats flourish and better educate residents about how to curtail activities that attract rats.

Three communities where rats have been especially pervasive -- central Brooklyn, the South Bronx and East Harlem -- were chosen as the main target areas.

When prevention doesn't work, the city tackles the problem with baited traps, exterminating more than 88,000 rats last year.

"We're trying to be proactive in our work to address the rodent problem," said Leighton, adding that the department is now starting a broader effort to pinpoint the worst rat infestations around the city.

But some residents said officials needed to do more.

Beatrice Jones, chairwoman of Community Board 3 in Brooklyn, one of the original target areas, said the number of rats fell initially a year ago when the city distributed large, sturdy garbage cans for multiple-dwelling residences. But a series of construction projects, especially in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, has triggered a rodent explosion, she said.

"We are inundated with rats," said Jones, a day-care center director. "It is an epidemic in our community. People call us almost every day and say that they see rats going up and down the street and trying to get under their gates. New York rats are bold."

Rasheed Murray, a 29-year-old writer, said things hadn't improved in his neighborhood of East Harlem, either.

"It's nasty," he said, wrinkling his face in disgust. "You can see them running in between the buildings and down the alleys. They're almost as big as cats. They put out stuff to kill them, but it doesn't work. They just come back."

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