Just as no one knows how many angels there are in heaven, no one knows how many rats live in New York City. A couple years ago, a young doctoral candidate at Columbia calculated there were 2 million, but the Department of Health didn't put much stock in his paper; all we know for sure is that that old line about there being as many rats as people in the five boroughs is an urban legend. Probably.
It's unsettling, this known unknown. All around us, in the subways and trash heaps but also in parks and maybe inside the walls of your apartment, rats are scratching around, eating bits of trash, pooping, cobbling together nests from hair, falling in love, having rat sex, and making little rat babies. You can make the case that we're the interlopers in their city, or maybe rats and humans are both just occupying space in a town built for cockroaches. In any case, despite the best efforts of the city's bipeds to keep the rat population under control—a nice way of saying "kill as many rats as possible"—the rodents remain.
In 2016 so far, there have been 8,335 rodent-related complaints made to a city hotline, according to the New York Post. That's up 18 percent from the same period last year, and 39 percent from 2014. Rats have persisted through the city's Disney-fication in the 90s and early 2000s. Gentrification has had no effect on them, and neither have the city government's periodic anti-rat campaigns, including last year's $2.9 million push. Way back in 1994, city workers lobbed poison down burrows in Central Park in a one-day extermination campaign dubbed "Rat Tuesday." Today there's a "rodent task force" set up by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and a "rodent academy" where city workers learn how to fight rats. In 2014, the office of New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer issued a report criticizing the Department of Health's responses to rat complaints as "weak and inadequate," and recommended that the department figure out a way to make sure infestations are actually wiped out.
None of this helps. The rats are still out there in the hundreds of thousands, dragging entire pizza slices down staircases, burrowing into snowdrifts, crawling on sleeping subway passengers. A park in the Upper West Side that reportedly hosted 200 rodents last year was called "the Burning Man of rats" by a neighbor. One 2014 study found that half of the Upper East Side's restaurants have rat problems. Also in 2014, a map using city data showed where the most rat-related complaints were coming from—and the answer was basically everywhere.
"The rats are taking over," Stringer said last year. "I'm a lifelong New Yorker, and I've never seen it this bad… I see them on my way home. They're standing upright. They say, 'Good morning, Mr. Comptroller.'"
A district manager in Lower Manhattan told the Post about "mountains of garbage on the street waiting to be picked up," and blamed the rat problem on development outpacing infrastructure—more people means more trash means more rats. Or maybe more people just means more complaints, and there are actually about the same number of rats as always, and it won't matter how many pilot programs and audits the city rolls out.
News reports on rats always emphasize our fundamental conflict with the four-legged critters who have seized our calm and quiet streets. "In battle of NYC vs. rats, the rats appear to be winning," trumpeted one 2015 CBS headline. But of course, it was Europeans who brought rats over to America in the first place on their ships; and today the rat population is kept alive thanks to our garbage. The Post may run headlines like "Rats have invaded New York City," but rats have been in New York as long as the city itself has existed. Like a hated roommate on the lease in perpetuity, we're stuck with them.
Also like a hated roommate, it's possible to develop an odd kind of respect for rats. Like people who stay in New York long, they're survivors. Seeing them frolic and forage on the subway tracks can be a comfort; who among us hasn't felt the same things they feel when the lights of a train come bearing down? Rats are not just pests, but a part of the city's cultural fabric: Louis CK has a great bit about watching rats fuck, and there are people who gather to watch their dogs hunt rats in alleys. Rats can carry disease. They can chew through wires and can even attack humans—it makes sense to kill as many of them as possible. But we should also recognize that rats are going to be here as long as humans are, probably longer, and the best thing we can do is to keep them contained in places where they'll do as little harm as possible. And it makes little sense to hold grudges against them, even as we work on wiping them out. The next time a rat says good morning to Scott Stringer, he should say good morning right back.
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