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On the Front Lines of New York City's War on Rats

A new pest control program is showing signs of success, but here the rats still rule.
September 23, 2015, 3:53pm

A 14-second video of a small gray rat carrying an entire slice of pizza into the New York City subway captured the hearts and minds of netizens this week. But Pizza Rat is just one of an estimated 2 million rats living in the Big Apple—and most of them aren't greeted as heroes.

The city is in the middle of a $2.9 million "war on rats," and, for once in the long history of man versus vermin, it's actually working.

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The new approach is nothing revolutionary. City health workers are targeting rats neighborhood by neighborhood, which means working closely with residents and property owners to clean up trash and water sources, board up entrances to buildings, and report all rat sightings to the city.

As a result, the number of rat sightings is down between 80 and 90 percent in some neighborhoods included in the pilot program launched at the beginning of Mayor de Blasio's administration in 2014, according to the city.

Rats are a nuisance because they chew through wires and other infrastructure and cause economic damage. They also carry ectoparasites that can vector disease to humans, and their dander can trigger asthma. Besides that, they're a reflection of public health, as a high rat population is generally correlated with poor sanitation.

"They're a marker for other serious infrastructure problems and the general quality of housing," said Mario Merlino, assistant commissioner, Veterinary and Pest Control Services for the city of New York. "The more poor-quality housing, the more rats you have."

Right now, the city is seeing rats in less than 5 percent of properties, Merlino said, which is a lot better than what some people might guess.

"I think we will probably never completely eliminate rats in New York City with our current garbage management practices and the current age of the infrastructure," he said. "If we could start the city all over again and rebuild everything, it would be better."

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The goal isn't to completely eliminate rats, just to contain the population, he said. "Rats have been here at least since colonial days," he said. "The city's pest control program is ancient."

In Columbus Park, however, it's hard to find evidence of much rat containment. This is the rattiest park in Manhattan. It's located in Chinatown, where the rats prefer rice and dumplings, and offers a bounty of water sources, open trash cans, and covered dirt to burrow in.

At dusk, which is rat rush hour, they can be seen scurrying over rocks, along railings, and across the plaza while indifferent humans play games and chat. The occasional fly-ridden rat carcass hints at the city's attempts to curb the population.

Motherboard ventured out into the park with Matt Frye, a rodentologist with Cornell University's Integrated Pest Management Program, to check out how the rats were doing. The answer? They're right at home.

We even found some eating pizza.