Rodents winning the rat race, but New Yorkers fight back

New York declares war on a furry menace that threatens to overwhelm some districts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 9:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2014, 6:31am


Ines Moore stirs awake nearly every night to the unmistakable, skin-crawling sound of rats skittering around her flat in the dark.

Sticky traps scattered about yield as many as three rats a night, but she believes that is just a fraction of the invading army that makes her feel under siege.

"I feel good in the United States, except for this. Here, in my home," said Moore, a Dominican immigrant who can't afford to leave her rent-controlled apartment in northern Manhattan's Washington Heights neighbourhood.

The area is among the most rat-infested in New York, along with West Harlem, Chinatown, the Lower East Side and the South Bronx. They are the focus of the city's latest effort to attack a rat population that some experts estimate could be double that of the city's 8.4 million people.

From next month, the city's 45 inspectors will be bolstered by nine recruits on a pilot programme to tackle the vermin in chronically infested districts where rats have resisted repeated efforts to eradicate them.

Specific targets are parks, sewers, dumping areas and subways where they congregate and breed. The idea is to reduce the population where it is strongest and keep it from spreading.

"Rats burrow and live in colonies," health commissioner Mary Bassett told a city council hearing last month. "I'll sometimes imagine when I walk through a park, if I could have sort of a 'rat vision', there are all these tunnels under there that are occupied by rats. And from there the rats fan out."

Financed with US$611,000 in the city budget, inspectors will work with neighbourhood associations, community boards, elected officials and building owners to plug holes and lay poison in rodent tunnels.

The South Bronx around Yankee Stadium has the dubious distinction of being the city's most rat-infested district, according to figures from 2012, the most recent available. Inspectors gave a fail for infestation to at least 13 per cent of more than 3,000 locations inspected in that area.

Washington Heights came in at 12 per cent of inspected locations, West Harlem at 10 per cent and the Lower East Side and adjacent Chinatown at nearly 9 per cent each.

Rats can carry and spread diseases, bite, and trigger asthma attacks. In May, a boy aged four died after eating rat poison in a Bronx homeless shelter.

It was impossible to tally the exact number of rats in New York, said Joel Grassi, a professional pest exterminator.

"As long as there are human beings in New York City, there will be rats, because they live off human garbage. That's their No1 thing," says Grassi, adding that the best way to manage them was to eliminate their food supply.

"It's just part of everyday life," said Jasmine Guzman, a store manager whose two young sons happily run around their Washington Heights apartment across the hall from Moore's, after the family cleans up rat droppings each morning. "My three-year-old son says, 'It's OK, mummy, they're just looking for some stinky food'," she said.

For now, the rats' nightly visits to Moore's flat continue. "I'm angry," she said. "We're all human beings and we all deserve to live decently."