As New Yorkers emerge from the pandemic, so do rodents

NEW YORK – They crept to the surface as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged New York City, emerging from underground nests to the great outdoors, feasting on a smorgasbord of scraps in streets, parks and mounds of curbside garbage. Just as customers shunned the countryside to dine al fresco, so did city rats.

Now, city data suggests the sightings are more frequent than in a decade.

As of April, people have called about 7,400 rat sightings to the city’s 311 service request line. This represents an increase of about 6,150 over the same period last year, and more than 60% from the first four months of 2019, the last pre-pandemic year.

In each of the first four months of 2022, the number of sightings was the highest recorded since at least 2010, the first year online records are available. In comparison, there were around 10,500 sightings in all of 2010 and 25,000 such reports in all of last year (sightings are more frequent during the warm months).

Whether the rat population has increased is up for debate, but the pandemic may have made the situation more visible.

With more people spending time outdoors as temperatures rise, will rat sightings increase even more?

“That depends on how much food is available to them and where,” said Matt Frye, a pest management expert in New York State who works at Cornell University.

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

Rats have been a problem in New York City since its founding. Each new generation of leaders tried to find a better way to control the rodent population and struggled to show results.

When Mayor Eric Adams was mayor of the borough of Brooklyn, he angered animal rights activists — and annoyed some journalists — by demonstrating a trap that used a bucket full of toxic soup and vinegar to drown mice attracted to the smell of food.

Former Mayor Bill de Blasio has spent tens of millions of dollars in efforts to reduce the rat population in targeted neighborhoods through more frequent garbage collection, more aggressive housing inspections, and replacement of earthen basement floors in some high-rise buildings. apartments for others made of concrete.

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

During a recent press conference in Times Square, Adams announced the city’s latest effort: padlocked garbage cans on the sidewalk designed to reduce the large piles of garbage bags that turn into a rodent buffet.

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

Rats not only cause fear among the most sensitive, they can also be a public health problem.

Last year, at least 13 people were hospitalized – one died – because of leptospirosis, a disease that attacks the kidneys and liver. Most human infections are associated with rats.

As some cities consider making outdoor dining permanent – ​​an option born of necessity during the pandemic – they are on the lookout for an even greater increase in the rat population. Even before the pandemic, experts noticed a rise in rat populations in some of the country’s biggest cities.

Rats can survive on less than 30 grams of food a day and rarely travel more than a city block to find food, according to rat scholars.

Some New York City restaurants have erected sidewalk sheds to allow customers concerned about COVID to eat outside. But unfinished meals left on tables sometimes attract brazen four-legged thugs — à la Pizza Rat, which rose to fame in 2015 after a video went viral showing the rodent dragging a slice of pizza down a flight of subway stairs (debates raged on). spread over time about whether the video was staged).

As fewer people used the subways, there were fewer bits to feast on in the tunnels.

“What happened during the pandemic was that their restaurants closed,” said Richard Reynolds, whose group of rat hunters for years periodically takes out teams of dogs to sniff out — and kill — worms. “When the al fresco dinner arrived, there was food again.”

In flowerbeds outside the dining sheds, mice are on the lookout for any fallen crumbs. They hide in culverts ready to attack.

It’s the nightmare of Brooklyn resident Dylan Viner, who recently accidentally ran over a dead rat with his bicycle. In recent months, he and his friends have noticed an increase in the number of rats outdoors.

“I have always had a phobia of rats. I have no qualms about snakes or insects – but rats, there is something about them,” said Viner, a transplant from London, who likes to keep his distance from worms. “It’s okay to see them on the subway tracks. That’s when you see someone jump in front of you and run from a trash can to a dumpster or a restaurant…

He remembered a recent walk in the West Village, where a footstep had landed on one of the creatures.

“I screamed and ran,” he said. The mouse might have screamed too.

“Mine was so high,” he said, “that it’s hard to tell if it was mine or the mouse’s.”

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