Update, June 23:
Late Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced an agreement for the Fiscal Year 2016 city budget, which included $2.9 million for the proposed rat control plan.
Original story, May 7:
Today, Mayor Bill de Blasio will propose spending $3 million to make permanent a pilot program that reportedly exterminated 80 to 90 percent of rats in seven targeted neighborhoods. The proposal is included in his executive budget for the 2016 fiscal year, which begins on July 1.
While a rat-free New York is nice to think about, like maybe winning the Powerball, or perfectly timing your bus-to-train-to-train commute, the odds of it actually happening are remote. But if the approximately 2 million rats in New York came down to, say, 250,000, what would the city look like?
“I don’t think we fully know,” says a Fordham University biologist who’s become an expert on rat behavior in New York. “It’s kind of an impossibility anyway, unless we sort of started over and tore down the city and built it a different way.”
It’s hard to say how New York would look if a large percentage of rats disappeared into thin air tomorrow, like a rodent version of The Leftovers. For one, “[r]ats are exquisitely adapted to a very specific way of life where they can use spaces that a lot of other animals don’t use,” says Jason Munshi-South, Ph.D., an associate professor at Fordham’s Louis Calder Center. So, while the direct negative impact on other animals is nebulous, another species would benefit: “If rats were removed, ants might be one of the winners,” Munshi-South says. “They’d have a lot more food that isn’t removed by rats every night that they could take advantage of.”
As for humans, their wiring and walls would last longer:
“Rats are very destructive,” he continues. “The name rodent actually means ‘to gnaw’ — that’s where they get their name from, rodentia. They are just constantly gnawing on things. They do a lot of damage: on walls, on wiring; they can contaminate food. That’s why we try to exclude them from living spaces and why restaurants get shut down for rodent infestations.
“People who live in low-income housing that isn’t really as well maintained, they really suffer from it, more than other people, because the buildings have more spaces for the rats and the landlords may not do as much to control them, so that would be a boon for them.”
The biologist, who says he’s earned a healthy respect for rats after coming face to face with the aggressive variety you see in New York, says there’s not yet enough modern data on the health impact rats have on humans.
“We’re not necessarily monitoring people for how often they get these diseases, except in some very specific cases,” Munshi-South says. “There could be more rodent contamination than we are aware of.”
While the mayor’s plan to aggressively control the rat population in strategic areas seems to be working, rats will always be around, for a few reasons: First, New Yorkers put their trash bags on the sidewalk in front of their building. “There aren’t alleys where you can put tightly closed dumpsters where the sanitation workers can go back there with the truck,” Munshi-South says. Second, the ubiquitous wire trashcan, transparent enough to keep people from hiding much in it, is always going to attract rats at night.
“Those sort of built-in disadvantages will always support a rat population,” he says. And much has yet to be learned about rats: Once thought to stay within a few hundred meters their entire lives, Munshi-South says, rats may move beyond a traditional radius through subway tunnels.