Who you gonna call?
Next time you’re riding the New York City subway, make sure you’re not packing food.
According to a recently completed two-year study by the city’s chief rodent expert, Dr. Robert Corrigan, food attracts rats–and not your squeaky cute little white-furred variety, either. We’re talking about rats the size of small cats that have been known to attack subway passengers or chase them around the platforms if you get too near.
Corrigan, 59, with a Ph.D. in rodentology, is a native New Yorker who currently lives and teaches at Purdue University. But he’s returned home as the prodigal son to answer his Mayor Bloomberg’s calls for help with his hometown’s unrelenting rat problem.
Last week at a meeting of the New York board of health, Corrigan’s findings were presented at a public meeting.
While the urban myths surrounding these creatures range from the merely horrific–seething thousand-strong colonies of the varmints literally compacted behind subway grates and wall tiles–to the grossly horrific–grotesque “rat kings” composed of the aggregated and compressed bodies of individual rats that have fused together–Corrigan’s study lands somewhere shy of a Willard sequel.
His two-year research study in conjunction with the city’s health department and Metropolitan Transit Authority did not yield that much about the intrusive vermin that the average New Yorker didn’t already know.
The rat population is expansive, elusive, resistent to conventional methods of control or extermination, and like its human counterpart, resilient in the face of repeated rejection or downright hostility from fellow citizens. Welcome to New York, buddy.
Despite all that Corrigan told the New York Daily News he is “very optimistic that we can control the rats in subways.”
“We’ll never get to zero,” he cautioned, “but the goal is to get to a level where it’s an incidental occurrence instead of a regular occurrence.”
“No food, no rats”
Notably, the city’s health department has not yet disclosed a copy of Corrigan’s final report or a list of which subway stations were surveyed and how they rated.
When contacted by LOON for a copy of the Corrigan report, the health department provided a statement confirming that the aim of Corrigan’s “small pilot study” was “to learn more about rats in subway stations and how to incorporate innovative pest control practices that will be effective in a subway environment.”
The health department statement concluded with an assurance that “the MTA is continually improving its control of garbage in these stations, and the Health Department will continue working with the MTA on evaluating its efforts to reduce the number of rats in some stations.” “
Above all other factors, Corrigan’s research confirmed that New York City’s rats are motivated most by the prevalence of food and food-based garbage, whether in the subway system where it is plentiful at the leanest of times, or on the streets.
“If there’s no food, there’s no rats. It’s really that simple,” Corrigan told the board of health meeting last week, while deflating what he termed the “myth” that rat infestations plague every subway station in the city.
In fact, the study confirmed that it’s primarily in the MTA’s underground network of tunnels and stations and its hundreds, even thousands of temporary “refuse rooms” used to store garbage that the rats love to feast.
According to Corrigan’s study, these garbage rooms–which he likens to “restaurants” for the rodent population–are one of the principal causes of rat infestation. The others are unemptied refuse containers or food refuse discarded on tracks and on station platforms by the rats’ neighbours.
The study also discovered that in excess of one hundred rats can feed on the stored garbage in a single refuse room. Rats can dwell immediately behind brick station walls in small hollow “cubes” that Corrigan likened to rat “apartments.” .
Serious safety issue on subway platforms
But with significant resources and continual human pressure to eliminate the infestation in one of the world’s largest and most densely-packed residential centres, there was no hint of levity in Corrigan’s assessment of the health risks posed.
“There is a serious safety issue,” Corrigan told the meeting. “People have been frightened off the platforms because of these animals.”
The lack of adequate funding for rat control was also mentioned in the board meeting. An MTA spokesperson was non-committal about confirming further intitiatives until an “evaluation” of the costs had been carried out.
About half of the eighteen Lower Manhattan subway stations studied by Corrigan and his research team yielded tell-tail signs of rat infestation, largely caused by unemptied trash containers or strewn garbage on the passenger platforms. Only two of the total surveyed passed with an “excellent” ranking, all the others failed.
But according to Corrigan, the city’s rats don’t confine themselves to the subway and also include parks and playgrounds among their favourite haunts.
“Virtually all of New York is vulnerable to this uncanny mammal,” Corrigan told the New York Times yesterday.
A former city pest control administrator who attended the meeting was a tad more pessimistic about the four-legged adversaries. Solomon Peeples, a former New York pest control boss who’s been at it longer than Corrigan, said almost sardonically:
“They jump two feet from a running start; they can fall 40 feet onto a concrete slab and keep running. We’re no match for them, as far as I’m concerned. Man does not stand no chance.”
But New York’s billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg is not giving up the fight.
In addition to the Corrigan study on subway rats, in October 2008 the city also set up a “rat information portal” online which it described at the time as “a one-stop resource website for New Yorkers’ rat prevention needs.”
The site “provides easy access to information on how to control rats on properties and in communities” and encourages New Yorkers to follow a five-step “anti-rat” strategy in responding to the four-legged invaders: “look for evidence, clean up, starve them, shut them out and wipe them out.”
Citizens are also encouraged to draw up maps of rat locations on their properties and in their neighbourhoods, “choose a good pest management company,” organize their communities “to fight rats”, and to respond to public health warnings about the vermin.
Rat Myths Laid to Rest
The portal also attacks many of the “rat myths” that Corrigan debunked at the Tuesday board of health meeting. To wit, there are no “rat cities” in New York’s sewers and subways as most rats live in “burrows at ground or basement level.”
And rats in the Big Apple are not “immune” to rat poison, they just don’t eat them if there is garbage available instead. Cats, dogs and birds of prey are not relied on as anti-rat measures because rat populations breed too quickly.
As part of its ongoing rat control campaign, the city also initiated a pilot project in the Bronx in which city inspectors, using handheld computers, pro-actively issued pest-related by-law infraction notices to landlords instead of waiting for complaints from tenants. That computer data, taken from 48,000 separate property inspections starting in 2007, was then used to “establish a baseline level of rat activity.”
In 2005, the New York city health department also created The Rodent Control Academy where it “trains both city rodent inspectors and private pest management professionals in best practices in rodent control.”
One interesting part of Corrigan’s assignment is that he maintains a veil of confidentiality about the specific locations of rat infestations and rat activity. That in large part may account for the city’s reticence in publicizing the names of the 18 MTA subway stations that figured in Corrigan’s report.
As Corrigan told a Washington Post reporter during a tour of an unspecified Manhattan rat venue in 2007, rats are so prevalent in New York City that it defies reason to stigmatize any one street or neighbourhood:
“If people knew which block we were talking about, they might freak out about it,” Corrigan says. “And it doesn’t matter which block because just about any block in New York has the same problems.”
And the job itself is not without some incidental perks for Corrigan and his occasional dinner companions.
“You actually can smell a rat,” he told the Washington Post reporter, “I’ve been to plenty of fancy restaurants where I walk in with some friends and say ‘We’re not eating here,’ and we turn around and walk out.”