From The New York Times:
For centuries, New York City’s white whale has been the common rat.
Traps have been set and poisons brewed, to little apparent effect. Emergency conclaves have been called at City Hall.
There have been 109 mayors of New York and, it seems, nearly as many mayoral plans to snuff out the scourge. Their collective record is approximately 0-108.
“Just follow the numbers,” said Joseph J. Lhota, once the designated “rat czar” as a deputy mayor under Rudolph W. Giuliani. “Anybody who’s in charge of eradicating rats in New York knows exactly what Sisyphus felt like.”
Yet across the city, a new administration is betting that New York — long the Chicago Cubs of rodent control — might just be due. The city budget, agreed upon this week, includes $2.9 million in rat plan money. Mayor Bill de Blasio described the animals, with a touch of swagger, as “one New York City institution that we’re happy to get rid of.”
Along avenue medians and inside tree pits, beneath sewer grates and deep in the thickets of park foliage, the city’s vermin vision is taking hold.
Inspectors have stalked neighborhoods, scrubbing problem areas for signs of rat behavior, like compressed grass and rub marks left by the lanolin in rat fur. Teams have been assigned caseloads by location — a social worker’s approach to varmint slaughter, officials said. Solar compactors and other “rat proof bins” are being provided to the Sanitation Department.
And through the halls of some half-dozen city agencies, a message has been handed down: Think like a rat.
“They’re just like us,” said Rick Simeone, the director of pest control for the city’s health department, scouring the bushes of Downtown Brooklyn for signs on a recent morning. “They don’t give anything back. They eat and reproduce.”
The city’s new effort is premised on attacking so-called rat reservoirs, stretches where rats subsist in large enough numbers that eradicating some on the surface will have little long-term effect. Any oversight — a sidewalk crack, a littered sandwich, a trash can without a lid in a city park — can imperil the fragile peace.
“New York’s rats are diabolically clever,” said Robert M. Corrigan, a rodentologist who has long advised the city. “It’s an opportunist, and it’s not fussy.”
Accordingly, assessing success can be difficult. The city says there is no reliable measure of the rat population, despite many past claims to the contrary. A 1949 article in The New York Times, detailing Mayor William O’Dwyer’s “war on rodents,” placed the estimate at 15 million. A more recent rule of thumb held that there was a rat for every resident, though research suggests this figure overstates the number by about six million.
In fact, experts are even unsure whether the population has waxed or waned in recent years. But optimism abounds over the latest push to control the rats.
“I definitely think it may be the brightest thing to come in a long time,” said Dr. Corrigan, who preaches the merits of “integrated pest management,” which emphasizes a more holistic alternative to simple extermination.
Still, history has been unkind to mayoral rat plans. Mr. O’Dwyer’s war produced few lasting gains. (It was also short-lived; he resigned under a cloud of non-rodent-related corruption in 1950.)
Change appeared to be afoot again in 1979, after a pack of rats was said to have attacked a woman in a Lower Manhattan alley. According to the book“Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants,” Mayor Edward I. Koch ordered the head of the city’s pest control bureau to return from an upstate rat convention at once to address the crisis.
Years later, Mr. Giuliani, impatient with persistent rat complaints at town hall meetings, left the task to his deputy, Mr. Lhota, who remains an expert in rat-repellent garbage bags and varmint fertility.
A “rodent task force,” created under Mr. Giuliani and expanded under Michael R. Bloomberg, continues to meet weekly. There is also the “rodent academy,” a three-day crash course for public employees essential to the fight.
“Mayors have always announced some rat plan,” said George Arzt, who was press secretary under Mr. Koch. “Most people forget the plan until the next mayor comes in. And then the next mayor announces a plan like it’s brand new.”
The futility has been well documented. David Letterman made city rats a fixture of his monologues, joking once that at restaurants, “your food gets bused away from the table and the busboy is nowhere in sight.”
A 2002 horror film, “The Rats,” imagined the title characters as Manhattan’s new overlords. “The city’s rat race just got deadly,” a poster warned.
In fact, the city’s more pressing challenge is the quality and diversity of its food sources, which can nullify even the most elaborate attempts at baiting. Because of New York’s size, city officials have found little use in looking to other urban rodent hubs, like Washington or Chicago, as models, Dr. Corrigan said.
But other municipal forces have entered the fray. The city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, released an audit last year calling the response to rat complaints “weak and inadequate.” (“Grandstanding,” Mr. Simeone, the city health official, said.)
During Mr. Lhota’s tenure as chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, from late 2011 to 2012, the agency devised plans to place rat sterilization products strategically across the subway system. Officials said the early returns were promising.
The city has likewise reported progress from a pilot program that targeted rat reservoirs in Manhattan and the Bronx last year. Across six test locations, the administration said, rat sightings had decreased 80 to 90 percent.
Constituent reviews at one site, along Broadway on the Upper West Side, have been mixed.
“Big, big improvement,” Jay Donaldson, 40, said of the neighborhood’s current rat population.
“Bigger than my cat,” Diane Reese, 51, said of a rodent she encountered recently on 108th Street.
In the city’s defense, Mr. Lhota noted, the targets have an inherent edge over their foes in government: seniority.
“The rats were here,” he reasoned, “before the first mayor.”