Not long ago, the rat situation at an Upper West Side condominium was so bad that when the woman we will call Jane returned home late at night, she started walking in the middle of the street. “You couldn’t walk down the sidewalk or else the rats would be scurrying from the tree wells back and forth and running around your ankles,” says the board member, who asked to remain anonymous because of the stigma associated with the vermin. “People were alarmed, and we felt like our block was being overrun by rats.”
Because of her involvement in several local community groups, Jane knew about the city’s Rodent Academy program, which offers a half-day course on how to identify rat infestations and what to do about them.
Jane corralled other property and business owners on the block to take the course, offered by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Changes were made, follow-through was a priority, and the results have been stunning. “We went from a nightmare situation with rats to no rats at all,” she says.
The Rat Patrol
About 300 people annually participate in “Rat Academy,” as it’s often called, and some also attend more informal informational seminars and more intensive three-day programs for professional pest control companies. The program began in 2009. The process works like this: after someone calls into the program, looking to set up a Rat Academy, a specially trained outreach staff member does a walk-through in the area.
“We can identify issues that may be conducive to rats, and then we look to do a training with as many people as we can on the block to explain each issue and help each building take the steps they need to take,” says Caroline Bragdon, director of neighborhood interventions at the health department’s office of pest control services.
“The number one misconception is that ‘Our rats are as big as cats; they’re so bold they are immune to anything you do’ – people feel that their rats are worse than any other rats anywhere,” Bragdon says. That mentality leads to a “throw up your hands and give up” mentality that makes the problem worse, she says.
The other problem is that people will put out poisoned rat bait, and when the rats don’t disappear, they assume the vermin are immune or the traps don’t work. “What’s really happening is that the rats would much rather eat garbage than rat bait,” Bragdon says. “It really has to be a more holistic approach. You have to remove the human food waste and aggressively treat the rat activity.”
In 2013, there were more than 95,000 initial rat inspections, about 12 percent of which found active signs of rats, resulting in 19,600 visits from an exterminator.
To find out where your block stands when it comes to rats, you can search the city’s Rat Information Portal (perhaps cheekily abbreviated as RIP) to view rat inspections and treatments by address. There’s an interactive map to check out your neighborhood (http://bit.ly/hab-nyc-rats). At the “rat portal” you can find downloadable pamphlets with information, see maps of “rat indexing” showing where the city has identified problem areas by district, and file rodent complaints online (http://bit.ly/rat_portal).
About 20 concerned building owners, managers, board members, and business owners attended the walk-through around Jane’s block held on a spring morning in 2014. The group found at least four dead rats in plain sight; the problem was so bad that the rodents were even nesting in parked cars.
“Rats only need a hole the size of a quarter to get into a building, so if they smell food there, they’ll go in and try to eat,” says Bragdon. “I’ll go to buildings and see doors to the garbage areas propped open, and the rat can just walk on inside. People don’t bother pest-proofing their doors and windows. If you look at most doors, there is a gap on the bottom that a rat can easily fit through.”
Another problem that might go unnoticed is the importance of keeping sidewalks clean. Your super might spray and clean the sidewalk, but what happens with the city’s corner trash cans?
“Sanitation workers can take the bags out of the cans, leave [them] on the sidewalk for the truck, and it can take a while for the truck to come pick it up,” says Kathleen Fontana, the First Service Residential managing agent for Jane’s building. All the trash residue can get left on the sidewalk, and building maintenance workers need to know they have to check back and clean again.
Tree wells can be a huge problem when it comes to rats, which like to nest in the dirt. Bragdon says treatments can range from so-called “burrow harassment,” where a maintenance worker can repeatedly collapse burrows, to the “gold standard” approach of pest-proofing the dirt, which includes layering mesh and stone. That approach can cost several hundred dollars per well.
This was one of the problems in Jane’s neighborhood. “There were big holes in the dirt where you could see where the rats were living,” she says of some of the tree wells on the block. It turned out that her building had already installed the rat-proof mesh in their tree wells several years ago.
Fontana says she was surprised to learn that if you see one rat hole in the dirt of a tree well, chances are that there are between eight and ten of the creatures inside. “It’s not that big, but they like to burrow,” she says. “I didn’t realize that they’d be attracted to places other than downtown or near the water or in Central Park. But once they find a food source, that’s it.”
Fontana also says she was surprised to learn how little water rats need to survive: “Even a drip from an AC unit can be enough.”
After the walk-through, representatives from about seven other residential buildings participated in the Rat Academy along with the block’s two businesses. “Everyone got on board,” says Jane, who also brought in a representative from her city council member’s office and one from her local community board. “I think people just don’t know the right way to eliminate and prevent rats,” she adds. “I don’t think it’s malevolent.”
Another key to success is to avoid finger-pointing. “We knew we were not going to start blaming people even if it was clear that there was one building that had more of a problem,” Jane says. “We wanted to approach it from a positive standpoint of how we all can help solve the problem. There is always something we all can do, and that’s more important than making some people into pariahs.
“We wanted to make this a positive experience and have a feeling that we were all in this together,” she continues.
Around Jane’s block, some building owners installed rat-proofing in tree wells. Others fixed garbage areas to make them less accessible, and many swapped out old garbage cans for newer rat-resistant models provided by the city. “The old-fashioned metal or plastic cans without the tight lid make it easy for rats to climb in,” Jane says.
Other changes included more comprehensive sidewalk sweeping and cleaning. According to Jane, some buildings did not have exterminators coming frequently enough, and some were not exchanging the bait as often as needed or were not using enough bait stations. In addition, some buildings changed their policies about where they put bait.
“Some people had been leaving exposed poison on the street and in tree beds,” Jane says. “That’s dangerous to children, birds, and pets – and it’s illegal.”
More Than Change
Making the changes was not enough. “We met with Caroline [Bragdon] monthly or so after Rat Academy for follow-up walk-throughs, I think for four months,” Jane says. “Eventually every building did what was suggested and the rat infestation went away. Of course, the neighborhood will always be self-monitoring to make sure they don’t come back.”
Fontana says board members and managing agents need to get over the “ick” factor about rats. “I have to protect my building from any kind of problem, whether it be a leaky roof or a rat,” she says. “You have to realize that this can happen anywhere.”
Bragdon says most of the time people on the block know they have a rat issue – it’s rare that a large problem comes as a surprise to residents.
“It’s not that we think we will completely eliminate rats from the city of New York,” says Bragdon. “But we do think we can improve the quality of life for a neighborhood or a block by engaging with buildings to establish best practices in rat prevention.”