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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New York Wrestles With Rats

NEW YORK -- Ask Bertrand Saint Victor if he's seen any rats lately, and the 30-year-old parking lot attendant laughs wearily.

"Rats?" he said. "This place is full of rats, all over." Every evening, they scurry along the alley between the apartment buildings that border the paved lot on Lexington Avenue in East Harlem, and no one seems able to stop them. "Help -- it doesn't exist," Saint Victor added.

He's far from the only one in New York who feels overwhelmed by the rat population. Last week, in an audit of the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's rodent control efforts, the city comptroller chastised officials for taking a month, on average, to respond to rat sightings. Officials said there was a reason for the slow response: After the city opened its complaint and information line in the spring of 2004, rat complaints spiked by 40 percent and reached more than 31,000 in 2005.

The audit of the city's rodent control efforts is just the latest marker in the unending struggle against the seemingly indestructible rat, a fight that has preoccupied New York for more than a century.

"It's a huge challenge," said Jessica Leighton, deputy commissioner for environmental health, noting that rats accounted for one of the leading complaints to the health department. "We've made a huge amount of progress, and we need to continue to make progress."

No one knows how many rodents prowl the city's sewers and alleyways. The most commonly cited statistic -- that there is a rat for each of the 8 million-plus residents of New York -- is dismissed as overstated by most experts, who say the true figure is unknown.

But there's no question that rats are an ever-present plague of city living. They creep out at dusk, eliciting squeals as they skitter across sidewalks and poke out of garbage bins. They prance boldly along the subway tracks, casting lumpy shadows that draw disgusted looks from passengers waiting on the platforms.

The rats probably made their first landing in New York after hitching a ride on ships from Europe around the time of the U.S. Revolutionary War. The city, with its dense population, mounds of refuse, and labyrinth of subway tunnels and sewer pipes, proved to be a fertile habitat.

Since the rats' arrival, New York has been fighting the hardy creatures with all manner of traps, poison and public education campaigns. But no matter what they do to beef up rodent-control efforts, city officials acknowledge that they harbor little hope of ever being able to eradicate the rat population.

There is one big reason: virility.

"Most likely, if you are in New York while you are reading this sentence, or even in any other major city in America, then you are in proximity to two or more rats having sex," Robert Sullivan wrote in his 2004 book "Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants." He noted that rats could mate up to 20 times per day, meaning that one pair could have 15,000 offspring in a year.

Three years ago, New York officials decided that their rat control efforts were falling short and took a new tack, dubbed the NYC Rodent Initiative. The program aimed to corral the efforts of 19 city agencies in eradicating the conditions in which rats flourish and better educate residents about how to curtail activities that attract rats. They have also tackled the issue with baited traps, exterminating more than 88,000 rats last year.

But some residents said officials needed to do more. "We are inundated with rats," said Jones, a day-care center director. "It is an epidemic in our community. People call us almost every day and say that they see rats going up and down the street and trying to get under their gates. New York rats are bold."