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The Rat Czar: NYC’s ostentatious pest overlord

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Towards the end of last spring semester, the mayor of New York City, Eric Adams, appointed a "Rat Czar" to help fight the city’s “public enemy number one.” Her name is Kathleen Corradi, and her job is to end NYC’s war on rats.

I was born and raised in the Bronx, one of the five boroughs of NYC. While I’ve come in contact with many rats in the 20 years I’ve lived in the city, I never thought that a citywide director targeting the vermin was the answer, and I most certainly have never believed it was the city’s number one problem. Don’t get me wrong, I believe the rats are a huge problem in the city. I have many memories of being startled or even chased by rats on my way to school, or when just hanging out with friends downtown. And I’m sure the viral videos of gigantic croc-sized rats and of course, the likes of Pizza Rat have graced our social media timelines at one point or another. Even so, I believe that the rats are not the problem. We are.

Eric Adams, the mayor of NYC, former cop, and self-identified rat-hater, has been leading this crusade on rats since his time as borough president of Brooklyn (during which he showcased a "rat stew" rat trap to drown rats in poison-filled buckets). He believes that appointing this glorified exterminator with the required "aura of badassery" is the solution. But to me, this position and adjoining mitigation-zone task forces reek of showy antics designed to distract from increased police presence at subway stations and rising homelessness rates, caused by recent dramatic rent increases.

Even just reading the speeches given at the appointment of Ms. Corradi, you can tell there’s not much real motivation to actually help New Yorkers. Both Adam's speech and Corradi’s cite this specific "image issue" that the city is experiencing. They’re right in some ways, I admit that it is embarrassing to come from a city famous for its filth. But the focus should be on how these pests are affecting the quality of life for New Yorkers. In each speech they begin with a loose acknowledgement of how the presence of these pests are a sign of a systemic issue. Again, they’re right, but they don’t acknowledge the real dangers rats present to people (i.e. carrying diseases and bacteria). Instead, Corradi laughs about the aforementioned Pizza Rat meme before she thanks the mayor for appointing her and rehashes his phrasing of the goal of her appointment, "to send the rats packing". Though I understand their use of pathos to connect with their listeners, I consider this to be an issue to be taken seriously and not something a goofy title should be slapped onto.

To that point, the methods being used by the Rat Czar, officially known as the Director of Rodent Mitigation, are also questionable. Any New Yorker can tell you that black box rat traps litter city streets. Trapping and killing rats has not worked in the slightest in the many decades this war has raged on. However, this is what this initiative seems to be focused on. Within her team of experts, Corradi has employed a rat biologist, or rodentologist, to assist in collecting data on rat behavior in order to target habitats and passageways. Utilizing this data, they plan to identify common areas where rats congregate and cut off the access points. Sounds smart, right? Wrong. First off, there is no way that this group intends to fill every crack and crevice in the city. If they do, they better start with the potholes on the Major Deegan. Secondly, rats are intelligent creatures. We may see them as mere inconveniences and vile trash leeches, but in reality, they’re resourceful and clever. If you seal one hole, they’ll be sure to find another.

Dr. Jason Munshi-South, biologist at Fordham University, outlines this flaw skillfully in his piece on the topic in the New York Times. He details how the methods of killing vermin that have been used in the city — and that are being further perpetuated by this group — are inhumane and wasteful. Those black box traps I mentioned? Waste of plastic and could kill your dog if you’re not careful. Plain snap traps? Flat out unnecessary. That “rat stew” I mentioned earlier? Entirely hazardous to us humans considering it’s literally a vat of chemicals in a bucket. In each case, there’s a mess to clean that attracts even more pests.

What’s the next logical step considering we’re more technologically advanced than laying out cheese on a trap? Rat birth control. Again, it seems like the most logical solution. The only problem is, they’ve already tried this, and it hasn’t worked. The thing about trying to control how rats multiply is that there are already too many for that to be considered a viable option. Additionally, with climate change bringing up temperatures, lengthening summers, and leaving the city bare with no snow in the winter, rats have more time to breed anyway. They thrive in warm temperatures and small spaces. Even with the Rat Czar sealing off holes to habitats, you can’t seal off access to the most notorious, hot and dark breeding ground in the entire city: the subway. Simply put, this problem is too widespread to be focusing on the millions of tiny paws that pitter patter across the length of the five boroughs.

There is one aspect of these efforts that I see hope in, reworking how the sanitation department approaches waste. The whole of the issue largely lies in how much trash New Yorkers produce, especially in food waste. Hundreds of pounds of garbage sit along the streets of the city at all hours of the day. Like the rats, it's a staple of the city. It’s also the primary food source for rats, and the longer the trash sits, the more likely it is that this problem will live on. But hopefully, this program will start to show more promise if they keep going after how we New Yorkers are the largest contributor to the problem. Trash pickup needs to continue to happen more regularly and around the clock. Rats being nocturnal and all, the trash needs to be sorted out before dark. So far, 30 percent of trash collection has been shifted to the midnight shift rather than the daytime shift. It’s a great start, and it is changes like these that will yield results.

Finally, what I think will bring all this together is listening to our communities. Much like what is trying to be accomplished by hiring rat behavioral specialists, we need to understand our own behavior and change it for the better. Nothing will get done if we don’t realize our own faults, spend less time making flashy titles and clever quips about the rats, and actually keep the city clean.

Like how Jessica Tisch, NYC’s new sanitation commissioner, put it in her viral (albeit a bit ridiculous) statement on the subject: “The rats don’t run this city, we do.”