Vermin videos have gone viral, collected by sites like Gothamist, which specializes in the rats-on-subway genre. Callow suburbanites seem to never get enough of the rat crawling on the face of the homeless guy, but the less heartless may prefer “Rat With Full Slice of Pizza.” “Rat on the A Train” isn’t bad either. In this climate, exterminators, now generally referred to as pest-management professionals (PMPs), are reality-show stars. Animal Planet’s Rat Busters NYC tracks the undeniably amusing peregrinations of Jimmy Tallman and Michael Morales, who in their quest to become the most famous rat-catchers since Hamelin are photographed crawling around Queens attics saying things like “Holy cow! Look at those droppings.”
The ongoing rodent scare has proved a headache for the Bloomberg administration, especially since the announced layoff of 57 (out of 185) Health Department pest-control workers last year. “You don’t slash the ranks of public-health workers on the front lines of an epidemic,” said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer at a protest in Mitchell Square Park in Washington Heights, where locals claimed the rats had “taken over.” Last month, members of the subway-workers union circulated a petition against the cutbacks, shouting, “If you smell something, sign something. For his part, Mayor Bloomberg has pooh-poohed the outbreak as just one more thing the 99 percent of us will have to put up with in these austere times. “Rats are a problem in every big city,” a peevish mayor told a TV reporter. This was in sharp contrast to the reaction of then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani when faced with a “Rat Summit” during a similar rodent panic in 2000.
Giuliani (who once famously told a ferret-keeping citizen to get help for his “excessive concern for little weasels”) declared, “We make unprecedented efforts to kill rats. We probably lead the country in rat killing.”
All of this brings up a number of questions, ones that have vexed city health officials at least since the rodent scare of the twenties, when scientists proposed to build a wall around the rat-infested waterfront area. For instance, just how many New York rats are there in New York? For decades, the rule of thumb was one rat for every human, i.e., 8 million rats, an iconic yet mind-boggling number. Following the Second World War, David E. Davis (called “the founding father of modern rat studies” by Robert Sullivan in his esteemed 2004 book, Rats) challenged the one-to-one ratio. After much field work, Davis concluded there were no more than 250,000 rats in New York, or one rodent for every 36 people.
Since then, however, there seems little doubt that the rat population, spurred by ever more garbage for the rodents to eat, has increased, perhaps dramatically. You hear all sorts of numbers. One PMP told me there were “three, maybe four” rats for every person. “Thirty-two million rats?” I asked. “Well, at least 20 million,” the PMP replied. No one knows for sure, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is how many rats you see.
That is because, as Steven Bruce of the Superb Pest Control company of the Bronx says, “one rat is a lot to see … because they’re rats.”
It was true, Bruce said, that the Great Bedbug Panic had kept him busy over the past couple of years. This is largely because, as many PMPs allow, “paranoia is good for business.” Pictured as a creeping army of microscopic vampires capable of lurking in even Bloomingdale’s-bought 1,000-thread-count sheets, bedbugs, or even a rumor of them, are enough to make whole neighborhoods scratch through their skin and throw bedroom sets onto the street. But when it came down to it, a high percentage of people driven crazy by tiny demons had no bedbugs at all. “One of the hardest parts of my job is convincing them they don’t have them,” says Lee Browning of Discovery Dogs, a firm that uses pint-size terriers to sniff out the insects. A good PMP often had to turn psychologist, nudge people down from the ledge. Bedbugs were the perfect post-9/11 pest; they carried an alien, unknowable claustrophobia of dread, but since they were predictably wiped out by the application of 115-degree heat, many vermin-hunters found them dull, offering little intellectual challenge.
That was why there was “something about a rat job,” Bruce said as he walked through a midtown basement with his flashlight looking for “rub marks,” the dark smudges greasy-furred rats leave on walls. Unlike the faceless struggle against the bedbug, a rat job was “a battle of wits and wills. A turf war, because where they live is where we live.” Going against the rat was personal, a measure of the man, a pride fight between species.