Imagine that you’re on your way home, passing Starbucks, and you feel something brush your feet. When you look down, you are simultaneously repulsed and stunned – it’s a football-size rat.
That actually happened to Islander Christopher Warsing. Unfortunately, his is not the only rat story making the rounds.
Riverwalk resident Aaron Hamburger, who chairs the Island Services Committee (ISC) of the Residents Association, attributes the increase in Island rats to the lack of compliance by Island merchants who use the commercial garbage yard in Southtown. Hamburger and ISC member Rossana Ceruzzi report that the dumpsters in the trash yard are often uncovered, that garbage is often left out over long holiday weekends, and that the gate to the yard is usually left open. They argue that garbage should be picked up more frequently, dumpsters should not be overflowing, lids should be closed tightly, and the area should de disinfected regularly. These are all fineable offenses but, according to Ceruzzi, “No one is giving [the merchants] fines.”
Hamburger and Ceruzzi have complained to the merchants, have called 311, and have informed the New York City Department of Health. But, they say, nothing has changed. Hamburger said that after Ceruzzi complained to the Roosevelt Operating Corporation (RIOC), “They cleaned up the site to put everything in proper order. However, Starbucks was an exception. Their trash bin was overflowing and not closed.”
Next, Hamburger says, “We talked to the Starbuck’s manager and told them they were in violation of New York City Health Department regulations. The manager told me that a very large covered bin would be delivered to the site that Tuesday. This new bin was to be used by all the businesses in Southtown, including Starbucks.” The new bin did get delivered, but, says Ceruzzi, “They made the wrong purchase.” She suggests they either “change the size of the bins [they buy], or add more bins,” because “The lid must be tightly closed,” and it cannot be closed because it is overflowing.
The protocol is clear. The New York City Health Code requires proper receptacles and defines them as “leak-proof with tightly-fitting lids” that have the capacity to contain waste generated in a 72-hour period. Both garbage receptacles and dumpsters must always be covered with “securely fitting covers/lids.” The Health Code requires that the containers must always be neat, clean, and closed, and the area around them must also be kept clean and neat. Users are also obligated to separate their recyclables from their garbage.
The Health Code requires that the refuse pick-up schedule be posted at the site with the name of the private hauler and the dates and times of pick-ups. Garbage must never be left out on a holiday or weekend.
Ceruzzi says our local rat is the Norway rat. They were unintentionally introduced onto United States soil by 18th-century European settlers. They live where we live and eat almost anything. Food items in household garbage offer them a balanced diet and also keep them hydrated.
Because of the damage they can cause, Norway rats are not protected by law. Ceruzzi says, “Whatever rats carry, we don’t even want them breathing on the Island.” Any type of pesticide or trap registered by federal or state agencies for this purpose may be used on them.
The Norway rat is considered the most successful mammal on the planet, after humans. They have acute hearing, a highly developed sense of smell, and are known to be very good swimmers, both on the surface and under water. They are nocturnal and live in burrows, which they dig. Female rats can produce up to five litters per year with an average litter number of seven. Females reach sexual maturity in about five weeks, suggesting that the rat population could grow by a factor of 10 in 15 weeks, under the right conditions.
Basic sanitation is a key strategy in controlling the rat population. Elimination of food sources is an important factor, and Ceruzzi sees that as a failure here – specifically at Riverwalk. Because lids are open, the garbage isn’t picked up regularly, and because the dumpsters are overflowing, the rat population is increasing fast. Ceruzzi says, “Once they don’t smell the garbage, they will leave.”
Another strategy is to eliminate breeding and nesting places. Merchants must keep excess wood and cardboard at least 18 inches off the ground. This height would not provide a habitat for rats, which have a propensity for dark, moist places in which to burrow. No wood should be stored directly on the ground. Removal of debris and weed control can reduce the amount of shelter and cover available to rats.
Following guidelines in housing trash and garbage receptacles is important. Research and experience shows that rats can routinely jump two feet vertically, dig four feet or more to get under a foundation, climb rough walls or smooth pipes up to three inches in diameter, and routinely travel on electric or telephone wires.
Trapping and killing should also be a part of the strategy. Ceruzzi says, “Rats are one of the most intelligent animals,” and research bears this out. They don’t roam. They stay within 100-150 feet of their burrow, and stay away from novel food. When they do taste something new, they eat very little until they ascertain that it has no ill effect. That’s why poison is not always effective.
One way to ensure that a rat will do more than taste poisoned food is to limit the amount of food available, so that food in traps is a mandatory meal.
Feral cats are an effective measure and have been used in many large cities. They have been known to be effective because a cat’s mere presence can be enough to deter rats, which are repelled by the scent of cats and their urine. Cats may be preferable to poisons, since a dog or a bird that eats a poisoned rat also gets poisoned.
On the Island, bait stations are used. RIOC forbade the use of loose poison after it killed one dog and poisoned another. Ceruzzi says, “The loose poison was colorful, emerald green and pink. It looked like big Lego pieces.” Ceruzzi worries that even the bait stations could be dangerous to birds, dogs, and children who might unknowingly play with them.