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Despite the Department of Sanitation’s attempts to “shut the rat nightclub down”, New York’s rodent population seems to be thriving, finding solace not only in sidewalk trash bags but also in parked cars around the New York.
In a one-two punch, the pandemic both motivated more New Yorkers to buy cars and left the city’s rats without the usual sources of commercial trash. But as reported by the New York Times, a pair of Fordham University scholars tracking rodent behavior determined that the wily pests were — like people — also capable of a pandemic pivot.
Researcher Jason Munshi-South told the Times: “Rats can adjust to human behavioral shifts very quickly,” and in the absence of street foot traffic and the trash it provides, they developed new habits — from snacking on pigeons and fellow rats to hunkering down in cars parked for longer than usual tenures, thanks to the temporary suspension of the city’s alternate side parking rules.
Exterminator Bennett Pearl of Positive Pest Management told W42ST: “When commercial zones shut down, they were literally starving to death, and only the strongest survived — which is very scary to think about, because they’re basically rats on steroids, and it’s all the smartest rats left.”
While housing themselves under the hoods of undisturbed vehicles, some alpha rats took not only to storing their chicken bones and abandoned bagels in the car, but also testing out the salty, soy-based insulation present in newer models, researchers told the Times. The result? An unpleasant surprise for car owners who go to start their vehicles, but instead discover their automobile wiring has become the set of Ratatouille.
Although New York humans are gradually returning to pre-pandemic dining and parking habits, the city’s rats seem reluctant to leave their new car-based homes behind.
In Hell’s Kitchen, one unlucky driver had the honor of treating rodents to a free meal — twice. J-Line, a New York-based recording artist who relies on his vehicle for traveling to gigs, was already used to the challenges of owning a car in the city, said his partner Michael William.
“What he wasn’t prepared for was that for the second time in two years, rats would have infested his car and eaten the wiring so badly that his car would have to be towed to 54th Street Auto,” Michael told W42ST. The first time it happened in the spring of 2021, J-Line’s insurance covered the damage and he got his car back — but only after $8,000 worth of repairs.
“This time around, he wasn’t so lucky. The car was deemed a total loss and now J is out not only a car, but the vehicle he used for touring all over the country as a recording artist,” said Michael.
In the 15 years J has parked his car on NYC streets, he’s never experienced anything like this, he said. “Having my car totaled twice in two years due to rat infestation is really disgusting to think about,” he added.
Mechanics told the Times that they’d noticed an uptick in cars needing rodent-related repair, something which Michael and J-Line had also heard at 54th Street Auto. Ozzy Dayan, a mechanic at Manhattan Auto Repair in Hell’s Kitchen told the Times: “I see new cars, old cars, everyone is coming in now with these rat problems. It brings me a lot of business, but it’s disgusting.”
How to solve the problem? That’s up for debate. While some cite outdoor dining sheds as a contributing factor to the increase in chewed-out cars, the Fordham study noted that the 67 percent of rat-related 311 calls were attributed to residences — and other experts pointed to the prolific piles of sidewalk trash bags serving as base-level buffets as the main culprit.
Bennett Pearl of Positive Pest told W42ST that he’s “not buying” outdoor dining as the source of the increased issues, adding the sheds are “not the reason rats are in residential zones — or why entire blocks where there’s not a commercial store on the block have rats running around the during the day”.
Fordham researcher Parsons agrees. “To me, outdoor dining has really been a blip on the radar,” he told NYC Streets Blog. “We’ve got a major source of decay already happening through garbage bags. The outdoor dining is just more like another sweet treat. If you got a cavity, it’s not the bad guy, it’s a reflection of our habits. The villains are not the rats, they’re a reflection of us. I would rather focus on the big picture, on cleanliness.”
Whether the Department of Sanitation succeeds in altering the city’s trash pickup schedule or local leaders implement new curb containers to safely store refuse, it’s clear that the fight against ravenous rodents will be an ongoing rat race.
Pearl argues that a unified coordination between city agencies, their exterminators, block associations and residents is the only way to defeat the car-chewing pests, though he was skeptical of the city’s cooperation. “They would rather fine individual buildings and residents than coordinate with their departments,” he said, adding, “Theoretically somebody’s in charge of pest control for the five boroughs — you have to get that person’s name and start handing it to everybody on the block and say, ‘you gotta email this guy to death’. This is what gets things done. Nobody knows these people’s names — they can be in that position for 20 years, nobody ever contacts them. This is the way you move mountains. They have to be exposed.” W42ST reached out to the city to confirm whether there could be one person attributable to the city’s pest control and will update if we hear back.
As for J-Line? He hopes the city will take further action to quell the issue after being forced into his own pandemic pivot. “They totally destroyed my car and now I have to come up with a whole new game plan on how I will tour and visit all the cities I need to perform in, in the most budget-friendly way,” he said. “Something needs to be done.”