Op-Ed: What To Do About Those Rats

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How the city can tackle the serious rodent over-run on the Upper West Side
By Debra Cooper
Just hearing the word rats makes most of us cringe. But now we must cope daily seeing them scurry across the subway tracks, nightly rustling through plastic garbage bags and boldly scampering across our sidewalks, streets and parks. The plague of rats has forced the closing of the original Magnolia Bakery and videos of them invading our sacrosanct locations like Fairway Market flood the internet. And it comes as no surprise to anyone living on the West Side that our neighborhood now has the highest number of rat complaints in the city.

The problem of rats goes well beyond the "ick" factor. In fact, rats have been shown to be a trigger to children suffering from asthma and have been associated with the spread of diseases such as leptospirosis, which a recent study reports is becoming more prevalent in communities like Washington Heights where rat infestations exist. The influx of rats in a neighborhood also increases stress and tension between residents and business and landlords. And like graffiti in the seventies, rats are a sign that we are losing control of our quality of life.

Obviously, we will never have a rat free city. However history as shown with proper attention and smart strategies we can make a real difference. In the 1970s, New York City was known to have one of the best rat-control programs in the country coordinated with a special federal government office within the Centers for Disease Control to assist urban rat programs. Then with Ronald Reagan's severe cuts in federal aid to cities, New York cut its budget for pest control by more than 70 percent producing a corresponding increase in rat sightings and complaints. Starting in the late 1990s, we again saw a greater emphasis and focus on rat control, and once again experienced a decline in rat infestations until recent years.

Now it is time for us again to take back our streets, parks and subways, and here is a strategy to start:

First, we must restore the city's commitment to eliminating rats. While Mayor Bloomberg deserves credit for improving information through the city's "Rat Portal" and training with its Rodent Academy, recent budget cuts have proven to have a negative impact. In the last three years, the City's Pest Control budget has been reduced by more than $3 million, that's nearly 25 percent. Not only have these cuts likely contributed to increases in rat sightings, two years ago Borough President Stringer reported that these cuts were not saving the city money, but actually costing us more because of the lost fees generated by cutting crucial personnel.

Second, every expert will tell you that the key to eliminating rats is to cut off the food source. It is said, "If you feed them, you breed them." While progress starts with building owners, home owners and restaurants doing a better job of having enough hard plastic rat-resistant containers with lids and properly disposing trash, there is more the city can do. Recently, the Upper West Side Shake Shack placed a solar-powered metal receptacle created by BigBelly Solar on their corner and Councilwoman Gale Brewer has announced a pilot program to place similar receptacles in Verdi Square, a known rat hangout. The trash cans have a hinged metal door that keeps rats out, and a solar-powered compactor that reduces the need for pickups. Cities like Philadelphia, Boston and Albany are employing these trash cans citywide which not only fight rodents, but also have significant benefits in reducing traffic and environmental impact by requiring fewer pick-ups and actually saving money. In fact, when Philadelphia adopted them across the city, it reportedly saved $900,000 in the first year.
And third, it's time for a second Rat Summit. Eleven years ago, then Councilmember Bill Perkins, together with the Daily News and Columbia University, brought together city, state and federal officials, scientists and community activists, to discuss the extent of the city's rat problem and the best ways to reduce the rat population. That Summit led to reducing reliance on the use of poisons and a greater emphasis on integrated pest management. Today, we need to focus on new issues related to after effects of Hurricane Sandy and impacts of new technologies and strategies. Working together, can lead to better pest management and it is a commitment we all need to make. Debra Cooper is a state Democratic Committeewoman and a candidate for City Council on the Upper West Side.

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