Manhattan is having a rat moment. The very things that make the city's best neighborhoods great for people-old brownstones with gardens, nearby parks, an abundance of restaurants-also make them ideal homes for rats, and a growing infestation in Manhattan prompted city officials to hold a "Rat Academy" last week on the Upper West Side. Caroline Bragdon, a research scientist with the Department of Health's Division of Veterinary and Pest Control Services, came to the meeting at the community board office armed with more rat photos and information than most people would care to absorb in a lifetime. But part of the whole problem, she explained, is that people make incorrect assumptions about how to deal with rats instead of learning the facts. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer came by to express his solidarity-he lives among the rats too-and seriousness in combating what he said is the number one complaint his office receives, Manhattan-wide. "The rats on my block, they don't scurry anymore, they walk upright. They greet me and say, 'Hello, Mr. Borough President, how are you this morning?'" Stringer said to knowing chuckles. "Part of what we have to do is think strategically about how to deal with this, because obviously no one wants to see rats scurrying around the community. It frightens senior citizens, it poses a danger to children, and it doesn't give a lot of confidence in the city to see rats running rampant in the neighborhood." What makes the rat problem so intractable is that they love living in close proximity to people, who unwittingly provide all the food a family of the critters could ever want just in our garbage. "Rats eat everything, and they especially enjoy things that we eat," Bragdon said. And, confirming many people's worst fear, "they usually live outside, but if you have food right on the other side of a non-pest-proof door, they will go inside, if you make it that easy for them." The recent warm winter has also exacerbated the issue, since it allowed the rats to continue breeding without the usual slowdown that comes with the extreme prolonged cold. Along with learning that a full grown rat is mostly fur and can squeeze through any opening the size of its skull-roughly as big as a quarter-attendees at the Rat Academy learned how to prevent and exterminate the rodents, as well as how not to. The basic lesson is that rats are attracted to food and are good at finding it. They can gnaw through almost anything. Poison, while an option, is itself problematic. For one thing, it needs to be applied strategically and by a professional. For another, some of the options that might work best, like tracking powder, are illegal and could easily also poison children, pets and other animals. The biggest hurdle, however, is getting the rats to actually eat the poison (Bragdon said it's like "dry granola" to rats), which they won't do if there is other, more delicious, food in the vicinity. Simple tactics like putting the garbage out later or spraying down sidewalks to rid them of the urine paths rats follow to communicate with each other can help, Bragdon said. Plugging up holes and keeping litter off the streets is essential. Armoring all trash in lidded steel, just about the only thing that rats can't chew through, is the best option, but more easily said than done. On the East Side, the biggest problem area in the past has been Tramway Park, according to Council member Lappin's office. The Parks Department has been acting to keep that area cleaner, however, which seems to be working. "I find that if your block does the right thing, your building does the right thing, the problem is seriously abated," Coucil Member Gale Brewer said. "The workings of the building managers really doing everything properly really gets rid of the problem." Some rat academy students asked if the folk remedies they'd heard, like sprinkling cayenne pepper or using mint-scented trash bags,would be effective, but Bragdon dismissed each desperate theory with a grim shake of her head. "Remember," she said. 'This is the most successful mammal on Earth."
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