Rats make a comeback as urban life revives

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Rodents are a quality of life issue.
Rodents are a quality of life issue.
Gary Hershorn / Getty Images
  • Rats are also getting "back on their feet" as cities recover from the pandemic.
  • Rat and mouse sightings made up the majority of the complaints.
  • The rats are trying to figure out where’s the easiest food source.


As New Yorkers get back on their feet after a year of the pandemic, so are the rats that survived a once-in-a-generation food shock.

The number of rodent complaints to a city hotline in March surged by 80% to 2,906 from last March, when calls dipped as New York City went into lockdown and indoor dining closed.

The number is also higher than pre-pandemic levels. A total of 2 395 complaints were made in March 2019, according to New York City's 311 service requests data.

Rat and mouse sightings made up the majority of the complaints, though there were also calls concerning signs of rodents or their bites, and conditions attracting these pests. The most complaints were in Brooklyn, followed by Manhattan and Queens. The city’s data contain duplicate complaints, as multiple calls could be made about the same situation in a short period of time.

"As things open up more, you will have more and more food availability," said Benjamin Hottel, an entomologist at Orkin, a pest control subsidiary under Rollins Inc. that noticed a jump in rodent control service calls in New York City during the spring. "There will be a higher pressure for the restaurants with rodents as their businesses increase."

Commercial areas in the city, which were largely deserted at the height of the pandemic, are also seeing more rodent activity as people begin returning to offices, said Andrew Klein, vice president of Assured Environments and Business Development at Terminix Global Holdings Inc., a pest control company.

With more offices reopening in the coming weeks, rat sightings could further increase, given the experience of Londoners. In the UK, where the rat population jumped 25% in 2020, the rat infestations in empty and closed buildings reached “biblical levels,” posing other risks as they chew wires and internet cables, according to Pest.co.uk.

'Chaos' for rats

In New York City, the changing human behaviours in the past year have upended the lives of rats. As restaurants and offices closed, rat colonies that had been dependent on garbage from these establishments were forced to find new sources of food. That prompted the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a warning in May about "unusual or aggressive rodent behaviour".

"There's been this chaos going on for the rats. They are trying to figure out where’s the easiest food source, as certain food sources disappeared," Hottel said.

Adapting to the changes, rats became more active during daytime and ventured into residential areas where more food and waste were generated by people working from home, said Jim Fredericks, the chief entomologist for the National Pest Management Association.

Hottel believes that as the city returns to normal, there will also be a "normalisation" of the rat population heading into the summer. They are likely to migrate back to the food sources of restaurants and offices.

On Twitter, residents are tweeting about their first subway rat sightings in more than a year, with one likening their return to the city’s "healing". Even Central Park joined in the action, with a reminder on World Rat Day last weekend that "rats are part of life in the big city"."

Last month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city will increase trash pickups and target overflowing litter bins. Sanitation services were cut back last year due to financial constraints during the pandemic.

"Rodents are a quality of life issue and the NYC Health Department works with communities to help them mitigate rodent issues," a NYC Health Department spokesperson said in response to the rising rodent complaints.

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