Neal Phillip was biking through Canarsie Park on Saturday when something stopped him in his tracks: nearly a dozen bloated rat corpses, lying belly-up on a stretch of sand overlooking Jamaica Bay.
“When I saw the first one, I thought it was strange. Then I started seeing them all over the place,” recalled Philip, a professor of environmental science at Bronx Community College. “Seeing them dead like that wasn’t very pleasant.”
In recent days, similar displays of mass rodent death have appeared elsewhere in the five boroughs, a grim outcome of the floods brought by Tropical Storm Ida. Experts believe that hundreds of thousands of rats may have perished in the deluge, amounting to one of the largest vermin depopulation events in decades.
“With this particular storm, any rats that were in the sewers were either crushed by the current or were swept out into the rivers,” said Bobby Corrigan, a longtime pest control expert and former rodentologist for the NYC Department of Health. “I can’t imagine they would’ve survived.”
While there are no reliable counts of New York City’s rats, estimates typically start in the many millions. A significant portion live in the subways and sewers, both of which were swiftly inundated during last week’s historic rainfall.
The appearance of drowned rats in Canarsie Park, as well as similar reports on the opposite side of Jamaica Bay, would suggest that many were carried by the city’s combined sewer pipes. When that system is overwhelmed by heavy rain, its contents — human waste and storm run-off, primarily; but also potentially rats — are discharged from outflows into local bays and estuaries.
Rats are adept swimmers. But many were likely overmatched by the sudden drenching, a record-breaking 3.15 inches of rain in a single hour. “I would guess hundreds of thousands died, easily,” Corrigan estimated, including “an entire generation of pups,” or rat babies.
Yet even as the local rat population has taken a major hit, close observers say that the city’s most reviled and indomitable species has, conversely, become more visible.
Several exterminators who spoke to Gothamist/WNYC said that they’d received a spike in complaints since Tropical Storm Ida, as surviving rats seek refuge above-ground, inside private homes and public spaces.
Timothy Wong, an exterminator at M&M Pest Control for the last two decades, said that calls about rats had jumped threefold in the days following Ida. “It’s a huge surge, we’ve never seen anything like this before.”
A spokesperson for the NYC Health Department said they had not recorded an uptick in rat complaints since Ida, adding that it may be too early too tell.
But Wong said he’d received a flood of complaints about rats invading Brooklyn brownstones, burrowing in planters of outdoor dining sheds, and building nests inside parked cars. On multiple occasions, he has responded to calls about swarms of flies, only to find them circling a drowned rat, “like a scene out of the Bible.”
A similar uptick in rat complaints followed Superstorm Sandy, including horror stories of the rodents making their new homes in the walls of apartments. But experts said that most of the displaced population will remain on city streets, setting off turf wars and increasing the presence of daytime rats at a time when the vermin population is already believed to be at a historic high.
“I’ve seen an increase in rats in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens — the storm just forced everything to a higher level,” said Frank Deuidicibus, an owner of A-Expert Extermination Company Inc. He said complaints had shot up 20% since last week, but were already higher than ever prior to Ida.
The dead rats, meanwhile, are already attracting attention from New York City’s omnivorous wildlife. Corrigan pointed to a recent viral video of a blue heron swallowing a rat whole as a possible example of the post-Ida feast.
“That’s got to be happening all over the place,” he suggested. “This was a massive meat dump for all scavengers — the raccoons, the hawks, the herons.”
He also pointed to another widely-circulated video, which some media outlets described as a rat happily dancing through New York’s flood waters. In addition to the fact the video was uploaded earlier this summer, and likely taken in the Philippines, viewers were gravely misled about the rat’s emotional state.
“That rat isn’t doing the cha-cha slide,” Corrigan said. “That rat is in the final stages of drowning.”