In 1839, the naturalist John Jay Audobon was granted permission by Mayor Isaac Varian to begin shooting rats he spotted along the Battery. In the 1960s, following a series of nest-shaking tenement demolitions, the Daily News trained teenagers to lay rat poison. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani hired future subway boss Joe Lhota as his “Rat Czar,” while Mayor Bill de Blasio has toyed with removing trash cans to stamp out the unwanted rodents. David Lynch was even involved at one point. Still, there are rats.
On Thursday, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams joined the pantheon of New Yorkers operating under the notion that the rats might be eradicated, if only we tried a new approach. In one of the more gut-churning press conferences in recent memory, Adams summoned the city’s reporters to Borough Hall to demonstrate a “cutting-edge” rat-killing device—part bait trap, part drowning tank—known as the Ekomille. We were promised dead rats, and goddamn did we get them.
[CONTENT WARNING: SO MANY DEAD RATS]
For what seemed like a very long time, we gazed upon dozens of bloated rat corpses, bobbing around in this thick cocktail of death. Their clumps of fur were tinged green by the alcohol solution, into which they’d been lured and subsequently drowned at some point over the last month. We were told they would not smell, and while it was not overpowering, there was definitely a smell. Eventually, the sodden carcasses were fished out with a ladle and dropped into a trash bag. They made a sad, waterlogged noise: Plop.
Many questions jump to mind, chief among them: WHY? And also: WHAT THE FUCK???
The exact reason for the morbid spectacle was never fully explained. But according to the borough president, the real issue is that city officials are failing to combat the current rat crisis, relying on expensive and ineffective poison pellets instead of more innovative solutions. The better approach apparently being, ah, rat soup torture.
Adams noted that five of the devices—which run about $400 each—have managed to kill a total of 107 rats outside Borough Hall in the last month. (Only four devices currently remain because, apparently, a giant rat destroyed one of the machine’s spring-loading mechanisms. “He was sticking out of the unit,” an employee told me. “First time I’ve seen that.”).
Fresh off this successful workplace experiment, the borough president is calling on the city to roll out a pilot program with the Long Island-based manufacturer, Rat Trap Inc., to bring the devices to NYCHA buildings and parts of Bed Stuy.
“We need a comprehensive rat plan—number one, these devices,” Adams declared. “This cost effective, humane treatment has shown us a way to really address this issue of rat infestations.”
Actual rat experts, meanwhile, are far less sanguine. “That’s not new—it’s an old farm and barrel trap, but with a fancy cover,” Bobby Corrigan, a well-known rodentologist who often consults with the city, told Gothamist.
Moreover, the suggestion that the rodents are killed humanely is nonsense. “Any veterinarian in the world would tell you that drowning is an incredibly inhumane way to kill a mammal," said Corrigan. "I have no idea how that’s considered humane.”
A spokesperson for Rat Trap Inc. countered that rat poisons take longer to kill their targets, and pose harm to other wildlife. Alternative measures, like birth control for rats, have shown promise, but are still years from widespread deployment.
“We’re dealing with families that are traumatized,” said Adams. “This is a real crisis, and it would be irresponsible to allow my personal feelings about being a vegan to get in the way.”
One thing that Corrigan and Adams do agree on is that the city is in the midst of a rat spike. The prevailing theory among most local politicians is that the construction boom has dislodged rat burrows, sending the animals skittering into public view. Councilmember Laurie Cumbo spoke about that issue on Thursday, saying that she was considering introducing legislation that would hold developers accountable for properly baiting at newly razed properties.
Others have blamed gentrification in a different sense, arguing that the uptick in rat sightings is the result of wealthy white people move into traditionally low-income neighborhoods, then calling in frequent complaints to 311.
While Corrigan notes that there are a confluence of factors, he says the most significant reason is that New York’s population has ballooned in the last decade, while the city’s method of waste disposal—i.e. leaving trash all over the street and sidewalk overnight—has remained stubbornly stuck in the past.
“If you're not willing to revamp your refuse management program, you don't have a chance,” said Corrigan. “It’s heavy lift, but if the city was willing to do it, it could be done.”
But, he added, “just putting out some kind of trap is not going to touch Brooklyn's rat population.”
Eric Adams is widely expected to run for mayor in 2021. There will likely still be lots of rats then, too.