In late summer of 2019, Eric Adams was standing over a pile of oily rat corpses, outlining his plan to flush the city of its vermin problem.
“Many people have normalized having rats in their community,” the then-Brooklyn Borough President lamented. “The unwillingness to think outside the box and look at new technology is what’s really holding our city back.”
He looked on approvingly as an employee of Rat Trap Distribution unveiled the innovative solution: a file cabinet-sized contraption that lures rodents in with Oreos and sunflower seeds before plunging them to their liquid grave.
Nearly three years later, the city is drowning in rat complaints – and the man whose rodent-killing machine Adams touted on the campaign trail as “amazing” is still waiting on the mayor’s call.
“He has a lot on his plate, I believe in time, God-willing, he’ll get around to it,” Pat Marino, who leases the boxes through Rat Trap Distribution, recently told Gothamist. “Maybe he puts a big light in the sky with a rat and I put my cape on and I run to City Hall.”
That New York is increasingly overrun by rats is something generally agreed upon. In 2021, complaints of rat sightings were up more than two-thirds compared to the same period in 2019. That trend has continued this year: last month saw the highest number of rat complaints of any April in at least a decade, according to city data.
Meanwhile, more than two years after pest control inspections were halted in the early days of the pandemic, the city’s Health Department still hasn’t ramped back up to full strength. During the first four months of this year, the agency conducted 20% fewer inspections than during the same period in 2019, according to data shared with Gothamist.
So it’s not as though Marino isn’t busy. The Maspeth-based supplier is currently leasing 300 units to agencies in Yonkers, as well to private residences and storefronts across the five boroughs. The Italian-made devices can hold dozens of dead rats, he said, an improvement over poisons that allow their victims to wander off before they perish, alerting other rats to danger.
“Every rat in New York City hates my guts,” Marino boasted, then offered a more humble assessment of his progress. “We're having an impact, we're catching a lot of rats. But there are millions out there. I don’t want to be alarmist. But there are a lot.”
As the weather warms, experts fear New York City is on pace for its rattiest summer ever, and solutions to prevent and combat the rodent invasion have been less than forthcoming.
"It's definitely increased. There's mad rats," said Zary Rivas, a 19-year-old Bushwick resident, as she and a friend walked next to a pile of trash bags and greasy pizza boxes on the Lower East Side. "We were just chilling, a couple minutes later like a thousand rats came out just walking around. They're not even scared."
New York City’s efforts to eradicate rats, and its failures to do so, date back centuries. In 1865, the New York Times warned the city was “fast gaining an unenviable notoriety” for producing more rats “than any other city in the Union.” Over the years, the methods of fighting back have included guns, birth control, scented trash bags, and terriers.
But while Adams once described Mayor Bill de Blasio’s rat mitigation plan as “a joke,” he has largely continued the strategies of his predecessor. Those efforts include laying rat poison in public spaces and stuffing dry ice into rat burrows. The latter method is one of the most promising, but also among the most labor intensive, experts say.
A spokesperson for the city’s Health Department blamed the uptick in rat activity on the increased availability of food waste, fueled in part by the rise of outdoor dining. The spokesperson added that the agency was focused on expanding enforcement and education, while urging the city’s property owners to play a role in reducing food sources for rats.
But despite Adams' lofty campaign promises, officials and rat mitigation experts said the city isn't doing enough to curb the rat population. For one thing, the Adams administration has scaled back a planned expansion of composting, a key environmental initiative that would also reduce on-street rat buffets.
The Department of Sanitation has abandoned an early pandemic rule requiring large residential buildings to containerize their waste. A similar effort to provide containers to businesses that rely on private carters has also stagnated.
Quantifying New York City’s rat problem has long proven as challenging as fixing it. One statistical analysis landed on 2 million as a high-end estimate for the above-ground rat population. Others have put the figure closer to 250,000.
But Timothy Wong, an exterminator at M&M Pest Control for the last two decades, said he’s confident the city’s rodent population has ballooned to new levels. He said he had discussions months ago with the Health Department about bringing new technology and training to the city’s rat-killing efforts, but hasn’t heard back.
Without a significant overhaul to its waste management program, Wong argued, the city was effectively surrendering in its war against rats.
They have like 300 trash bags out there for seven or eight hours ... What do you think is going to happen?
“You have a building with like 400 residents and they have like 300 trash bags out there for seven or eight hours,” Wong said. “What do you think is going to happen?”
Sandy Nurse, the chair of the City Council’s Sanitation Committee, echoed the frustration, telling Gothamist that she wanted to see “a more aggressive rat mitigation strategy, particularly in areas with high complaints, like public housing areas.”
At a recent community meeting, Nurse said her constituents in Bushwick and East New York were frequently left behind by the city’s rat mitigation efforts, which have often focused on wealthier zip codes.
The Council is currently calling on the mayor's office to add $22 million to its current budget to expand basket pick-up service to twice daily, rather than once per day, and to fund an additional $5 million in rat control services.
Adams' office did not say whether the administration would support the increase, but offered a statement from the mayor reiterating his commitment to clean streets.
“I’m open to exploring innovative and effective new tools to keep our streets clean and rat-free,” the statement read. “New Yorkers deserve cleaner streets and rat mitigation must be a part of that.”
Catalina Gonella contributed reporting.