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Coronavirus Leaves Rats Hungry

CECILY MAURAN, HOST: Coronavirus has shut down restaurants and suspended public life. We aren’t alone, as we miss dining out. Rats miss it, too. They are growing more aggressive as they search food, and it’s concerning for residents. Sarah Gelbard has the story.

SARAH GELBARD, BYLINE: Bobby Corrigan is an urban rodentologist, a rat expert. He says there are millions of rats in New York City. For our global ecosystem, rats play an important role. They eat insects, feed hawks and coyotes, and aerate soil. In cities, though, they can be dangerous. Rats hate being hungry.

BOBBY CORRIGAN: The stronger rats of a colony will raid their own nests and their neighbors’ nests and they’ll kill and eat the young.

GELBARD: Or, they may search for food elsewhere, like our apartment buildings. Corrigan says rats are not biologic carriers of coronavirus, but they do carry dozens of other diseases and bacteria. Rat-transmitted leptospirosis killed a Bronx resident three years ago.

CORRIGAN: The rats can visit and go into apartments and defecate and urinate on people's tables or pots and pans. And people can contract that just by touching their mouth or face.

GELBARD: So Corrigan has some advice about how to avoid rats. Like, don’t leave anything around that might capture their attention.

CORRIGAN: Like your garbage or my garbage, or somebody being sloppy or leaving a lot of dog feces out that they should have picked up because rats will eat dog feces, it's delicious for them. Please don't reward them with anything.

GELBARD: But, some residents don’t have a choice. Carol Morrison is a social worker and founding member of the Prospect Heights Rat Task Force. She describes rat infestations from summers past so severe that she couldn’t use the sidewalk without rats crossing over her feet. MORRISON: One community member told me the rats literally were galloping down the block galloping down the block, looking for food. We had 30 people in our lobby telling us about garbage pails that had holes in them and have had holes in them for years and rodents that were eating out the bottom of cars. GELBARD: Morrison worries that with coronavirus draining public resources the city won’t be able to respond to rats. In an email, the New York City Department of Sanitation said rats are not in its domain--talk to the Department of Health. That city agency was unable to accomodate an interview in time for air. At the other end of the city, Kristin Curtis says no matter how well she cleans, she also has unwelcome guests.

KRISTIN CURTIS: So a few weeks ago, I was working in my living room and I heard this loud scratching sound coming from my bedroom. I thought possibly someone was trying to break in.

GELBARD: It was a hawk in her bedroom, eating a rat.

CURTIS: And this hawk looked me square in the eye, and was like, “What?” It was one of those moments where you are not so pleasantly reminded that you share this city with several other creatures.

GELBARD: She wonders where the rats will go to find food in the midst of coronavirus. Sarah Henry is Chief Curator at the Museum of the City of New York. She says as long as New York City has been around New Yorkers have been sharing their city with rats. But during outbreaks of illnesses that took place more than a hundred years ago, things were different.

SARAH HENRY: Those huge outbreaks of things like cholera, yellow fever that took so many lives, happened at a time when we didn’t have a waste disposal system. GELBARD: Henry says pigs were the sanitation system of the past. They ate our trash. Rats also consumed waste, but their main role in cities was to spread germs. When this pandemic ends many of us are hoping to go back to work, and so are the rats. At least they won't be spreading coronavirus. Sarah Gelbard, Columbia Radio News.


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