Maybe it was the foot-long rat that scampered across his porch at
Gracie Mansion. Maybe it was the upcoming November election.
Whatever his motivation, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has declared war
on the 28 million long-tailed vermin who outnumber New Yorkers 4-to-1.
The city recently established what it trumpets as the largest city
extermination campaign ever, led by the Interagency Rodent Extermination
Task Force, with an annual budget of $ 8 million. In Boston, which has
the only federally funded urban rodent control program, that would buy
16 years of rat killing. New York's program will hire up to 200 new
members for the city's rat patrol and pay for a public relations
campaign recruiting city residents into battle.
Giuliani's political foes were skeptical of the timing and noted
that the rat situation in New York is actually getting better than it
has been in at least a decade.
Before the creation of the Extermination Task Force, the city had
made dramatic gains in reducing the number of rat complaints. They are
at a 10-year low, down from 29,400 in 1994 to 18,045 through the first
eight months of this year. The number of reported rat bites has been cut
in half over the past 10 years and has dropped from 245 in 1994 to 184
But many community leaders in poorer parts of New York say rats are
as bad as ever. They said a well-funded, anti-rat crusade campaign is
In the past four years, Giuliani's administration has distinguished
itself by focusing on quality-of-life issues, everything from a record
reduction in the murder rate to ridding the city of the squeegee men who
used to wash car windows at stoplights. The assault on rats, however,
shifts the quality-of-life programs into poorer neighborhoods where the
mayor did not do well among voters in the last election.
"No one should have to live in an apartment building where they are
regularly scared by the presence of rats," said Deputy Mayor Randy
Mastro, who is overseeing the program.
The mayor's anti-rat campaign began after five months of crusading
by Harlem Initiative Together, a coalition of clergy and community
activists. The alliance includes the staff of Public School 165, a
middle and elementary school with almost 1,000 students.
The rat problem in the neighborhood around the school has gotten so
bad that children regularly show up in class with rat bites, according
to Principal Ruth Swinney."In the morning we can see the rats running
outside the building as kids come to school,"she said."They are huge,
almost like small dogs."
Vacant lots, particularly in the South Bronx, are ground zero for
the mayor's task force. Rats live there by the tens of thousands amid
great, stinking mounds of Pop-Tart wrappers and grease-stained fast food
containers. From these breeding areas, they infest the basements of
surrounding buildings, squeezing through half-inch cracks in foundations
or under doors.
Elsa Cheffena of the New York City Rat Patrol says the creatures
thrive because New Yorkers provide them with a steady food source:
garbage. She canvasses the South Bronx basement by basement searching
for rats and trying to change the behavior of residents who unwittingly
allow the rodents to flourish.
"The rats are everywhere,"she declared, turning on a flashlight
that hangs around her neck and sweeping light across a concrete floor in
a damp and smelly South Bronx basement. The floor was littered with rat
droppings, electrical cords were chewed and there was a four-inch hole
in the wall leading to the rats den.
Defeating rats is no small task. It takes two seconds for them to
successfully mate and, with a gestation period of 21 to 23 days, female
rats can have between 38 and 285 offspring a year.
Rats also are a reservoir of infections."The problem is that the
rats get so close to the human beings they can transmit disease, which
in densely populated areas can cause an epidemic,"said Alfonso Rui,
regional director for the World Health Organization."It's what happened
in the past with the bubonic plague that originated with rats and their
The city's weapons of choice in killing rats are two types of poison
pellets. One results in instantaneous death upon consumption. The other
is a blood thinner that causes the rats to bleed to death over a few
days. City officials said both are"state-of-the-art"and pose no harm
to the surrounding community.
Cheffena, like the rest of the city's rat inspectors, acknowledged
that poison alone cannot reduce the large rat populations that flourish
here unless New Yorkers work together to eliminate the conditions that
allow rats to flourish. She encourages residents to tightly bag their
garbage, fill in cracks on floors or ceilings and not leave food out. A
city pamphlet instructs New Yorkers to show that"we are smarter"than
"It is the people that cause these problems, it is not the rat's
fault,"said Wanda Jackson, 42, a resident of a rat-infested city-owned
building in the South Bronx.