If You Build It, Rats Will Come

An urban wildlife habitat is a wonderful thing, don’t you think?

Before you answer … rise and walk with me to lovely 112th Street and Riverside Drive.

  Here on the upper promenade of Riverside Park is a large twin-peaked mountain of cobblestones.

Quiet in daylight.

This, my friends, is Rat Palace, a superb rat habitat provided, free of charge, to the city’s rodents.

Walk with me at night,

"Are you taking pictures of the rats?" asked this resident.

and you will see NYC rats, the kings and queens of the Dark, whisking in and out of the piled stones,

like shadows, like dreams.

Whisk, swish, scamper: the stones are moving.

Too swift for my camera skills to capture, the rats regularly scamper across the path from the cobblestones to the playground, and back again. Yes, at night, sweet little Tot Lot One Hundred Twelve is a rats’ playground.

In the Night Playground, you don't want to know who's having fun.

Rats love holes and tunnels, which the cobblestone mountain provides in plenty.  Assuming the city didn’t build the mounds for the sole purpose of enriching its rat population, just what is their purpose?

Rat holes galore.

Nearby, in the street, a long trench runs down the center of Riverside Drive, from 111th Street all the way to 113th Street.

Trench for rats.

According to a neighborhood informant, a dangerous sinkhole was opening up in the middle of Riverside Drive, so the city removed the surface cobblestones in order to reinforce the roadway from below.  So Rat Palace is only a temporary habitat, and its cobblestones will eventually be returned to the street. But any construction, even essential roadwork, stirs up the rats that live below the streets and sidewalks.  It also creates new passageways and habitats.

And, believe me, we don’t need any more doorways leading up from the underground rat kingdom, not in this part of town.

We have plenty of holes, some right next to the Twin Peaks,

Esau wonders how an overturned trash can is supposed to stop the rats.

giving dark access to the mysterious bowels of New York.

Portal to the Underworld.

Four blocks south is another large hole that reveals an encrusted and unidentifiable metal or concrete object as well as many  tunnels, leading who knows where.  Here, too, I often see rats appear or disappear.

Tunnels lead beneath the grassy square and, probably, under the street.

New York continually rolls out the welcome mat for rats, providing endless and varied opportunities for life’s three essentials: shelter, food and water.  Poisons and traps, while destroying individual animals, will never keep an entire rat population under control.  If we really want to rid the city of rats – or, at least, limit their numbers, we’ll have to manage our own behavior.  Yes, effective “pest control” necessitates behavioral changes on the part of Homo sapiens, with a priority on how we manage our garbage.

Because, let’s face it, New York, our garbage situation is flat-out insane. Our streets are a walk-up rat buffet with free food available 24/7 in open containers, over-flowing trash cans and discarded pizza crusts.  And leading the way to the buffet is an official, long-established system of garbage disposal that is flat-out crazy.  On trash nights, three times a week, we line our residential streets with garbage, set out in mountains of easily chewed plastic bags.

"Come and get it."

We leave the bags sitting all through the ratty night.  We might as well say, “Come little ratties, eat your fill!  Have seconds. There’s plenty more where that came from. Life is good. Why not expand your family?”  Is it any wonder we have a rat problem?

I’ll definitely be writing more about urban rats. I’m not sure if that’s a promise or a threat.

Here is a trio of posts from the archives on NYC rats:

Of Rats, Red-tails and Rodenticides
Dirty Harry Dog Cleans Up New York City Streets

A Tale of Two Killers: Esau and Jerry Lee

Pied Piper leads rats to river

You may also want to visit Rat Information Portal (RIP), a website run by the NYC Department of Health, where you can check out rat infestations, block by block.  I have not had much luck getting the mapping feature to work, but there is some good information to be found there.

Explore posts in the same categories: 2011, Fall, In the City, NYC Parks, October, Riverside Park, Rodents (other than squirrels), Seasons, Wildlife/Natural History

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12 Comments on “If You Build It, Rats Will Come”

  1. Efirefly Says:

    Cats do wreak havoc on bird, squirrel and rabbit populations as well as mice, rats, and voles. We’ve always had an outdoor cat until my last two which are strictly indoor cats. After 6 years without an outdoor cat, I am SO ready for another one. My yard is inundated with squirrels and all other kinds of little creatures – all of whom want in my garage, my attic and flower beds or anywhere else they can get – and I don’t leave food and trash around. I loved traveling in Europe where resident cats are part of family restaurants and traveled with owners on walks, etc. I only agree with an outdoor cat if it is taken care of though (rabies shots, etc.).


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  4. mthew Says:

    Similar situation here in BK, a local park with an island of green thickly planted (dense brush is also good rat space) in its center: hopping with rats.

    As to the comments about feral cats: given the choice, feral cats would rather take easier prey than rats, and they do, cutting deeply into bird populations. They aren’t a solution.

  5. Charlotte Says:

    Yup it’s the insane garbage policy that’s been going on for a very long time. I really like this video, which explains in vivid gory visual detail the problem you have just described in also vivid gory detail: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chYZ0Ky2JQM.

  6. Barbara Says:

    Linda is so right – where there are feral cats allowed to survive, there are many fewer rats. I live in the country and have rats, mice and other rodents constantly trying to get into my wee abode throughout the year, but especially in fall as winter approaches. This year my cats have been working hard day and night and there are no little furry rodents as far as I can tell… only bats which I welcome.

    Cities would de well to remember the bubonic plague in Europe where they decided to get rid of the cats, and the rats took over… no defences then.

    Wonderful post – and great photos!

    Hope that the city listens to your wise advice about how to take care of garbage – it’s the same in all cities I think, but I know in Toronto, trash is now separated into recyclables and a “green box” that contains food scraps in a plastic bin which goes to be recycled into topsoil which the city sells back to its constituents. Recycling is slowly working to help take care of garbage, maybe NYC might explore it?


    • Hi Barbara, thanks, as ever, for your comments! As Matthew points out above and I said in reply to Linda below, the problem with feral cats is that they also cause serious problems for bird populations. I think trash control is the way to go to control many of our wildlife pests, whether raccoons or rats. They are opportunists (like us) and their large numbers are a response to the over-abundance of food and shelter that we so kindly provide them. Your point about recycling is a good one. NYC does recycle, but there’s nothing for food scraps. At least, not officially. I have seen that there are now some compost collection points, but I don’t know much about them. Toronto’s “green box” is a great idea and would probably help NYC’s problem.

  7. linda ekstrand Says:

    I left a comment a few weeks ago about how when I lived on East 78 and the FDR the rats in John Jay park proliferated after feral cats were removed in the late 1990’s..The last summer I was there- 2006 the rats were frolicking in John Jay on the border of 78 st and Cherokee place.They were cute the babies playing like chipmunks on the planted borders.The clumsy attempts at rat poison by the Parks Dept. left it lying in the street so any dog or child could pick it up.I never saw rats during the day until they removed the cats .Of course parents allow their kids to have slovenly habits in that park- throwing trash everywhere so that doesnt help but I have to say when the cats were there the rats did not play – maybe late at night but definitely not in broad daylight.


    • I hear you about your experience, but cats, both domestic and feral, wreak havoc on bird populations. This is one of the awful, inconvenient facts for those of us, like me, who also love cats and grew up in an era when it never occurred to anyone to keep a cat indoors. But the facts have been coming in for a while now, and it’s clear that the numbers of birds taken by cats each year is staggering. Cats are not the answer to the rat problem. I honestly think a ground swell of change will have to occur about what we do with our garbage. There is a clear correlation between available food and the size of rodent populations. I understand that this is a huge issue, but surely some brilliant engineer/entrepreneur will one day come up with solutions for secure trash cans and dumpsters that the Sanitation people can access, and that work for the varied types of neighborhoods and buildings that we have here in NYC. Clearly, this is a problem created by humans, and it is we who will have to solve it.

      I don’t have anything against rats as a species – they’re smart, adaptable, and I’m sure the babies ARE cute. I’m actually completely fascinated by their survival skills – but NYC has a pretty serious problem.


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