Pest fest: Major US cities struggle with growing rodent problems

© Samrang Pring
Cat lovers, prepare to gloat. Several major US cities have seen a serious uptick in rat-related complaints. Residents of Boston, Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC are growing frustrated with the surge in the rodent populations.

Major US cities are seeking new and creative ways to curtail their rat populations as complaints continue to roll in. The number of grievances in Boston tripled in the first quarter of 2016, while reports of rodents increased by 70 percent in Chicago and 39 percent in New York City, USA Today reported.

Washington, DC was previously headed towards a four-year decline in rat complaints, but the national capital’s current trend seems inclined to ruin that streak, with 699 complaints as of April 15 compared to 2,004 complaints for all of 2015.

What is behind the spike in the rat populations? To start, the mild winters have not helped. In addition, seemingly minor transgressions common to city life – such as dog waste, open trash, and feeding other outdoor animals – can benefit rats.

Rats are prolific breeders. They reach sexual maturity within five weeks and can produce up to 14 offspring per litter. Consequently, beneficial conditions for rats can create a population explosion.

Boston prides itself on its rat abatement program and has taken the innovative step of using dry ice as an alternative to poisons. Using dry ice in rat burrows will asphyxiate the rats and has proven effective in its first month of tests, according to city officials. The program called upon researchers from Harvard and MIT whose initial testing has found that dry ice could be more cost effective and less dangerous than traditional poisons.

Meanwhile, DC is playing down the threat posed by its rapidly rising rodent problem.

I can assure you that we are ready for them,” Department of Health (DOH) spokesman Ivan Torres told USA Today, adding, “The DOH is and will continue to strike hard.

In New York City, it seems that rats are taking a bite out of the Big Apple. Orkin, a national pest control company, reported that its rodent-related business in NYC has increased by 129 percent.

Chicago’s problem burrows much deeper, however. The city has attempted an innovative rat control program which uses bait that targets fertility in both male and female rats.

We are being very, very aggressive in how we bait, so we can get control of the rodent population before summer gets here,” Charles Williams, Chicago’s Streets and Sanitation Department commissioner, told USA Today.

Chicago resident Tim Jacobs is struggling to make rodent control workers and neighborhood residents understand the severity of the situation.

In the alley here, I’ll see them come in and out of the garbage cans,” Jacobs told USA Today. “A few times I’ve lifted the lids up and they’ve jumped out. It’s startling.

He places some of the blame on his neighbors in Little Italy. Jacobs claims that older residents provide bread crumbs to pigeons and squirrels. The bountiful amounts of food being provided to rats – be it in the form of bread crumbs, garbage, or dog feces – has made the traditional rodenticide route more difficult.

Josie Cruz, deputy commissioner for the city’s Streets and Sanitation Department, who is responsible for overseeing the Chicago’s rat problem, told USA Today that “the rats are there because they are feeding on something.

They’re not there because they like the neighborhood. They are there because of the food source. If you cut off that food source, they’re going to eat rodenticide, and you’re not going to have that problem,” Cruz added.

While city life lends itself to helping rats reproduce, it does not fully explain the baby rat boom. In fact, the phenomenon is inexplicable to some officials, who have no time to pursue the mystery when some residents are finding upwards of 400 rats in their yards.

For the city’s purposes, what we care about is making our rodent service as efficient and effective as possible,” Brenna Berman, Chicago’s chief information officer, told USA Today. “It’s not to say we don’t care why these things happen. We do care, but in the short term, the goal is making sure we’re as effective and efficient with the funding that we have for rat baiting...We’ll dig into those things later.