The explosive growth of New York’s rats over the past 65 years

In this July 7, 2000 photo, rats swarm around a garbage bag near a dumpster at the Baruch Houses in New York.
Robert Mecea/AP

  • New York’s rat population has grown exponentially since the mid-20th century.
  • In 1950, an estimated 250,000 rats lived in the city. By 2014, there were an estimated 2 million of them.
  • The increase is due in part to changes in how the city handles garbage and how quickly rats reproduce.

The rats of New York are relentless. They are also everywhere – in drains and parks, under your feet, in subways and even on your walls.

They’ve been in New York since the 1700s, and they’ve held firm—current estimates put the rat population at about 2 million in 90 percent of the city, according to The Atlantic.

As long as rats have roamed the city, politicians and locals have vowed to exterminate them. But so far no one has succeeded.

This is how the rats took over the city – and why they won’t let go.

About 250 years ago, the Norway rat—also known as the brown rat, alley rat, or sewer rat—arrived in America by ship from Europe. No one knows when the first rat made landfall, but experts are pretty sure they came during the American Revolution.

The brown rat was filmed in 1953.
Denis de Marney/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Their first stop was likely New York City.

Sources: Atlantic, Insider

Although only a few made it across, rats multiply rapidly. They live about two years, but are sexually mature in two months, mate in 2 seconds, and can give birth to 8-10 babies about six times a year – that’s 120 rats for every mother rat in their lifetime.

A female rat with her litter.
Andia/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Sources: Atlantic, Insider, The Washington Post

They are also not soft and cuddly like mice or squirrels. As Fordham University biologist Dr. Jason Munshi-South told The New York Times, they’re rough and mean. They fight each other.

A gross rat runs along the High Line Park on September 22, 2018 in New York City.
Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

“They have scars, they’re missing eyes, they’re missing part of their tail,” he said. “Their lives are pretty brutal.”

They also have sharp teeth, he said.

“They bite through walls. They bite wires. They destroy cars,” he said.

Source: New York Times

Rats are agile and can jump 3 feet high and 4 feet across. But their speed and agility aren’t the only reasons why they are master escape artists. Each of their many burrows usually has three exits, a primary one and two escape routes.

A rat leaves its burrow in a park in New York in 2015.
Mary Altaffer/AP

Sources: National Geographic, Cutting

The widest part of a brown rat is the skull, which means that if its head can fit into a hole or space, it can – and will – get there.

A rat’s head poked out of a hole in the bottom of a New York garbage can in 2016.
Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Sources: National Geographic, Cutting

Rats first made headlines in New York City in 1860 for maiming and killing a newborn child, and again in 1865 when The New York Times said the city gained a reputation for having more rats “than any other city in the Union.”

A rat roams the train tracks in New York.
Frank Franklin/AP

Sources: Caretaker, New York Times, New York Times

In 1950, there were an estimated 250,000 rats in the city. Since then, there have been a few wildly varying estimates, including one in 1997 that put the number at 28 million rats. But more conservatively, in 2014 there were an estimated 2 million rats in the city.

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Sources: Atlantic, The Washington Post

In the late 1960s, rat infestations occurred primarily in Harlem, the Lower East Side, and parts of Brooklyn where marginalized communities lived. This was no accident – ​​it was institutional racism. Buildings and infrastructure were not properly maintained, and garbage was not collected as often as in predominantly white areas.

A rat sitting on top of a can of paint in the kitchen of a tenement in Harlem in 1964.
Truman Moore/Getty Images

Source: Atlantic

But the rats have since spread. In 1974, rats only covered an estimated 10 percent of the city. Experts now think that up to 90 percent of the city is infested with rats.

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Source: Atlantic

But rats don’t stray too far from their home. The rats you see in the morning may be the same rats you see at night – they rarely go more than 600 meters from where they live.

A rat temporarily leaves a hole at a subway stop in Brooklyn, New York in 2014.
Julie Jacobson/AP

Source: Atlantic

The early 1970s played a decisive role in the increase of rat populations in the city. First, the federal government passed the Federal Clean Air Act of 1970, which led to New York City banning apartment buildings that use incinerators to destroy trash.

A rat pokes its head out of a trash can while hunting for food at Bogardus Plaza in Tribeca on August 17, 2022 in New York City.
Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Source: New York Times

Second, the city introduced plastic trash bags in 1971. Rats could suddenly eat all the trash they wanted instead of metal trash cans, and there was more of it because it was no longer burned.

People walk past garbage bags in New York.
Leonardo Munoz/VIEW Press/Getty Images

Rats don’t need much to survive either – about an ounce of food and water a day will keep them alive. In New York, that’s not a big question.

Sources: Atlantic, New York Times, Insider

Another factor was climate change. Rats do not hibernate in winter, but their reproductive cycle slows down because it is harder for them to find food. As the winters have warmed, they have been able to multiply.

A rat jumps into a puddle in the snow in New York in 2019.
Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Source: Atlantic

Still, according to E. Randy Dupree, one of New York’s former “rat hunters,” the fight went pretty well between 1969 and 1986 when the city adopted a three-pronged approach: destruction, education and cleanup.

A Border Terrier named Merlin chews on a dead rat he killed during an organized rat hunt in New York’s Lower East Side in 2014.
Fresh Mike/Reuters

At the time, federal funding helped pay for workers to clean up the city, and reports of rat bites dropped from 765 to 285 between those years.

When the money ran out, the city funded it. But it only lasted a little while.

Source: New York Times

From 1987 to 1996, New York’s rat budget dropped from $12 million to $5 million. A three-pronged approach to combating infection was no longer advantageous. “The rats started to win the war,” Dupree told The New York Times.

A rat enters its well in a park in the Chinatown neighborhood of New York.
Mary Altaffer/AP

Source: New York Times

Over the past few decades, New York City mayors have tried to take up the mantle. In 1997, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani set aside $8 million and created an extermination task force that used three different types of poison to kill the rats.

Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of New York and former mayor John Lindsay.
Ed Bailey/AP

By 2000, his budget had grown to $13 million. It was part of a focus on poorer neighborhoods to get new voices. But the stories about the rats were intense.

Harlem Public School 165 principal Ruth Swinney told The Washington Post in 1997 that her children showed up covered in rat bites.

“In the morning, we can see rats running outside the building when the children come to school,” he said. “They’re huge, almost like little dogs.”

Sources: The Washington Post, A New Yorker

In 2017, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio set aside $32 million to kill the rats. One of the methods of his administration was to fill rat holes with dry ice, which suffocated the rats with carbon dioxide. It turned out to be effective, but labor intensive.

Then-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio addresses supporters after his re-election in New York, U.S. on November 7, 2017.
Brendan McDermid/Reuters

It’s also quite human. Dry ice puts rats into a deep sleep from which they never wake up.

But other tools, including mint-scented trash bags, weren’t as effective.

Sources: Caretaker, New York Times

Before becoming the current mayor, Eric Adams joined the ranks of his rat-hunting predecessors when he promoted a new rat-killing method that involved a bucket called an Ekomille that lured rats in before covering them with poison. Each Ekom can kill up to 30 rats.

One of Mayor Eric Adams’ vaunted rat traps is known as “Ekomille.”
Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

But it wasn’t effective—in one experiment, a particularly large rat destroyed a bucket—and it hasn’t been used since he took office.

Sources: Caretaker, Gothamist

Over the years, concerned residents have also founded organizations to hunt rats with trained dogs.

Richard Reynolds with other members of the volunteer RATS group in Manhattan.
Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

Source: Caretaker

Some individuals, like Manuel Rodriguez, known to his neighbors as “M-Rod,” have taken to killing rats on their own. But these are local efforts to solve a city-wide problem.

Manuel Rodriquez holding a dead rat in 2004.
Ken Murray/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

The situation in New York deteriorated during the pandemic. Rats took to the streets in spectacular numbers as more waste was left out – and for longer – due to outdoor dining regulations and fewer waste collections.

A rat runs across the sidewalk in the New York City borough of Manhattan on December 2, 2019 in New York City.
Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Sources: NPR, National Geographic

Although rats are considered mostly harmful by health experts, they also carry diseases, and because they can get so close to humans, they are good at transmitting them.

Manuel Rodriquez swings a rat outside his apartment in 2004.
Ken Murray/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

In 2021, one person died from leptospirosis and 14 people became ill. The disease is usually spread from rat urine and can cause liver and kidney failure.

Sources: Insider, The Washington Post, Atlantic, New York Times

According to the Ministry of Health’s rat academy, there is only one way to stop rats – starve them. But in a city like New York, where the streets are often littered with trash, that’s easier said than done.

A rat walks along a fence toward a trash can while hunting for food at Bogardus Plaza in Tribeca on August 17, 2022 in New York City.
Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Source: Cutting

If nothing else, New Yorkers can reassure themselves that it could be worse — they could live in Chicago, which last year was the most rat-infested city in the U.S., according to pest control company Orkin.

A dead rat sits on the street outside the Marshall Field Garden Apartments in Chicago, which Orkin estimates will be the most rat-infested city in the U.S. in 2022.
Martha Irvine/AP

Source: restrained

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