Urban legend has it that New York City is home to more rats than people. (For reference, the human population is about 8.6 million.) Fortunately, it turns out that’s a myth. In reality, the ratio is likely closer to four humans to one rat, a statistic city officials say is still way too high, considering the long-tailed rodents are known carriers of diseases.
Pest control is an inevitable part of life in major metropolises, from an abundance of feral cats and rats to scorpions and carnivorous toads.
Around the world, residents of densely packed cities develop a high tolerance for tight spaces, crowded sidewalks and neighbors who can be a bit too close for comfort. But sharing subways, streets and even apartment buildings with pests is not only a quality of life issue, it can be a public health concern.
“We refuse to accept rats as a normal part of living in New York City,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement last summer, after announcing a $32 million plan to reduce the rat population by 70 percent in the city’s three most infested neighborhoods by the end of 2018.
According to Gil Bloom, an entomologist at Standard Pest, the “big four” pests are rats, roaches, bedbugs and ants. “Those are pretty much problems throughout the country,” Bloom says.
Yet not all cities – or pests – are created equal. According to the American Housing Survey, New York tops the list when it comes to rodent sightings. As for roaches, New Orleans is the winner, with 41 percent of households spotting the critters, according to CNN.
Pest control is an inevitable part of life in major metropolises, from an abundance of feral cats and rats to scorpions and carnivorous toads. But how cities handle the problem can vary significantly and sometimes, creative attempts at solutions have resulted in even more critters.
From Rats to Cats
In the 1930s, Jerusalem was dealing with a significant rodent problem. The city, under the British mandate, brought cats into the area as a form of pest control. While this reduced the number of rats, the cats flourished in the warm climate, and with plenty of food available on the street, the feline population skyrocketed. Today, feral cats have taken over the city, and while there is no official tally, estimates put the number between 100,000 and two million.
The government launched a campaign in 2013 to neuter the strays in shelters. Because the city does not have a culture of spaying or neutering, there has not been much of an impact. The agricultural minister suggested taking the $1 million spent annually on neutering the animals and using the funds to deport the cats instead. This suggestion was not taken seriously, and the city is focused on encouraging a culture of neutering pets and stray animals.
Sugar cane was one of Australia’s main exports in the mid-1930s, but crops were being decimated by beetles. Desperate farmers heard rumors that cane toads had saved farms in Hawaii, and released around 3,000 toads throughout northern Queensland. Turns out, cane toads are lazy hunters, and did not have much of an impact on the beetles. But the residents of Queensland were left with a new problem. Because cane toads are not native to the area, they have no natural predators to keep their population in check.
Today, there are an estimated 1.5 billion toads in Australia, and the species is taking over not only the ecosystem, but also people’s backyards. The toads will eat anything they can fit in their mouths, like garbage, other toads and pet food from bowls left outside. The species is also poisonous, and known to kill unsuspecting dogs who try to eat the toads.
For now, the Australian government is focused on research to maximize the long-term survival of other species affected by the cane toads. The state of Queensland is relying on information dissemination and community action, and is encouraging homeowners to manually remove the long strands of eggs and individual toads from lawns.
Back in New York…
… The city is taking a more practical approach to its rodent problem. Instead of introducing a new species to defeat the pests, New York’s proposal focuses on eliminating the rats’ potential food sources.
The key to eliminating rats often lies in changing “human behavior.”
The 18-month plan, part of a collaborative effort of the Sanitation, Parks and Health Departments, involves installing solar trash compactors and replacing wire waste baskets with impenetrable steel ones. Improvements will also be made in public housing apartment buildings to help keep the rats out, like replacing dirt basement floors with concrete.
Even the smallest pests can create a big problem in urban environments, and pest control is an ongoing struggle for cities around the world. While some programs are highly successful, with a handful of cities now using big data and other advanced tech tools to better locate and predict pest infestations, creative “solutions” can sometimes have unintended consequences.
Big data and city-wide plans can be effective, but as long as there are available food sources, there will be rodents and other pests. An important part of effective pest control relies on residents’ willingness to follow recommendations and community guidelines. Ultimately, says Gerard Brown, program manager for Washington, D.C.’s Rodent Control Division, the key to eliminating rats often lies in changing “human behavior.”