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Saturday, 22 July, 2000, 22:03 GMT 23:03 UK
Rat scourge in New York
Even the mayor had a close encounter with a rat
By Jane Hughes in New York

There is a new rat race in New York.

The city has always had a reputation as a rich man's playground. And never more so than now, with internet billionaires buying up multi-million dollar apartments by the dozen.

But there is a dark side to this boom. It is creating the ideal conditions for the city's rodent population to thrive.

At first I thought it was just me. Rats have always given me the horrors, and after a particularly heavyweight and flea-bitten looking specimen virtually ran over my foot as I walked through a local park, sending me leaping some distance into the air, I began to feel as if I was seeing the vermin almost everywhere I looked.

According to the tabloid newspapers, they are the size of cats

But I reasoned that the trauma of such close contact with a creature that so apalls me had made me hyper-sensitive to their presence. After all, when I first came to live in New York, I happily went for months on end without seeing a rat.

But then rats began to be front page news. Apparently, I am not the only one to be suffering close encounters with the whiskered kind.

Not many blocks from where I live - a place, needless to say, where I do not plan to venture any time soon, a housing estate is the victim of a plague of super rats

According to the tabloid newspapers, they are the size of cats.

Rat massacre

Rats that march around the hallways of the apartment blocks in broad daylight, rats that leave residents too scared to leave their homes once it gets dark.

It sounded a bit like one of those summer stories newspapers cook up on a quiet day to put on their front pages - until the local cable news channel put some of those rats on TV. We are talking very big rats.

New York City
New York is booming
The mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, expressed the appropriate level of concern, and said he would make sure that the piles of rubbish outside the apartments were cleared away, and that the area was baited with rat poison.

But he brushed aside suggestions that this was a serious issue by saying New York always has vermin, just like any big city, and that it was nothing to get too worried about.

Two things changed his mind.

First, that poison he promised was duly spread around the apartments suffering from the super rats. The next morning more than 200 rat corpses were found strewn around the hallways and stairwells of the buildings.

And then, on his way out of his home in Gracie Mansion to enjoy the sunset over the east river, the mayor experienced something I can well identify with. A rat ran over his foot.

New York has now declared war on rats. Latest statistics suggest there are a terrifying nine of the vermin for every human being living here.

A rat czar is to be appointed to oversee efforts to get rid of them. There is a new rat task force, and a vermin hotline. The pest control department's got an expanded budget of $13m and a staff of 375. Researchers are seeking more scientific ways of killing the beasts.

They are tucking in and getting very fat, turning into monster rats

But why are they all here in the first place?

It seems New York has fallen victim to its own success - in the rat department at least.

All those millionaires demanding splendid places to live mean construction here is at an all time high. And every new building means new foundations - and a new disruption to the dark, damp places that rats call home.

They are scurrying out by the thousand in search of new homes, and finding when they do that all the waste created by us greedy, successful humans is just waiting to be eaten, so they are tucking in and getting very fat, turning into monster rats.

It has also been a while since we had the kind of brutally cold winter that kills off the weakest of their kind. And now that it is getting hot, steamy and smelly, they are coming out to play.

On top of that, New York may have dropped the ball on the extermination front, so that the population of rats has been allowed to reach a critical mass.

'Classless' rats

The trouble is, once that has happened, it is very difficult to get it all back under control. Urban rats, the experts say with rather disconcerting relish, are supremely adaptable creatures. Once they are established somewhere, they will find a way to stay there, whatever anyone does to get them out.

Now, I would be the last person to say anything in favour of the rat. But one thing I find, in a twisted way, rather appealing about them, is that they are such egalitarian creatures. Sure, they are swarming over Harlem, causing panic in the South Bronx, creating a siege mentality in the more squalid housing estates of the lower east side.

But they are also doing rather well in those glitzy apartment buildings on Central Park West, and making quite a home for themselves down in Tribeca, where all the Wall Street wealthies like to throng. They are really not choosy.

And they are a salient reminder that even when a place goes mad with money, and people don't turn a hair at spending $500 a head for dinner, some things are still unavoidable. Rats do not care how much you earn.

Eventually it will get cold again, and the rats will go back indoors. Maybe the war on the vermin will have some effect - 43,000 have apparently been killed so far this year.

If they can defeat crime in New York, surely they can get the better of rats. I do not know. But in the meantime, I am treading very carefully every time I go anywhere near a park.

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