Ratpocalypse, rodentgeddon, ratastrophe – whatever you call it, US cities are under siege

From coast to coast, warmer weather is causing a new Baby Boom, rat-style. The impact could be dramatic.

Earlier this month, New Yorkers were greeted with a cheery parade of news reports about wildlife in the city. The headlines went like this: "Rats Are Jumping Into Baby Strollers In Upper West Side Parks" and "New Yorkers Report 'Brazen' Rats Leaping Into Strollers For Snacks." It’s one thing to see the scampering rodents scurrying from garbage cans and sleuthing the subway tracks; but hopping into baby prams to purloin Cheerios and Goldfish? Just, no.

Although New Yorkers think their city is pretty special, as far as rats with moxie go, we’re not alone. (Even if our rats do have their very own Wikipedia page.) Emily Atkin sums it up for the New Republic with this headline: "America Is on the Verge of Ratpocalypse." With record-breaking temperatures fueling the proliferation of rats, public health systems and the economy in general are being hit hard. Not to mention no shortage of toddlers being permanently traumatized by a rat in the lap.

Rat expert Bobby Corrigan says it is cause for alarm. “I travel all over the world with this animal, and the amount of complaints and feedback and questions I hear right now are all, ‘We’ve never seen rats in the city like this before,” he says. “They’re all expressing the same concern: Our rat problem is worse than ever.”

Washington D.C. (home of human-baby-sized rats, yay!), Houston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco are all seeing significant spikes in rat populations. Atkin writes:

It’s no surprise that rats thrive in cities, where humans provide an abundance of food and shelter. But experts now agree that the weather is playing a role in these recent increases. Extreme summer heat and this past winter’s mild temperatures have created urban rat utopias.

The rat experts seem to agree that shorter, warmer winters bring more rats; and last winter was the warmest one on record in America.

“Breeding usually slows down during the winter months,” Corrigan says. But with warmer winters, “They have an edge of squeezing out one more litter, one more half litter.”

What’s that mean for cities brimming with rats? Atkin notes:

One more litter or half litter makes a serious difference when a population boom is not only a nuisance, but a public health and economic crisis. Rats breed like rabbits; as this alarming Rentokil graphic shows, two rats in an ideal environment can turn into 482 million rats over a period of three years. Urban rats caused $19 billion worth of economic damage in the year 2000, partially due to the fact that they eat away at buildings and other infrastructure. Imagine how much they’re costing now.

Plus: Diseases. Rats in New York City not only carry pizza, but carry E. coli, salmonella, leptospirosis, and Seoul hantavirus (complete with Ebola-like hemorrhagic fever) as well. Meanwhile, a Columbia University and Cornell University study found that city rats are infested with fleas, lice, and mites that carry bacteria that can cause disease in humans, including bubonic plague, typhus, and spotted fever.

Atkin goes into detail about the federal government coming to the rescue – or, more precisely, the federal government not coming to the rescue. Presently there is not enough funding to tackle this potential health catastrophe on the individual, local, state or federal level. “New York City’s staggeringly large $32 million program to kill rodents would reduce rat populations in the city’s most infested areas only by 70 percent,” she writes.

Some federal assistance could go a long way in helping to lessen the damage. "Officials at the CDC may not be paying much attention now, but they should be," Atkin notes, "if only because the public health cost of rat infestations has never been fully studied."

But right now federal focus seems more keen on finding money for things like building big impossible walls than fighting a potential rat epidemic. (Now maybe if we could build walls around parks on the Upper West Side, we could at least save on years of therapy bills for the toddler set?) In the meantime, beware the city rats. Pet rats are great, rats in the wild doing their rat things are great, but disease-ridden city rats that are as in-your-face as city humans are best left alone.

Read Atkin’s whole rat mess here.

Tags: Animals | Cities | Diseases | Nature

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