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On the Front Lines of the Lower East Side Rat Wars

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Bragdon at right during Feb 6training
Caroline Bragdon conducts a workshop on the Lower East Side. Photos by Zach Williams.

This story was written by Zach Williams. 

Armed with the right knowledge, experts say, Lower East Side residents can tackle the troublesome scourge of rats on the Lower East Side.

The city’s education programs emphasize individual effort in the war against rats with preventive measures paramount to protecting residents from the disease-carrying vermin. Know the enemy, destroy its home and cut-off food supplies whether in homes, businesses or community gardens, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. At a crash course on rat prevention for gardeners held one day last month, Caroline Bragdon, a research scientist at the city agency, said that vigilance and a bit of hard work can dislodge these neighborhood nuisances. The event was coordinated by Community Board 3 and City Council member Margaret Chin.

Rats come to gardens not so much for the produce, but rather for the fresh, healthy soil ideal for burrowing, she said, at the training session, which took place at the BRC Senior Center alongside Sara D. Roosevelt Park. That is not to say they won’t nibble on a tasty tomato when they come across it, but their nutritional interests focus more on the diverse culinary offerings found in Lower East Side rubbish, Bragdon said.

Ground-hugging shrubbery only offers them more cover for foraging. Unprotected compost that isn’t regularly rotated adds to the ideal mix for living and eating, according to Bragdon. But an unwavering focus on the pest itself can make all the difference despite the presence of garbage on nearby properties.

“If you’re combating them with regular disruption of their home or their nest, believe me, the reproduction part is going to go down because they are going to concentrate on rebuilding their nest and finding something to eat,” she said.

Burying steel-mesh in a garden’s soil helps deter colonies. Filling burrows with sand further exhausts a rat’s ability to rebuild. Placing a bottle or large rock into the hole will accomplish little and stuffing burrows with glass shards only endangers humans, according to Bragdon. Predators such as cats and red-tailed hawks are not numerous enough to become capable allies in this fight. People have to do what they can and, when all else fails, to call a licensed exterminator who can deploy poison, she said.

Participants at the training said it was a revelation to them that winter snowfall provides ideal conditions to check their gardens for rats. Many left the workshop ready to take the fight against the vermin into their own hands.

Katherine Bridges point Linda Jones smiling as they find rat hole seward park
Linda Jones and Katherine Bridges at Seward Park.

Community Board 3 member Linda Jones and resident Katherine Bridges trekked to Seward Park after the event to check for freshly-cleared burrows amidst the white patches of snow. It did not take too long to find about ten unobstructed holes in a small area of the park to the north of Schiff Fountain. The situation was less dire within the garden near the south-eastern corner of the park though some burrows were there too.

Bridges said continuing to share useful information about rat eradication can only help.

“They want fats and proteins and carbohydrates, not fruits and vegetables,” she said with a laugh. “I think that’s a really important point for (community garden volunteers) to think of because people say: ‘Oh, you shouldn’t plant community gardens because that attracts rats,’ — and from what (Bragdon) is saying, that is not true.”

While more workshops are planned in the future, none are currently scheduled. However, the neighborhood is hardly lacking in exterminators ready to spring into action.

Rats create habitats below the streets, in the sewers or inside homes and commercial businesses — anyplace where they can stay warm — according to Manuel “Jr.” Medina, an exterminator with M&M Pest Control at 32 Orchard St., who oversees about 20 properties on the Lower East Side.

Rats continue to exhibit a marked resilience in this neighborhood, he said.

“The Lower East Side is one of the higher areas that have the problems,” Medina said as he examined a baiting station in Sara D. Roosevelt Park. “We have the FDR Drive waterfront. You have the South Street Seaport area. Those areas are flooded with rats.”

Medina pointing out sloppy garbage-handling at one neighborhood building.
Medina pointing out sloppy garbage-handling at one neighborhood building.
Final Blox is a common rat poison used by local exterminators.
Final Blox is a common rat poison used by local exterminators.

Further inland the situation is hardly better, especially after Hurricane Sandy tore new holes in the neighborhood fabric, he added.

“If one person slacks, it can affect everyone,” he said.

In one old tenement building on Eldridge Street, Medina demonstrated just how inviting old buildings can be for rats. Some landlords, he said, are more concerned with generating income than in quality vermin control, which requires a thorough examination of buildings for potential access points.

Gaps no wider than a quarter are enough for the flexible creatures to come and go. Rats do not see well so they rely on their whiskers and noses to find their way. Clean passageways, urine and feces are clear signs of their regular presence within residences, Medina said.

Droppings were noticeable not far from a second-story apartment door with a rounded corner bearing gnaw marks. Electrical wires and plumbing protruding from the ceiling are as conducive to rat travel as jungle vines for primates, according to Medina. In a first-floor garbage area tucked beneath the stairs, he sighed in despair upon spotting uncovered trash haphazardly piled inside grey, plastic bins.

Poor construction work, unplugged holes and indifferent building owners make walls and plumbing accessible to rats in this building and many others in the neighborhood, according to Medina.

“They even experience rats all the way on the top floor coming right up from their kitchen sink,” he said.

Locating and blocking all of the rat pathways in a building takes time and plenty of putty, drywall and concrete. Coupled with proper garbage storage and the removal of feces, a building can become rat-free even if the evicted rodents try to re-enter the premises in subsequent days, Medina said.

Sometimes, to catch a rat, you have to acknowledge their opportunistic nature, he added. One terrified resident in the past had a rat frequenting a kitchen cabinet far above the floor with no obvious means of reaching it, he said. There were no holes in the wall and rats do not have the vertical jumping ability of cats. But then Medina noticed that the resident would hook her apron upon the cabinet knob, a drawbridge for rodents to the pasta stored above.

Even after seven years in the business of eradicating rats through poison, traps and his bare hands, holistic thinking remains Medina’s weapon of choice.

“The way they work and everything is always the same, but they always seem to surprise me,” he said.

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