Rats Aren’t the Problem in Cities. We Are.

Date: 8 Sep 2022 | posted in: Building Local Power | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

In the 17th century, humans weren’t the only ones voyaging to the U.S. — the Norway rat decided to join the expedition. And ever since, the human and the rat have been inseparable, much to the rat’s delight and the human’s dismay. Today, rats lurk in underground subways, flourish in commercial centers, burrow in city parks, and scurry across sidewalks. They thrive in any place humans have mismanaged our food disposal systems — hence in cities across the U.S.

On this episode of Building Local Power, Bloomberg reporter Linda Poon joins us to talk about how cities are [mis]managing rat infestations. We dive into the decline and spike in rat populations during and after the pandemic, cities’ solutions to mitigating rat infestations, and how to shift the public focus from a problem with rats to a more proactive and thoughtful approach to how we discard food.

“There is this one statistic called the one in ten rule. It only takes one house to have very sloppy practices to invite a rat infestation into the neighborhood. It really has to be a community effort, which is why it’s such a big deal that cities are engaging [the] public [on a] large scale.” – Linda Poon

Linda Poon: The community part is a big deal. There is this one statistic, in our course, that we kept learning, he called it the one in 10 rule. It only takes one house to have very sloppy practices to invite a rat infestation into the neighborhood. It only takes one house to infest 10. It really has to be a community effort, which is why it’s such a big deal that cities are engaging public at a large scale.
Reggie Rucker: Hello and welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance dedicated to challenging corporate monopolies and expanding the power of people to shape their own future. I’m Reggie Rucker, and today we are talking about rats. Now you might be thinking, why are we talking about rats? I have to say, I cannot wait for this conversation. I’ve lived in DC for a little over a year at this point and I am stunned to the degree that rats are everywhere. When I say everywhere, not so much everywhere I go, although a little bit of that, but it’s in my social media feed. People are just constantly talking about rats in this city.
And so recently, Luke is going to tell you about some work at our composting team about how you can compost and avoid rats. And so, it just made total sense. We have to have a rat conversation. But before we get into all that, I will pass it over to my cohost, Luke.
Luke Gannon: Thank you, Reggie. I haven’t lived in a city long enough to experience the rat infestations. As I’ve been preparing for this show, I’ve read a bunch of rat articles and I’m just so surprised how big of an issue they are. So, I’m really looking forward to this conversation. But my name is Luke Gannon, and today on the show, we are speaking with a reporter at Bloomberg City Lab, Linda Poon. In her work, Linda covers how to be an activist and an advocate of Asian American communities, the complexities of urban life, how cities are responding to climate disasters and recently, she wrote about a rodent control crash course and the relationship between humans and rats. ILSR released a new guide called Oh, Rats! which looks at how you can safely compost while avoiding rodents completely. So we felt like this was a perfect occasion to have Linda on the show to talk about all things urban, climate change and rats. We are so excited to have you on the show today, Linda. Welcome.
Linda Poon: Thank you. I never thought my rat knowledge would take me to places.
Luke Gannon: All right, so we’ll get started here. So, from the reading that I’ve done, rats have a very long and resilient and fascinating history. So Linda, can you give us some of those main highlights of rat history and how they really became a common rodent in cities around the United States?
Linda Poon: Yeah, so the basic story goes that rats came to our shores by boats, specifically to the US shores sometime in the mid-1700s, by England and France mostly. And the rats that we commonly see here in the US are called Norway Rats because they’re thought to have traveled via Norway boats. That’s one of the theories, but really they likely originate in Asia, somewhere in the Northern China, Mongolian region. The Norway rat name is a misnomer, but we’re going to call them brown rats.
And once they came to our shores, they quickly colonized. As we were building up our cities, they were right here with us. They were making use of our bounty, if you will. They’re opportunists, so they were living off our food, they were living off our inability to properly dispose of our food waste. So, anywhere there’s opportunity for them to find resources, they took it.
And then they’re also very great at hiding from us. So, they hide in the shadows, they move in the dark, they can squeeze in the tiniest holes. And so, they also really make use of our city infrastructure, as we were building them up. So, that’s one way they hide and they’re incredibly good at detecting danger. At the base of their whiskers are these amazing nerves that can detect everything that’s in front of them. So, they’re always one step ahead of us.
Reggie Rucker: That’s so interesting. Are there certain areas of a city that tend to be more hospitable to rats because of their inability to process food waste correctly or infrastructure isn’t quite what it needs to be? Or can you tell us about how different parts of a city might be affected more or less by rat problems?
Linda Poon: Yeah, so basically anywhere there’s food, that is where the rats thrive. So we think about in the city commercial centers with tons of restaurants, especially now that we’re doing a lot of outdoor dining. It’s not even food that customers are dropping. Its when the restaurants close at night, they’re just dragging their trash, their bag of food waste, and wherever there are good hideouts. So, parks are really, really fascinating places to look for infestation.
This is one of the places we went to when I took my crash course in DC in Rodent Control Academy. Because what are in parks? People eat in parks, people dispose of waste in parks. There are trash cans. If you’re lucky, there are trash cans. But even with trash cans, those trash cans are overflowing. And then there are a bunch of bushes, shade and ground for rats to burrow in. So, parks are amazing for rats.
And then there are the alleyways, where people leave their trash out, where again, they do have access to food that people are either throwing out, or some rats find their way into homes. So, anywhere there’s lots of food, lots of waste, that is where rats really thrive.
Reggie Rucker: I wanted to jump back in. So, of all the places that you mentioned, you did not say subway stations, metro rails, things of that nature. In DC, I see that all the time. Also, when I watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a child, why the subway?
Linda Poon: If you think about it, subways are underground. Rats really do thrive underground. We usually think of sewers and stuff, but if you think about places that are dark and there are a lot of places to hide. I don’t know about you, but when I’ve seen a rat in the subway, it’s one or two rats, and they’re outside looking for food. But hopefully, you don’t see a colony of rats just chilling on the subway platform. So, it’s not that subways aren’t great. Obviously Pizza Rat was the star of the New York subway.
So again, there are people, they’re dropping food, so they’re out foraging, more or less. I do think where there are places where they can tunnel and burrow, that’s where rats will live. Where they’ll be out and about, is where there’s just tons of food.
Luke Gannon: Yeah, so thinking about this conversation, which you’ve said so far, Linda, I am thinking about, “Okay, I dropped some food and I leave the park and a rat comes and eats the food.” And I feel like I’ve never ran into just any big rat infestation, like a rat colony as you said. So, what’s the big deal? Why do we care?
Linda Poon: Well, then you’re one of the lucky ones, I would say. But the big deal is, one thing that we learned during this crash course is when we think about who does rodent control, it’s the DC or any city public health department. So, there is a huge health implications for when your cities are infested in rats.
So, when you think about it, where rats like scurry in trash, they like to scurry in sewers, places where they just pick up a lot of pathogens. So, they are full of diseases. They carry diseases on their fur, they carry it in their saliva, in their urine, in their droppings, and then they like to comingle wherever humans are. So, they come into our homes, they’re scurrying in the kitchen at night when we’re asleep. So, if you think about the places where we intersect with rats, maybe not in real time, we’re not always running into rats, like you said, but we’re walking in places where rats have been. And rats can infect humans with a ton of diseases.
Just to give you a little bit, there’s the hantavirus, there’s something called the rat bite fever. It’s not just you running into a rat. Rats leave behind urine and then one of the most fascinating and not really appetizing statistic is that a rat can urinate micro droplets 3,000 times in 24 hours. And you can think about how much viruses live in just a small droplet. Rats can carry thousands if not millions of virus in just that one urine droplet. And one thing that we learn is how the rats feed, they pee and then they walk away and they create a little trail. So, if you really look closely at your surroundings, you can see signs of rats everywhere. So, we humans utilize the same space that rats do.
Luke Gannon: That was a very good answer, Linda. You have completely changed my mind to when I run into rats or when I’m walking on the sidewalk or the park. Now I’m going to think about their urine every time.
Linda Poon: It’s one of the things, once you learn what the signs are, you’re always looking for it. Rat urine apparently has a very distinctive shape. They look like commas, I know this is TMI but it’s really shows you how much rats are in our society.
Reggie Rucker: So, aside from them being prolific urinators, the disease conversation actually moves me into the next question I wanted to ask, which was in some of the writings that we’ve seen about this, things have changed amongst the rat population when COVID hit. Can you talk a little bit about how COVID, and maybe it was the shutdowns, or what effect that COVID had on either the proliferation or suppression of rat populations in cities?
Linda Poon: So, I used this term in one of my articles called anthropause. So, when humans stopped their activity, the rats also stopped their activity. So, during the shutdown, when we weren’t visiting a restaurant, when we weren’t feeding in restaurants, commercial centers saw a very significant drop of rat sighting. That’s how cities measure how much rats are in their cities. They saw a significant drop of rat sightings, 301 calls in their commercial centers. Why? Because all the humans were at home making food at home, so the rats followed us into the residential areas. And then the rats that lived in these commercial centers, they saw a decrease in resources.
So, yes, rats may have died off during the shutdown, but one interesting thing was that once humans came back, they came right back with us, and they came back fast and abruptly. Rats are proficient breeders. And then when we came back to our old ways of leaving trash on the ground, overflowing trash cans, eating outside, that just gave fuel to for these rats to thrive again in these commercial centers. So, that is all to say that rats and humans are very connected. How we act, what we do affects how rats population also thrive in the city.
Luke Gannon: This relationship between rats and humans has been particularly interesting through the history of rats and humans too. But one thing that is most apparent right now is during climate change and how rat populations have changed as temperature levels rise. And so, I’m curious to hearing, there have been a lot of journalists who have talked about the ratpocalypse, and what are the factors of climate change that are either making it easier for rats to thrive, or as Reggie said, suppressing the rat population?
Linda Poon: So, there isn’t a huge amount of research linking climate change to a growth in rat population. But there is this idea that what happens is with climate change, winters are becoming warmer. Winters are usually when the breeding slows down a bit in rats because of colder temperatures. But if it’s warmer, these rats are breeding throughout the year and then that leaves two off-season litters. And if you think about how many times a female rat can produce, it’s a lot. So, just some numbers, a female rat can produce up to six or seven litters a year, that’s normal. That’s not factoring in climate change. Each litter can have five to 12 pups. And then it only takes a few months for rats to reach sexual maturity, so that process just starts right over again. So, if you add that extra time for them to breed, a rat population can grow very, very quickly. And rats are very good at finding space, so it’s not like they’re limited. Cities are always expanding and rats are just finding new places to start colonies.
And so, that’s one way climate change is speeding up the rat population growth. There aren’t many ways that I know about about climate change, suppressing rat population. If there is, then that’s just a very thin, very, very thin silver lining to climate change, which there shouldn’t be any. But that’s one way that rats are really adapting. They’re great adapters, right? They’re how they’re adapting to a changing climate.
Reggie Rucker: Want to make sure everybody heard that? If you don’t care about the next generation, if you don’t care about the planet, if you don’t care about anything except for trying to stay away from dirty rats, then we need to solve the climate crisis. There’s one more reason to solve the climate crisis.
We will be right back after a very short break. As an organization seeking the end of corporate control in local communities, you’ll understand why our commercial break sounds a little different. There’s no corporation selling you something in an ad. Just me thanking you for listening to our show. And if you’re enjoying this episode, which if you’ve made it this far, I’m assuming you are, I definitely encourage you to go check out more of our work to build local power.
As we mentioned earlier, our composting team just published a new guide on how you can avoid creating food waste with composting and avoid creating a rat problem, all at the same time. So if you appreciate this work, please head over to ilsr.org\donate to make a contribution. Any amount is deeply, deeply appreciated. And if you’re looking for additional ways to support, please rate or leave a review of the show wherever you listen to your podcast. These reviews make a huge difference in helping us reach a wider audience. Okay, that’s our break. Thank you for listening. And now, back to the show.
So, going to move on a little bit. We want to talk about infrastructure. You mentioned this earlier and of how the infrastructure of cities played a role in the rat population. And so, whether it’s the infrastructure that we create in response to rising temperature levels, in response to floods and fires, there’s all sorts of ways in which we are creating an adapting set of infrastructure tools to respond to a change in climate. So, can you talk a little bit more about the way that infrastructure has evolved over time and how that’s played a role in the evolution of rats in our cities?
Linda Poon: Rats thrive wherever there are holes in buildings. So, when you have a lot of construction sites, you’re building these buildings, rats are just finding new places to hide in. And when you’re filling people into these buildings, that’s the resource. So, with infrastructure, urban parks have become a very prominent feature in cities, for good reasons. We need our parks. But when they’re not well maintained, it’s not so much the building of stuff, but how we are maintaining what we’re building.
So, when we have these urban parks, but we’re not maintaining it, we’re not making sure the trash is getting collected, or that the trash are rat proof, that’s where we find rat infestations, where we’re creating opportunities for rats to thrive. And there has to be something where you’re digging to the ground and you’re disrupting rat burrows, they’re just spreading out. I don’t know that for sure, but there has to be something, right? So, infrastructure does play a really big role in how rats navigate a city. And like I said, it’s how we maintain that infrastructure that really it’s going to be important.
And it’s not just huge buildings, it’s something as simple as where we’re placing trash cans. We’re thinking about city furniture really, and what those trash cans are made of. If it’s steel, if it’s plastic, if it’s getting collected enough. So, one thing that expert consultant, Bobby Corrigan, who has been working in cities is always stressing, is that without smart ways of holding our trash and collecting our trash, rats can really proliferate. What we put in our parks really matter too. If you’re having plants that create great burrow opportunities, rats will take that opportunity. So, it’s these small things that really, really impact how rats are going to become urban residents, if you will.
Reggie Rucker: That makes so much sense. Particularly we mentioned at the top of this episode that part of why we wanted to talk to you was because of this guide we have on composting and how if you compost the right way, you can eliminate the rat problems that some people mistakenly believe that it’s composting that is attracting the rat because they think of it as leaving food out, in the way that we’ve been talking about. But it’s actually quite the opposite, to where it’s creating less food waste. And if you do it the right way, then not only are you creating less food waste, but it’s compacted in a way and hidden in a way, to where there are no odors seeping out. And again, you’re eliminating that food waste.
So, I think it’s important to really think about the ways in which cities can, like you mentioned, reduce the amount of food waste that’s being created. Have you seen other ways in which the public has actively gotten involved to advocate in the city? And have you seen communities rise up in a way and call on their elected officials to really stand up and do something?
Linda Poon: So, one thing that I think that’s hard with rat control is that the public really has to play a role. And right now, cities are trying to get their public to care. One thing that cities have been really trying to do is having these public education campaigns. So, the Road and Control Academy that I spoke about is something that is an example of that, and something that DC has been doing for quite a few years.
Basically, they invite experts and they invite anybody who wants to attend to sit in, not just learn about what poison to use, who is the best pest control company, but understand exactly how rats behave. Because we’re not going to really get rid of rats just by smoking them out, there’s just too many and that’s the harsh reality.
So, there’s a lot of need to have preventive measures, and without public education you can’t have these preventive measures. So, that’s why the Rodent Control Academy, aside from being super entertaining for someone like me, can be very effective in getting people to think about rats first in any activity that they do.
One interesting statistic I learned is that a quarter of Americans have no trouble about littering. So, there are a lot of litter campaigns that have a different purpose, just want to keep a city cleaner. So, that’s another way. But a lot of the solutions besides changing up the trash cans, which some cities actually are actively trying, I know New York City and San Francisco are testing out different trash can designs. But aside from that, getting the public to care about rats is a really big deal. And getting them to understand what is it that attracts rats to them in the first place can make a difference.
Reggie Rucker: That’s such a good point. Even going back to my recent experience here in DC where I see them and it’s like, “Ah, that’s gross,” or whatever, but then I don’t actually take the next step to say, “And I should make sure not to throw this banana peel in this garbage can that’s sitting right next to me,” or whatever the case may be. And so that’s an important point.
I went on my long expose about how composting can be a solution, or if done right can help mitigate rat issues. Is that something that ever comes up in any of the trainings or any research that you’ve done? Have you seen much about composting and rat populations?
Linda Poon: I can’t say I’ve ever thought about composting and rats in the same thought process, but it makes sense. Any way you can better dispose of food, really can help not just your space. If you have a good container for compact and that food is going to good use, not only are you helping with emissions, but you’re keeping food waste out of the public streets and stuff.
And like I said, when people think about trash, they’re very, very careless with trash. We humans, once we throw out our trash, we don’t think about it. But with compost, there is a bit more consideration. I think in our minds, we really do think a little bit more about how we’re composting. People aren’t just like carelessly throwing a banana into their compost bin and be like, “Oh, okay, well the lid’s half opened. Who cares?” Because they know, they know the consequences. So, I think even that change of thinking can go a long way.
I guess one thing that cities will have to figure out is one, how to make composting more available citywide. That’s something I’ve written about. How can we get citywide composting? How can cities, if it’s a citywide effort, how can composting be efficiently picked up and processed? Otherwise, we will go back to having the same problem if we’re careless. So, I do think composting will make a good impact to our fight against rats.
Luke Gannon: Yeah, thank you so much, Linda. Made me think about so much. We’re having this rat discussion, but what you said towards the end there was, I felt like, one of the most important parts, which is it’s really about having a cleaner and a more sustainable city and environment. And that’s the real point. If we’re not doing that, that’s why we get these rat infestations. At the point that you brought up about littering, I never thought of that. But yeah, of course if someone litters, rats are going to go to that. Creating and building these communities and these solutions too, whether it’s picking up litter or making better, more sustainable trash cans, that will protect from rats or whatever it is, there are so many ways that communities can really work together. Really appreciate that.
Linda Poon: I think the community part is a big deal. There is this one statistic, in our course, that we kept learning, he called it his one in 10 … It only takes one house to have very sloppy practices to invite a rat infestation into the neighborhood. It only takes one house to invest 10. It really has to be a community effort, which is why it’s such a big deal that cities are engaging public at a large scale and not just certain neighborhoods or certain residents or certain merchants. It has to be a citywide effort.
Luke Gannon: Absolutely. I like that, one in 10. That’s nice. So, I think we’re going to move on to our final question here, which is how we end all of our Building Local Power episodes. What is a book that has impacted the way that you think about the world and the work that you have done, or your writing?
Linda Poon: All right, if we’re talking specifically about rats, I was just looking at this book. One book that I reviewed this year is called The Accidental Ecosystem. It’s by Peter Alagona. And basically, it’s a book about how humans have enabled wildlife to thrive in cities. Rats are wildlife. They’re pests, but they’re also wildlife. It brings back to the whole point that what humans do really, really impact how other organisms around us live. So, if we want to avoid rat, we have to look at ourself first.
One thing that was very interesting when I talked to the author of this book, is people hate to hear it, but rats are just like us. Rats are, at the end of day, they’re just like humans. And so, I really thought about that when I was doing my research for the article about going to Rat Academy. It’s a lot of the points that this author emphasized was also emphasized at this crash course. Basically, we really do have to adjust our behaviors in order to make a change in not just rats, but if we’re really, really thinking about trying to curb global warming, we have to think about our daily routines, what we’re doing. And it’s interesting because people say, “Oh, what individuals do is such just a small part of climate change,” but if you think about so many people in the city, so many cities, it becomes important.
Reggie Rucker: That’s really big too, I love that. There’s often the idea of that climate change is so big, one person can’t make a difference, but then going back to this one in 10 rule where it’s literally that one person can make all the difference for this neighborhood, this city. So, being able to really get a sense of that individual power that someone has to make a true difference, yeah, I think that’s incredibly powerful. It’s good to hear that story.
Luke Gannon: Yeah, that sounds like an interesting book too. One of the things I love that you said is, which I think about all the time, is just changing our mindset, changing our individual behavior to be more adept to these solutions that really are right at our fingertips.
Linda Poon: Rats are very good at adapting, maybe it’s time we think more like rats. We’re going to have to adapt to what’s best for the planet.
Reggie Rucker: Absolutely, that’s such a great point. Thank you so much, Linda. This was a great conversation.
Linda Poon: Thank you so much for having me.
Reggie Rucker: Thank you for tuning in to this fascinating episode of the Building Local Power Podcast. From the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find links to everything discussed today by going to ilsr.org and clicking on the show page for this episode. That is ilsr.org.
Luke Gannon: We have tons of ways for you to get involved in our work. Can sign up for one of our many newsletters, connect with us on social media, or even reach out with a podcast guest. All of your reviews, likes and donations help produce this very podcast and support the research and resources that we make available for free on our website. This show is produced by the great Reggie Rucker and me, Luke Gannon. This podcast is edited by Drew Birschbach. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL. But before we end, check out more of Linda’s work at Bloomberg and head over to ilsr.org and check out our new rats guide. Thanks for listening.



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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Photo Credit: Worcester Youth Collaboratives 

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