Some denizens of America’s great cities probably wouldn’t mind a visit from the Pied Piper right about now.
Several major U.S. cities—including Boston, Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C.— have seen significant surges in rat complaints from their residents in recent months, according to city data reviewed by USA TODAY.
Grousing about rats has long been city-dweller sport, but the long-tailed, sharp-toothed nuisances have now become so populous and so aggressive that some cities are getting creative in their efforts to stay ahead of rodents even as some frustrated city residents are increasingly taking matters into their own hands.
In Chicago, which historically notches more rat complaints than any other city, residents' reports of rodent activity rose by about 70% in the first quarter of 2016 compared to the same period last year.
With the city on pace to shatter the more than 41,000 complaints it received in 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently acknowledged in a radio interview that rats in the Windy City have become “a real problem.”
After several years of a scaled back rodent patrol in Chicago, the Emanuel administration announced this month it will bolster the number of technicians searching for burrows and laying poison from 18 technicians to 28 by next month.
The administration went on a community relations blitz, hanging doorknob leaflets that called on residents to do their part to eliminate food sources for rats by not overfilling dumpsters and cleaning up properly after their dogs.
To further drive home the getting tough-on-rats message, an ordinance recently introduced in Chicago’s city council makes it clear that homeowners who fail to keep their yards free of dog waste, garbage, or other materials that attract rodents could be fined up to $500.The city also began requiring developers to include rat abatement plans as part of any new construction project.
Separately, the Chicago Transit Authority hopes to put an end to rat canoodling with a new bait that targets both male and female rat fertility. Rats reach sexual maturity within weeks after birth.
“We are being very, very aggressive in how we bait, so we can get control of the rodent population before summer gets here,” said Charles Williams, Chicago’s streets and sanitation department commissioner.
Boston touts itself as having one of the most innovative rat abatement programs in the country and historically gets fewer complaints than some of its bigger city counterparts. Still, complaints have nearly tripled in the first quarter of this year – a spike city officials there attribute to last year’s launching of a 311 system that makes it easier for Bostonians to call or use a phone app to report rats and other nuisance complaints to city officials.
The city's Inspectional Service Department tapped researchers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to help launch a pilot program that uses dry ice to kill rats hiding in burrows in the city.
The dry ice, made of solid carbon dioxide, can be packed into the burrows where it asphyxiates the rats. City officials say it proved effective during their first month of testing, and the method has the added bonus of being less of a danger to humans and other animals than setting out poison.
And at about 50 cents per pound, the initial testing suggests dry ice might be a cheaper instrument for killing rats than rat poison, said Inspectional Service Department Commissioner William "Buddy" Christopher Jr.
Christopher said he’s “not extremely concerned” about the uptick thus far.
“I think our aggressive, pro-active stance is maintaining,” Christopher said. “Our staff stays on top of this. They’re constantly looking for new ways to deal with old problems.”
Washington, D.C., last year could boast of a four-year decline in rat complaints, but now the city is on pace to ruin its good news streak. If complaints continue at the same rate, the city will likely surpass last year’s mark of 2,004. Through April 15, the District’s Department of Health tallied 699 complaints.
The district's Department of Health said mild winters have been good for rodents, but the department insisted it was primed for battle.
“I can assure you that we are ready for them,” department spokesman Ivan Torres said in an email “The DOH is and will continue to strike hard.”
In New York, which has seen complaints to its 311 system soar over the last five years, there has been no relief. Rat complaints jumped by 39% in the first quarter of 2016 compared to the same period last year. The Big Apple's 311 system tallied more than 15,000 rodent complaints last year, compared to more than 10,600 in 2012.
And San Francisco, where complaints had stabilized over the last five years, now reports a modest increase in the number of rat complaints, so far this year compared to the same period of 2015.
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