By Matthew Friedman
The Upper West Side’s rat population appears to be surging, with rodents proliferating in parks and playgrounds — even making some play areas off-limits to kids.
“We are being overrun by rats in and around the entrance on 83rd Street and Riverside Drive,” wrote Janet Reed in a recent email to West Side Rag. Reed described the scene: “The trash cans, far from being vermin proof, have become feeding stations for the rats. Starting around 81st Street and to 84th Street, the rats have eaten through the trash bags at the bottom of each can. The rats continually dart in and out from the bottom of the trash cans. This goes on 24 hours a day. The rats are growing bolder (or more desperate) and the presence of human[s] (and daylight) does nothing to discourage them.”
Reed’s husband, Dan Ahearn, said that at the 83rd Street entrance to Riverside Park there were “probably three or four rats per hour” in broad daylight, but that the problem was much worse at night, when one could see “three to four rats every ten minutes.”
Another Upper West Side woman, who asked not to be named, sent us the video below shot by a friend of a rat in the Elephant Playground in Riverside Park near 75th Street. She told us the rat looks sickly. “I have had rats run by my feet in the middle of the day there while sitting on a bench.”
She reported the Riverside Park rat issue on July 28th to 311. Four days later, an auto-generated system message from the 311 system informed her that “the Department of Parks and Recreation has completed the requested work order and corrected the problem” with no further information. A parks department spokesperson sent the following response to our questions about what the department is doing to deal with the problem:
Parks is diligently working to address rodents in parks and is making progress in Riverside Park by increasing trash pickups and laying mechanical traps. Depriving them of food is key; park-goers can help keep all our parks rat-free: don’t litter or feed birds, as any food left on the ground can attract rodents. We encourage New Yorkers to help keep all of our parks clean by properly disposing of their trash.
* Mechanical traps are used in Riverside Park to address the issue; we do not use poison bait due to nesting raptors
* We are noting results
* Parks works with DOHMH regularly on the matter.
Elsewhere on the Upper West Side rats also seem more bold.
Tara Heidger alerted West Side Rag to the presence of rats at the Toll Family Playground, a newly rebuilt playground in Central Park near 85th Street. “It has been open for less than a year and already the rats are closing in. On any given afternoon there are a dozen or so rats encroaching on innocent children playing in the sprinklers. Half the park is no longer utilized due to the increasing population,” Heidger wrote in an email.
“Something needs to be done about this before the Toll Family playground becomes the newest hangout for all the UWS rats.”
She sent the illustrated photo below of rats in the playground.
City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who represents the majority of the Upper West Side, is aware of the issue and has already taken steps to combat it, said Marisa Maack, Rosenthal’s chief of staff. “We have seen an uptick in rat complaints since the late spring. We are working with the Riverside Park Conservancy, which is doing what it can with the resources it has,” Maack said.
Last month Rosenthal allocated $78,500 through the Parks Equity Initiative for Big Belly Bins, new garbage receptacles that would replace the aging ones residents say allow the rats to easily access food. The new bins will be located near playgrounds in Riverside Park, Maack said, and they should appear within the next year.
This is not the first time that rats have been spotted in Riverside Park. In 2012, parents complained of a similar infestation, and at that time the parks department said they’d be removing trash cans and adding rat-resistant receptacles.
As West Side Rag reported last spring, the Columbus Avenue Business Improvement District donated 19 of the new solar-operated trash bins to Teddy Roosevelt Park, which surrounds the American Museum of Natural History. “By and large the bins have been very successful,” said Barbara Adler, the Business Improvement District’s executive director. “The Parks Department tracked results based on rat burrows, which continued to diminish over the course of a few months, and I’m told that now the problem within the park is close to 90 percent gone,” she said.
The fight to combat the rat infestation extends beyond garbage cans. Since the parks’ red-tailed hawks prey primarily on rats, the Parks Department does not use traditional rat poison during the February to August nesting season, according to The Daily News. Instead, officials hope to begin using dry ice to kill rats in their burrows. In June the Environmental Protection Agency registered Rat Ice, a dry ice product manufactured by Bell Laboratories, for use controlling rats. According to The New York Times, the product was successful when tested in a Chinatown park last year, cutting down the number of rat burrows from 60 to two.
Rats pose a problem not only because of their disgusting nature, but also because of the health risks they pose. Last winter, one person was killed and two others were sickened due to leptospirosis, an ailment spread through contact with rat urine. Rats are known to carry other diseases, and have been known to bite dogs.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $32 million initiative to wipe out rats across the city, though it’s not slated to go to locations on the Upper West Side. Complaints of rodents can be filed through the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s website, or by calling 311.