When the pandemic hit New York City in mid-March, Bobby Corrigan knew right away that things were going to get bad for the rats. “I thought, Where is the garbage going to be for all of these millions of rats? With city restaurants closed completely in the spring, the main food supply for New York’s most-hated fauna disappeared practically overnight. And rats, it turns out, really cannot function when they’re hungry. They began to act erratically — even violently — after skipping just a few meals. Within a week, the calls started coming in: rats eviscerating other rats, rats running down Park Avenue in broad daylight, rats being brazen. “It was like all hell was breaking loose,” said Corrigan, the New York City Health Department’s go-to rodent guy. As New Yorkers hunkered down, bought what toilet paper and sanitizer they could find, and started wearing cloth masks, the ratpocalypse was playing out on the eerily empty streets. But we are happy to report that, unlike the pandemic itself, the rodent turmoil of last spring is over now, and the 2 million rats that live in New York City are doing just fine.
There was some carnage along the way. Rats often ignore the poison-laced bait hidden in the little black boxes you see all across the city, but it was all eaten in the early months of the pandemic as they scrambled to find food; hundreds of thousands of them probably died. But rats became the third-most-successful mammal species in the world (after humans and the more diminutive house mouse) precisely because they are so good at adapting to human behavior.
Cut off from restaurant trash, rats looked elsewhere for food — which is why people were suddenly spotting them scurrying through parks and backyards. Colonies that once fed on restaurant trash found residential trash nearby — one 60-pound bag can conceivably feed as many as 60,000 rats — and restaurants eventually began to reopen again. Takeout and outdoor dining may seem like a downgrade for us, but to a rat, it still adds up to a lot of trash. “They had a blip in March and April, maybe into May, but now they’re like, I get it — we’re not going to starve to death,” Corrigan said.
So when you hear about incidents like the Washington Heights Chipotle that was overrun with rodents in December? At this point, that’s probably just rats being rats — not rats acting bizarrely as a result of the pandemic.
But there’s a lot that’s still unknown about how rat behavior has changed as a result of the ratpocalypse. While rats as a research subject are finally becoming “cool,” as Corrigan put it, most people don’t really want to take a closer look at rats and the ways in which they shadow our urban lives. As such, “There wasn’t a plethora of scientists lined up ready to say, ‘Let’s get some great research here’” during the shutdown, Corrigan said.
“The rat population in New York City, has it been changed? I think the answer is yes. But can you define that? No,” Corrigan said. There’s really no saying what the new normal is for rats in the city. “I think they skipped a beat, but they’ll be fine.”