Image credit: JRCM
Katy Einerson and her fellow community gardeners in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, recently made an unwelcome discovery: rats. Knowing little about the lives and minds of New York City rats, Einerson signed up for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s (DOHMH) Rat Academy, a free course on rat prevention and management. Inspired to learn more about the program and the future of rat control in NYC, Katy spoke with Caroline Bragdon, the Director of Neighborhood Interventions for DOHMH’s Pest Control Services program. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Katy Einerson: How did you come to work with DOHMH, and how did you come to specialize in rat reduction specifically?
Caroline Bragdon: I came to New York City 23 years ago. My first day of work here at DOHMH was actually 9/11, so my trajectory into pest control was a little odd. I have a master’s in public health, and I went to the Centers for Disease Control as a fellow in the Public Health Prevention Service. This fellowship trains master’s-level professionals in a variety of public health-related services, and then assigns them to a local health department: I was assigned to the Division of Environmental Health here at the NYC Health Department. I came to work on asthma triggers in public housing, and my plan was to look at how mice and roaches impact the indoor living environment. However, because my first day of work was 9/11, and because I was a public health professional with federal training, I was reassigned for two years to work on the 9/11 response. I worked on The Pile and was part of the frontline team doing fit testing for first responders.
From there, I went back to CDC to finish my training and I really missed New York. I came back in 2005 to work in the Division of Environmental Health and worked on the implementation of a local law that was passed to help collect data on pesticide use on city properties. I also began working with a diverse set of city agencies to think about holistic ways to respond to pests, rather than just zapping them with pesticides. My career in pest control just kept evolving. I continued learning about integrated pest management and thinking about how we can prevent pests at their root cause by examining the urban environment for answers to questions like, “Why do we have pests?” and “How do we address them in a holistic and sustainable way?”
Einerson: DOHMH’s Rat Academy seems like a natural extension of this line of thinking and the work you’re describing. How was the program conceived, and how did it get off the ground?
Bragdon: In 2007 we launched a program called the Bronx Rat Initiative. The Bronx Borough President and the community of the Bronx were asking for data collection around a big city construction project, so we went in with the idea that we would do large-scale monitoring for rats while also offering the community tools to address rats at the neighborhood level. We partnered with a local community-based organization in the South Bronx, and they recruited local property owners, business owners, and workers to attend the first Rat Academy in their training center. We also gave out rat-resistant trash cans as a thank you and an incentive for attending, and to emphasize the importance of garbage management in rat prevention.
That was the beginning of Rat Academy, and it was also the beginning of a neighborhood focus in rat response. We collect data at the neighborhood level, we design programs at the neighborhood level, and then we go into the community to offer resources.
Einerson: What makes a trash can rat-resistant?
Bragdon: We look for hard-sided cans that are completely sealed with no holes, cracks, or gaps—and a tight-fitting lid. Containers that are not rat-resistant are the biggest mistake we see in NYC. They become open feeding buffets for rats and drive rat problems—and people get more and more frustrated. The solution lies in denying rats access to food.
Einerson: It’s no secret that we have a rat problem in NYC. Can you talk more about why rats thrive here?
Bragdon: The Norway rat, which is the species of rat we have here, is a commensal rodent. Commensal means “at the table.” This is an animal that thrives in close proximity to humans, and we have a very densely populated city. A high, dense human population is a contributing factor to a high level of rat activity. Alongside humans comes food waste—we’re eating everywhere we go, and we tend to store all the food waste we create outdoors. This means rats, which only need an ounce of food a day to survive, are thriving. If we were able to cut down those food sources, we would naturally cut down the rat population as well.
Einerson: It’s become a common refrain that rats got especially out of control during the pandemic. Is this notion backed by data?
Bragdon: It is backed by data. In 2019, the year prior to the pandemic, we were showing huge strides in our neighborhood rat control programs. We’ve been monitoring three areas since 2017 that had the highest rat populations as of that year: Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Prospect Heights in Brooklyn; the Lower East Side, East Village, and Chinatown in Manhattan; and the same Bronx Grand Concourse area where we led the original Bronx Rat Initiative, from Yankee Stadium up to Fordham. Our data showed that when you do neighborhood-focused rat prevention in a very coordinated way, and partner with other city agencies, you can drive down rat populations in highly impacted neighborhoods. In 2019 we had some really nice results from multi-agency initiatives.
In 2020 and 2021, most of those programs were shut down. When you have a program that’s highly focused on rat prevention, and you stop that program or pare it down, a rebound occurs pretty quickly. Once some of our preventative work stopped, and then once some of our proactive work also stopped, we started seeing a surge of rat complaints.
My whole Neighborhood Rat Reduction team was diverted to the pandemic response, and we weren’t the only agency that was redirected. Sanitation, health departments, parks, we were all scaling back. Staff were also staying home because they had COVID. A lot of maintenance and street cleaning stopped during the pandemic, and garbage pickup was scaled back. There was a changing landscape with more food waste and garbage in the street. People were eating at home, so while commercial waste may have scaled back somewhat, there was more residential waste. The private sector, including struggling landlords and businesses, cut back pest control as well. We’ve also had record warmth in the last few years. We had all the conditions rats need to thrive occurring at the same time, which led to record-high rat populations.
2022 was a hard year. We saw high complaints and more properties were failing rat inspections than we’d ever seen previously. Now in 2023, we’re fully back at work and we’re beginning to get back some momentum, but just as it took a year or two to unravel our progress, we think it’s going to take a year or two to get back to where we were.
Einerson: After 12 years in NYC, I’ve nearly resigned myself to accepting rats as part of the landscape. Is this attitude common?
Bragdon: We definitely see variations in 311 call rates in different neighborhoods that don’t necessarily indicate higher or lower rat activity, but rather a higher or lower tolerance for the presence of rats. We may have a neighborhood with very high rat activity and relatively low call volume for 311, which suggests that people have been living alongside rats for a long time. It may also suggest that people have given up, that they feel there’s nothing they can do, and they see rats as part of the landscape, as you say.
There are certainly other neighborhoods that consider rats to be unacceptable in their living environment, and they are. No one should have to live alongside rats.
Neighborhoods that have been dealing with rats for so long that they no longer call in complaints are the ones where we feel we need to do the most work, and where we want to have the highest presence. We do extra enforcement of landlord responsibilities for managing buildings and keeping them in good repair in these areas.
Editor’s note: In addition to calling 311, New Yorkers can report pests in an apartment by submitting an Apartment Maintenance Complaint, and can report rats in public places by submitting a Rat or Mouse Complaint.
Einerson: Do you see rats as having any place in the city’s ecosystem? Is your team working toward total eradication? Is that too much to hope for?
Bragdon: In pest control you think about thresholds. The Norway rat certainly has its place in the ecosystem. Predatory birds are thriving in NYC, and they eat rodents. So you don’t want total elimination, but there’s a tipping point. The presence of rats in the natural environment is okay, but when they tip over such that they become a public health pest—when rats are in apartment buildings, in businesses, infesting areas where people store food, or in neighborhoods where people are walking their dogs or on a playground—that’s when rats are not a useful part of our ecosystem. I wouldn’t be concerned if I saw an occasional rat deep in our large parks, but we’ve tipped over to the point that they’ve become a threat to public health and quality of life.
Einerson: What are New Yorkers’ most common misconceptions about rats?
Bragdon: I think it’s a misconception that rats are a given here in NYC. We know we have the potential to lower rat populations—we’ve done it before—but the city needs a very coordinated public health approach to rat management. We need to think about prevention at all times. Because rats thrive in areas where there’s garbage, the city needs to constantly move garbage off the street and keep neighborhoods clean. Property owners need to invest in managing, storing, and moving waste. I think this is the lost realm of NYC infrastructure. For a long time we’ve said, “Just put it on the curb! Sanitation will come get it.” That mentality has done a lot of damage.
We have a saying: “Everyone has a role in rat control.” Many people erroneously believe that rats aren’t their responsibility. In fact, everyone has a responsibility on a different level every day. If you’re a regular New Yorker and you’re out eating in the street or the park, your responsibility is to make sure your trash goes in a can.
We can sort and manage our garbage. If there’s composting in your neighborhood, you can compost organic waste. You can make sure your recyclables are rinsed and put in a container. Landlords can make sure they have enough garbage and recycling containers for all tenants. Businesses can vigorously clean up after serving food. Many businesses just toss their garbage on the curb: you see garbage leaking and spilling and there’s no effort to clean up. City agencies also have a responsibility for keeping city properties clean and rat free.
Einerson: What do you think about Mayor Eric Adams’s swashbuckling approach to rat control?
Bragdon: We are grateful to the Adams administration for focusing attention on Neighborhood Rat Reduction. City Hall has convened a multi-agency Rat Task Force and I think some of the work the Adams administration is doing with the Department of Sanitation is going to be a game changer. For example, let’s get organics recycling into all NYC neighborhoods, let’s push back the set-out time for garbage so it isn’t sitting on the curb for so long, let’s increase the presence of the Department of Sanitation in neighborhoods so we’re doing everything we can to make garbage less available to rats.
Einerson: What gives you hope in the work you do to manage the city’s rat population?
Bragdon: I really enjoy my community-facing work. We’ve been doing a lot of great work with community gardeners over the years in partnership with GreenThumb, which oversees NYC gardens, and we see individuals doing really good work that directly impacts their neighborhoods. That level of engagement, where individuals, businesses, property owners, and community gardeners embrace their role and responsibility, can be really exciting.
We’re also making headway at the city agency level, through the Rat Task Force and our Neighborhood Rat Reduction program, and in partnering with NYC Housing Authority, the Department of Education, and the Parks Department. We’re building capacity and momentum that will help us better respond to the rat problem.
Einerson: That’s very encouraging! Is there anything else you’d like to mention about Rat Academy, or the work you’re doing more generally?
Bragdon: We collect a lot of data, and it’s available to the public. We post our rat inspection data and findings on our Rat Information Portal. We want people to look up their business or property and neighborhood to see where rats are and think about what they can do to address them.
We offer Rat Academy approximately twice a month in neighborhoods across NYC. We encourage students to use our data and do their own analysis and thinking. Our data is so rich and I’m sure there are students out there who could really help us in the long run. The more community members get involved in addressing the rat problem, the better it will be for all of us.
This interview is part of a spring 2023 Public Seminar special issue on rats, curated by senior managing editor Evangeline Riddiford Graham.
Caroline Bragdon is the Director of Neighborhood Interventions for the Pest Control Services program in New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Katy Einerson is a Brooklyn Botanic Garden-certified Master Composter and serves on the board of the 61 Franklin Street Community Garden in Greenpoint.