City May Soon Try to Sterilize Rat Problem with Birth Control Tablets

UWS Council Member Shaun Abreu is sponsoring a bill that would mandate the city’s health department to sterilize both male and female rats with salty pellets. Rat-hating mayor Eric Adams says he is willing to try anything that works and says other rat abatement programs are already driving down rat complaints to the city’s 311 help line.

| 18 Apr 2024 | 06:58

Rats are among the world’s most prolific mammal breeders, with a single female able to spawn 15,000 descendants in a single year. The realization that pruning the surging population by killing them off is an impossible task has New York politicians scrambling to find other ways to turn the tide–primarily by curbing their population growth.

The problem took on new urgency when the City Health department said that so far this year there have been six cases of Leptospirosis, a rare disease carried in rat urine. Last year, the health department reported there was a record 24 cases. That caught the attention of rat hating mayor Eric Adams as his weekly press briefing with reporters on April 16.

Council member Shaun Abreu, who represents northern Manhattan recently introduced a bill calling for rat birth control pills to try to curb the problem.

Last year, council member Julie Menin championed a $20,000 pilot program to pump carbon dioxide into rat burrows along E. 86th St. which she said at the time was highly successful. “We were dealing with a situation where there was a tremendous amount of complaints on East 86th Street,” she said. “We have not received complaints since we’ve been utilizing the [carbon monoxide] technique.” She’s pushing to expand the programs.

Politicians have long wrestled with the rat problem. Former governor Nelson Rockefeller tried luring rats towards food laced with the form of estrogen used in human birth-control pills. The MTA at the time mined subways with a neutering cocktail that accelerates natural egg loss. And the rats kept on breeding.

With modern advances in rat-hunting technology and an organized effort to rat-proof trash storage in progress, the City Council is considering new legislation to renew the sterilization push. Under the bill sponsored by Abreu, the city’s health department will target two neighborhoods including one in northern Manhattan with salty pellets that will, they hope, succeed where estrogen and egg-diminishing contraceptives failed. If the limited offensive makes headway, the city can then expand the effort further beyond.

“We believe that we need to take a shock-and-awe approach to the rat problem by throwing everything we have at it,” Abreu told the New York Times. But “everything” would not necessarily include rat poison, which Abreu and other elected officials as well as animal-rights activists warn could harm city wildlife. Flaco, the famous Eagle owl who spent a year in the wilds of Central Park and elsewhere, after vandals freed him from the Central Park Zoo, was said to have large quanntifies of rat poison in his system after he crashed into a window on the upper west side and died. Rats were believed to have made up a large part of his diet in his year of living free.

Sterilizing rats instead of killing them with poison would help reduce this problem.

“Birds of prey shouldn’t have to eat rats that have rodenticide,” Abreu said.

To battle the city’s population of around 3 million rats, Abreu has been working with scientist Loretta Mayer, the creator of ContraPest, a rat contraceptive. Transit officials said that ContraPest yielded promising results when used in the subway.

Rats who ingest ContraPest can at least die with a good taste in their mouth–according to Mayer, the fat-and-salt-laden pellets are much more delicious than whatever the trash offers. The challenge is to obtain enough pellets to wage a citywide campaign, but it is not an impossible hill to climb. The contraceptive costs about $5 a pound.

Mayor Eric Adams has long spoken of his determination to eradicate the city’s rat problem by any means necessary. He and his appointed rat czar, Kathleen Corradi, spearheaded a plan to move trash from garbage bags that served as rat buffets to cleaner, more secure containers. Adams told reporters that he is looking through Abreu’s bill. “Whatever methodology we can use to address the rodent problem, we should be willing to use it,” he said.