Story at a glance

  • The closure of restaurants and bars, the halting of the tourism industry and a lack of foot traffic in urban areas have had a severe impact on rat populations around the country.
  • Rats have been taking to the streets in packs, sometimes in the daylight, emboldened by hunger.
  • Experts warn that the long-term effects of starvation on these survivalist creatures could mean an increase in aggressive behavior and household break-ins.

As the country begins to buckle down for what experts are warning may be our hardest week of coronavirus-related deaths yet, one begins to wonder: Where does all of our social isolating leave the urban-dwelling animals who depend on our food garbage for sustenance? Secondarily, and perhaps even more worrying, where will those survivalists turn to when their need for food becomes dire? 

The need to survive

We spoke with Robert Corrigan — a rodentologist who specializes in urban rats and works with cities around the world to design programs for rodent management — to find out. Most New Yorkers have probably never heard of his type of job before, but it’s his decisions that affect their lives daily as he meets with agencies such as the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) to help them mitigate rat issues on the subway. It’s no small feat either, especially in cities such as New York City, whose rat population has been estimated to reach around 2 million. 


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“This is actually the first virus outbreak where we've had to be on alert about rats, and obviously the reason is that everybody is shut down,” says Corrigan. “The rats, especially in cities like New York, Boston and Washington, DC, are heavily dependent on us for their food. There's no secret here that rats for the most part get their food directly from us: it's all our garbage.”

In general, rats like to stay close to their burrows, which are often at ground level in apartment floorboards, alleyways, sidewalks or basements. They’re also nocturnal animals and survive by mastering their surroundings, trying to stick to familiar areas within a few hundred feet of their home.

Corrigan tells Changing America that when rats come out looking for restaurant garbage and scraps on the subway and there’s none to be found for several days in a row, they switch into survival mode. The result, he says, is that they will begin to show up during the day as well as the night and in different areas than you’d normally find them due to stress. 

A survivalist stress response

The long-term impacts of a food shortage on urban rat populations can result in three possibilities, and each one is independent of the other. Because of this there's no generalization as to what the rats in New York City are going to do — ”it's block by block, and it's actually colony by colony,” says Corrigan. 

“If this keeps going on and the rats do not find dependable, every day sources of food they will begin to implode on each other. They'll go into high stress mode and they may begin fighting to the death, and then they will begin to cannibalize each other for their protein,” he explains. 


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The rodentologist says that he’s already seen several cases while walking around the park — rats that have been completely eviscerated and consumed by the others.

Once the survivors realize there’s no more food to be found in that area they may also begin to disperse, traveling “quite a distance” of multiple miles within the matter of a couple of days in their hurried search for sustenance. 

“They'll try to find another spot where they can get some kind of food, and if they don't find that they're going to simply die, but the third possibility is that they will start following their noses.”

Cities like New Orleans, with its popular French Quarter typically swarmed with tourists, are now seeing swarms of another kind. Emboldened by hunger, the city’s rats have been taking to the now-deserted streets in large packs in search of a bite to eat.

How worried should we be exactly?

Well, first, let’s try not to panic. Corrigan emphasizes that while rats can be carriers for a slew of diseases (55, he says), they don’t harbor nor can they pass on rabies. The same can be said for COVID-19, though considering a tiger at the Bronx Zoo just tested positive for the virus — nothing can truly be ruled out.

For now, take a look at how tight the infrastructure of your home is, whether that might be a single-family house or large apartment building, and how smart you’re being about food waste. For apartment dwellers he urges to not only check the premises yourself but also check in with your landlord to inquire about the structure of the space, especially if the building is located next to an alleyway or by a sewer. 

Corrigan says the most vulnerable spots in a home are doors that may be eroding or don’t fit snugly into their frame, allowing the space below for rats to gnaw holes which will allow them to enter your space. He says that they will go through any opening where they can get to the food they’re smelling, “and then they will simply try to create an infestation in somebody's home.” 

“I encourage everyone to look around,” says Corrigan. “Check if there are any kind of stray trash cans, dumpster bags or anything that's going to attract rats and eliminate them. The next thing is very important: Rats are very smart and capable animals, and when they get desperate I tell people to check their doors. You want to make sure your doors are fitting all the way to the threshold and there’s no gap there that's going to allow a rodent in the house.”

One of the scariest possibilities to consider when it comes to rats invading your building may not be what first comes to mind: them cutting off your access to television. Rats gnaw on cables, and in fact, it’s been estimated that a whopping 26 percent of electric cable breaks and 25 percent of fires of unknown origin in New York City are caused by rats.

It’s just one of the reasons why you want to be as smart as possible when it comes to keeping the rodents out of your home, along with the fact that they’re pretty darn hard to kill. They reproduce at a tremendous rate, mating up to 20 times in 6 hours and producing four to seven litters of 10 rats each year. Beyond that, they’re neophobic, meaning that those traps you set and that poison you laid out probably won’t work very well.

Corrigan says that if you do happen to catch a glimpse of a rat in your home, especially if there are children present, it is certainly no DIY job. Call your local exterminator as soon as you can. 

“We're all going to get through this, and hopefully over time, who knows maybe it'll teach us a lesson to better dispose of our trash and to keep our buildings tighter.”


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Published on Apr 06, 2020