Explosive increase in rats in New York City over the past 65 years

In this file photo from July 7, 2000, rats swarm around a bag of trash near a dumpster in New York City’s Baruch Houses.
Robert Mecea/AP

  • The rat population in New York City has grown exponentially since the mid-20th century.
  • In 1950, an estimated 250,000 rats lived in the city. In 2014 there were an estimated 2 million.
  • The increase is partly due to changes in how the city handles waste and how quickly rats reproduce.

The rats of New York City are relentless. They are also everywhere – in sewers and parks, underfoot, in the subway and even in your walls.

They’ve been in New York since the 18th century and have gained a foothold — current estimates put the rat population at about 2 million in 90% of the city, according to The Atlantic.

As long as rats run through the city, politicians and locals have vowed to destroy them. But so far no one has succeeded.

Here’s how rats took over the city – and why they have no intention of letting go.

About 250 years ago, the Norway rat—also known as the brown rat, alley rat, or sewer rat—arrived in America on ships from Europe. No one knows when the first rat came ashore, but experts are pretty sure they came during the American Revolution.

A brown rat photographed in 1953.
Denis de Marney/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Their first stop would probably have been New York City.

sources: The Atlantic Ocean, Insider

Even if only a few made it, rats breed quickly. They live about two years, but reach sexual maturity within two months, mate within two seconds, and can produce eight to 10 babies about six times a year — that’s 120 rats for every rat mother in their lifetime.

A female rat with her nest.
Andia/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

sources: The Atlantic Ocean, Insider, Washington Post

Nor are they soft and cuddly like mice or squirrels. As biologist Dr. Jason Munshi-South of Fordham University told The New York Times, they are rough and vicious. They fight with each other.

A roughened rat runs along the High Line Park on September 22, 2018 in New York City.
Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

“They have scars, they’re missing eyes, they’re missing part of their tail,” he said. “Their life is pretty brutal.”

They also have sharp teeth, he said.

“They gnaw through walls. They gnaw cables. They destroy cars,” he said.

Source: New York Times

Rats are agile and can jump 3 feet high and 4 feet wide. But their speed and agility aren’t the only reasons they’re master escape artists. Each of their many burrows usually has three exits, a primary and two escape routes.

A rat leaves its den in a New York City park in 2015.
Mary Altaffer/AP

sources: National Geographic, The cut

The widest part of the brown rat is the skull, meaning that if its head fits into a hole or space, it can — and will — get there.

A rat’s head sticks out of a hole in the bottom of a garbage can in New York City in 2016.
Luke Jackson/Reuters

sources: National Geographic, The cut

Rats first made headlines in New York City in 1860 for allegedly mutilating and killing a newborn child, and again in 1865 when The New York Times said the city gained a reputation for having more rats “than any other city in the Union”.

A rat roams the train tracks in New York City.
Frank Franklin/AP

sources: The protector, New York Times, New York Times

In 1950, there were an estimated 250,000 rats in the city. Since then there have been a few wildly varying estimates, including one in 1997 that claimed there were 28 million rats. But more conservatively, in 2014 there were an estimated 2 million rats in the city.

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sources: The Atlantic Ocean, Washington Post

In the late 1960s, rat infestations were particularly prevalent in Harlem, the Lower East Side, and parts of Brooklyn where marginalized communities lived. This was no accident – it was institutional racism. Buildings and infrastructure were not well maintained and garbage was not picked up as often as in predominantly white neighborhoods.

A rat sits atop a paint can in the kitchen of a Harlem tenement house in 1964.
Truman Moore/Getty Images

Source: The Atlantic Ocean

But the rats have since spread. In 1974, rats only occupied an estimated 10% of the city. Experts now think that up to 90% of the city is infested with rats.

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Source: The Atlantic Ocean

But rats don’t stray too far from their home base. The rats you see in the morning may be the same rats you see at night – they rarely move more than 200 feet from wherever they live.

A rat briefly leaves its burrow at a subway stop in New York’s Brooklyn neighborhood in 2014.
Julie Jacobson/AP

Source: The Atlantic Ocean

The early 1970s played a critical role in the increase in rat populations in the city. First, the federal government passed the Federal Clean Air Act of 1970, which led to New York City banning apartment buildings from using incinerators to destroy waste.

A rat pokes its head out of a garbage can while hunting for food at Bogardus Plaza in Tribeca on August 17, 2022 in New York City.
Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Source: New York Times

Second, in 1971, the city introduced plastic garbage bags. Instead of metal garbage cans, rats could suddenly eat all the garbage they wanted, and there was more of it because it wasn’t burned anymore.

People make their way past garbage bags in New York City.
Leonardo Munoz/VIEW Press/Getty Images

Rats don’t need much to survive either – about an ounce of food and water a day will keep them going. In New York City, that’s not a big question.

sources: The Atlantic Ocean, New York Times, Insider

The other factor was climate change. Rats do not hibernate in winter, but their reproductive cycle slows down because they have a harder time finding food. Now that the winters have gotten warmer, they have been able to breed more.

A rat jumps into a puddle in the snow in New York in 2019.
Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Source: The Atlantic Ocean

Still, according to E. Randy Dupree, one of New York’s former “master rat hunters,” the fight went pretty well between 1969 and 1986 when the city implemented a three-pronged approach: extermination, education, and cleanup.

A Border Terrier named Merlin chews on a dead rat he killed during an organized rat hunt in New York City’s Lower East Side in 2014.
Fresh Mike/Reuters

At the time, federal funding to pay workers to clean up the city helped, and reports of rat bites dropped from 765 to 285 between those years.

When that money ran out, the city financed it. But it only took a moment.

Source: New York Times

From 1987 to 1996, New York’s rat budget fell from $12 million to $5 million. The three-pronged approach to fighting the scourge was no longer affordable. “The rats started winning the war,” Dupree told The New York Times.

A rat enters its den in a park in New York’s Chinatown neighborhood.
Mary Altaffer/AP

Source: New York Times

In recent decades, New York City mayors have attempted to take up the mantle. In 1997, then-mayor Rudy Giuliani set aside $8 million and created an extermination team, which used three different types of poison to kill rats.

Rudy Giuliani, then elected mayor of New York City, and former mayor John Lindsay.
Ed Bailey/AP

By 2000, his budget had risen to $13 million. It was part of a focus on poorer neighborhoods to bring in new voices. But the stories about rats were intense.

Harlem’s Public School 165 principal Ruth Swinney told The Washington Post in 1997 that her children were covered in rat bites.

“In the morning we can see the rats running outside the building when the kids come to school,” she said. “They’re huge, almost like little dogs.”

sources: Washington Post, New Yorker

In 2017, then-mayor Bill de Blasio set aside $32 million for rat killing. One of his administration’s methods was to fill rat holes with dry ice, which suffocated the rats with carbon dioxide. It proved effective, but labor intensive.

Then-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio addresses his supporters after his reelection in New York City, U.S., November 7, 2017.
Brendan McDermid/Reuters

It is also quite humane. The dry ice puts the rats into a deep sleep from which they never wake up.

But other aids, including mint-scented garbage bags, weren’t as effective.

sources: The protector, New York Times

Before becoming the current mayor, Eric Adams joined his rat-hunting predecessors in touting a new method of killing rats using a bucket called an Ekomille that lured rats in before coating them in poison. Each Ekomille could kill up to 30 rats.

One of Mayor Eric Adams’ acclaimed rat traps known as an “Ekomille.”
Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

But it was ineffective — in one trial, a bucket was destroyed by a particularly large rat — and it hasn’t been implemented since he took office.

sources: The protector, Gothamist

Over the years, concerned residents have also formed organizations to hunt rats with trained dogs.

Richard Reynolds with other members of the lower Manhattan volunteer RATS squad.
Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

Source: The protector

Some individuals, such as Manuel Rodriguez, known to his neighbors as “M-Rod”, have begun killing rats themselves. But these are local efforts to solve a citywide problem.

Manuel Rodriquez holds up a dead rat in 2004.
Ken Murray/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

The situation in New York worsened during the pandemic. Rats took to the streets in what seemed like increasing numbers as more trash was left behind – and for longer – due to outdoor dining rules and fewer trash pick-ups.

A rat runs down a sidewalk in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York on December 2, 2019.
Carlo Allegri/Reuters

sources: NPR, National Geographic

While health experts consider rats to be mostly a nuisance, they also transmit disease, and because they get so close to humans, they are good at transmitting it.

Manuel Rodriquez waves to a rat outside his apartment in 2004.
Ken Murray/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

In 2021, one person died of leptospirosis and 14 people contracted it. The disease is usually spread through rat urine and can cause liver and kidney failure.

sources: Insider, Washington Post, The Atlantic Ocean, New York Times

According to the health department’s Rat Academy, there’s only one way to stop the rats: starve them. But in a city like New York, where the streets are often littered with trash, that’s easier said than done.

A rat walks on a fence towards a garbage can while hunting for food at Bogardus Plaza in New York City’s Tribeca on Aug. 17, 2022.
Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Source: The cut

If nothing else, New Yorkers can reassure themselves that it could be worse — they could be living in Chicago, which was the most rat-infested city in the US last year, according to pest control company Orkin.

A dead rat sits in the street outside Marshall Field Garden Apartments in Chicago, rated by Orkin as the most rat-infested city in the US in 2022.
Martha Irvine/AP

Source: slowed down

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