DAVID GREENE, HOST:
New York City is doing some important training in its never-ending war on rats. City health officials are teaching regular New Yorkers in targeted neighborhoods how to make their streets, businesses and gardens less hospitable to rodents. NPR's Joel Rose attended one rat academy, as they're known, and tells us what he learned.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: When Caroline Bragdon walks through the East Village, she's not looking at the people or the storefronts. Her eyes point down at the place where the sidewalk meets the buildings and the street.
CAROLINE BRAGDON: They're going in and out and in and out of these spaces. If you look really carefully, you can even see their hairs.
ROSE: Bragdon works for the City Health Department. She's pointing at a little hole in the sidewalk next to a sewer grate.
BRAGDON: Look down and see - with the sun shining right on it - if you see hair.
BRAGDON: Right along there.
ROSE: Oh, yeah. There's like little, fine, I guess, like, whitish. Those are rat hairs.
BRAGDON: And so when we see something like this, what we say to each other is, this catch basin is hot. You know, this is ratty.
ROSE: By that measure, this is one of the hottest neighborhoods in New York City. And it's one of the testing grounds for the city's new rat reservoir pilot - an initiative to try to reduce the rat population in neighborhoods with chronic infestations. Part of the plan is to hire extra exterminators and seal up holes in streets, parks and other public infrastructure. Bragdon says rats can squeeze through the tiniest opening.
BRAGDON: In doors, in windows, in sidewalk curbs, in any building infrastructure. Rats only need a hole or a gap the size of a quarter to enter.
ROSE: The other part of the new initiative is to teach regular New Yorkers to see their neighborhood the way Bragdon does. She says it's not enough just to poison the rats and collapse their burrows. The city still does that, too. But often, she says, the rats just come back unless you can take away the conditions that attracted them in the first place.
BRAGDON: People complain about the city's rats coming into their property. But if you don't pest-proof your doors, it's like leaving a door open.
BRAGDON: Has everyone seen what a rat burrow looks like?
ROSE: This is where the Rat Academy comes in. It's a free two-hour class on how to make your business, apartment building or community garden less attractive to rodents. The city holds these Rat Academies periodically for landlords and anyone else who asks. Today, it's a few dozen community gardeners mostly from the East Village.
BROOKE DEMOS: We have a terrible rat infestation this year.
ROSE: Brooke Demos is the co-president of a community garden on Avenue B.
DEMOS: The actual rats, the droppings, the dead rats, the decomposing rats - we smell the decomposing rats and have to find them underneath thick vegetation.
ROSE: The rat problem is also on the upswing at another garden on Fifth Street. Analee Sinclair thinks uncovered garbage and food are two of the main problems.
ANALEE SINCLAIR: People feeding pigeons - so they'll throw a pile of rice down somewhere in the garden or outside the garden. And that's saying free food for all rats. Come and - you know, come and get it.
ROSE: Is this a problem that New York just has to live with? Or do you think it can be solved?
SINCLAIR: Solved - no because we've co-existed with rats for millennia. The thing that we can do is reduce population.
ROSE: 70 years ago, the great journalist Joseph Mitchell wrote in The New Yorker that, quote, "some authorities believe that in the five boroughs there is a rat for every human being." If anything, experts today say there are probably more. Rats are basically nocturnal. I didn't see any live ones during my neighborhood tour with Caroline Bragdon. But we did see a dead rat next to a construction site on Houston Street.
BRAGDON: Well, see, you have the bait station here, and the dead rat over there. So, like, at least we got one.
ROSE: In the war on rats, you take your victories where you can find them. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.