New York Tackles Its Gnawing Rat Problem
Purdue Alum BS '77, MS '80, PhD '95
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 20, 2007
|Pest control pro Robert Corrigan, on assignment in rodent-infested Manhattan, uses a stuffed rat to show the size of the New York species.
By David Segal -- The Washington Post
NEW YORK -- "This is a New York City rat," Robert Corrigan says, reaching into his bag and pulling out a nine-inch rodent. It's light brown and -- you are relieved to realize -- dead and stuffed. He drops the critter in the lobby of the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Tribeca, where it sits, paws splayed on the floor, ready to scare the tar out of a German tourist.
"That's the typical rat here," Corrigan explains. "A lot is made of it. 'It's giant. It's a foot long.' That's it. They're rarely any larger than that."
Corrigan, an earnest 56-year-old from the Midwest with a PhD in rodentology -- seriously, that's what it's called -- is suggesting that the local varmints aren't quite as menacing as lore has it. But he didn't fly into town on Sunday, prop in hand, to burnish the image of the world's most loathed mammal. Quite the opposite. He's come to help New York City recover from a major rat-related fiasco.
Maybe you caught the video: A KFC/Taco Bell restaurant in the West Village, overrun by rats, some of them nibbling atop lunch trays, others scampering near trash bags, all of them snacking at their leisure in the hours before the place opened for business. By then, the video -- shot by a local news cameramen on a tip from appalled passersby -- was on its way to the heavy rotation that only cable TV and YouTube can provide.
The story mushroomed into a city government scandal when it turned out that a restaurant inspector had given the infested KFC/Taco Bell a passing grade the day before the rats gone wild video was taped. Oops. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene removed that inspector from duty and announced that all 100 of the city's inspectors would take a remedial run through Rodent Control Academy.
Launched in 2005, the academy is a three-day master class in the fine art of smelling a rat, as well as background about the biology and behavior of the animals, and tips on how to stalk and poison them. As with previous rodent academy courses, this one will be taught by Corrigan.
"You actually can smell a rat," he says on Sunday afternoon. "I've been to plenty of fancy restaurants where I walk in with some friends and say 'We're not eating here,' and we turn around and walk out."
It smells like a musty locker room, in case you were wondering. That is just one rat lesson learned during an hour-long stroll with Corrigan around a typical city block. He's been asked by a reporter to explain the astounding durability of these creatures and to point out all the places where rats nest, eat and hide. He has agreed under one condition: that the block be granted anonymity.
"If people knew which block we were talking about, they might freak out about it," Corrigan says. "And it doesn't matter which block because just about any block in New York has the same problems."
Deal. What you realize soon after this narrated jaunt begins is that New York City is a rat Valhalla, a perfect combination of hideaways, easy-to-gnaw garbage bags and strewn-about food.
"You see that?" Corrigan says, pointing to a tiny hole near the front of a posh gym. "A rat needs just half an inch to crawl in. That's it. So that's plenty of room. To a rat, this is a wide-open door."
Born in Brooklyn but having no trace of an accent, Corrigan is earnest about his work, but not above the occasional grin that says, Yes, I have a very strange job. He is married and lives in Indiana. By his estimation, he is one of about a dozen pest-control consultants who work with cities, corporations and buildings, devising plans on the macro level to curtail rats. Most of his clients demand confidentiality. Others, like New York -- as well as Washington, where Corrigan has taught his seminar to city employees -- publicize their efforts. Yum! Brands, the company that franchises Taco Bell and KFC, issued a statement when it hired Corrigan recently to help improve pest-control standards.
"I give them credit for being so public about it," Corrigan says.
The key to Corrigan's success is understanding both how bureaucrats and rats think. He learned the latter during his graduate student days at Purdue University, when he once spent 30 days in a rat-infested barn in Indiana. He lived the nocturnal life of his subjects, watching them eat and reproduce. They crawled all over him. The more he watched the animals, the more he liked them.
"They're masters at adaptation and incredibly sophisticated," he says. "A research paper came out recently that said that rats contemplate their actions. They might run along a wall, stop and think, 'Is this a good move?' "
He doesn't do much rat killing, though as a former exterminator he's killed his share. Instead, he teaches clients where rats live, how they breed, their preferences when it comes to shrubbery and garbage cans.
"Those garbage cans are on stanchions," he says, as he walks through a park. "That's good. Rats prefer garbage cans that are on the ground."
He heads down an alley. Corrigan has been here on nights when the row of trash bags seemed to bustle with life.
"It was like each rat got its own bag," he says.
A year ago, a bunch of traps were set here and Corrigan inspects them as he walks. He has keys to unlock the traps and opens one. Thankfully, it's empty. These traps contain poisoned cubes of what looks like granola, apparently a delicious treat for a rat that kills it in five days, after a whole lot of internal bleeding. You'd think a device like this would at least put a dent in the problem, and maybe even represent hope in the ongoing man vs. rat brawl.
"Seen any rats?" Corrigan shouts, to a man digging a hole in the street at the end of the alley.
"Yes," the man replies, a little indignantly. It's like someone asked if he knew how to breathe.