It is a truth locally acknowledged, and not merely an urban legend, that the rat is ubiquitous in New York City and has been for a very long time. As of 2014, there were approximately two million rats cohabiting in the same metropolis as its 8.4 million people; namely, rats comprise 24% of the number of humans. While waiting for the subway, more often than not, I’ve spotted rats scurrying across the train tracks or scuttling along the walls of the station. I’ve also noticed them emerging from sewers and nosing around garbage. But never, in all the years I lived in New York City had my family or I been plagued by rats or mice in our apartment. Perhaps we were simply very fortunate. Maybe the building was well maintained by an exceptionally vigilant super, who magically sealed off all points of rat entry. Nor do I recall rats infiltrating the apartments of friends. Despite the countless reports of rodent sightings throughout the city, and for whatever inexplicable reasons, my Manhattan apartment remained a safe space from the rat.
Although our home stayed rat-free, it was not without its pests. We certainly encountered our fair share of cockroaches brazenly walking across kitchen counters or emerging, Venus-like, from bathroom drains. I still cringe when recollecting the crackling sound of their shiny shell-like skin when we crushed them. After years of using Raid and professional exterminators who sprayed noxious poisons throughout our apartment, we were no longer subjected to roach visitations. Beyond our widest expectations, we had eventually reached a pest-free state.
During my college years, however, I did experience a significant number of one-on-one encounters with rodents. In a psychology class I, along with an equally unenthusiastic partner, had to conduct a classical conditioning experiment on an albino rat. The rodent received a pellet from a dispenser when it dutifully pressed a lever. While the experiment was not rocking the scientific community, I found being responsible for maintaining the rat highly unsettling. My partner and I had to clean its cage regularly and handle the revolting pink-tailed, red-eyed creature. It looked like some sort of demon or incubus, which haunted me in nightmares for months. Needless to say, Rat Lab, the unofficial name of the course, was nothing but aversive to me.
The summer after my junior year of college a friend and I sublet an apartment in Philadelphia from a graduate student. We found the place charming and arty, though, when they deposited my belongings and me there, my parents begged to differ. Soon after moving in, my roommate and I noticed that various dried foods that we stored in a small, metal pantry had been assaulted and eaten. The attackers seemed partial to potato chips. And then we witnessed the robbers, two mice, whom we dubbed the mouse brothers. After inspecting the area we detected a small hole in the wall behind the moveable pantry. We called the building’s superintendant, who plugged up their entry point, and the mouse brothers ceased their visits and pantry raids. From my limited experience, mice didn’t seem to be an especially complicated problem to fix. Also, we inhabited the apartment only for the summer. Who knows whether the mouse brothers or their extended family returned through another gap in the kitchen wall.
After many years of city living, untainted by rat encounters, I moved to suburbia where I expected to run in to some friendly squirrels, spiders, and perhaps a raccoon or skunk, once in a while, all enjoying their respective habitats outdoors. In fact, all sorts of fauna made themselves at home on our property. Birds constructed a cozy, lint-lined nest in the dryer vent, wasps built domiciles in the corners of our porch, and mice collected seeds dropped from our birdfeeder in the backyard. But these were all inconveniences that were easily remedied. These creatures knew their places outside the barriers of my house.
In my mind, the rat was more of a city dweller, a spreader of dirt and disease, such as the Bubonic Plague, in urban areas where people lived in close quarters. I didn’t imagine that these nocturnal creatures, who lurked in dark corners, would appreciate the flora and open spaces of sunny California.
My first home in California was a charming 1905 Victorianish house that had been “renovated” by the previous owners. The house had a small, unfinished attic that lacked a proper floor or storage space, and it smelled like rats—musky, feral, and fecal. There were also hints of fossilized rat droppings on the corners of some floorboards. However, I was not alarmed. The rat evidence was confined to the attic, and it seemed like ancient history.
Soon after my husband and I moved in, I heard the pitter pat of little rodent feet behind the wall of our bedroom, which sounded as if rats were scaling the interior walls from the dirt basement below the house up to the attic adjacent to our bedroom. We also began to observe fresh rat poop in the attic. Rodents had clearly infiltrated the sanctity of our home. Like Peter Weller’s character, Bart Hughes, in “Of Unknown Origin,” who becomes obsessed with eradicating the rodents from his New York City townhouse, I too was determined to eliminate all rats from our premises. With this mindset, I hired a rat-proofing expert, who promised to take care of our problem.
After inspecting every accessible crevice of our house, the rodent exterminator concluded that it was impossible to fully rat proof our home, since it had far too many internal highways leading from the basement to the attic that were accessible only to rodents, and not to humans. The rat eradicator said he could make it harder for rats to come and go, which should decrease their population in our house. So in addition to setting numerous rattraps with peanut butter, a rodent favorite, he covered all the corners in the attic with wire mesh and installed a well-sealed door under the bulkhead that opened into the basement. This was not an inexpensive project, but it led to a reduction of the rat community in our home. The traps also nabbed quite a few rats, which my husband had the misfortune to remove, mostly because he was slightly less unwilling and squeamish than I. Now, instead of all-year-around rodent guests, we had seasonal rat visitors. Perhaps they liked routine or easy entry and exit. Because we made it less convenient for them to shelter in our attic, they mostly went elsewhere.
After a few years of tolerating our low-residency rats, we moved to a much newer, better insulated house nearby. This home also had an attic, but it was properly finished. During the inspection and walk through, I thought I noticed a faint hint of rat scent but saw no signs of occupying rodents. The inspection report indicated no evidence of pests.
But a few months later, once again, I heard rats scurrying in the attic, which surrounded our bedroom. It was not much of a surprise by this point, when we then observed rat droppings scattered on the floor of the attic. This time we contacted our contractor who had managed the renovations on our new house. He too had a two-part plan. Like the “rat proofer” he laid traps throughout the attic to eradicate the current population. He also pointed out: “There is never just one rat.” For not only do rats bring their friends, but they also procreate with siblings and cousins, who all make themselves comfortable in whatever space they have invaded. Our traps were highly effective; many rats were caught and removed. However, one time, without considering the status of our uninvited guests, we went away for a weekend only to return to the stench of a decaying deceased rat emanating from the attic. I am eternally grateful to my husband for taking the fetid carcass from our house. The attic and our bedroom reeked for weeks despite our employment of air fresheners, cleansers, and fumigators. Years later, I still notice a faint whiff of dead rat when I open the attic door.
Part two of rat divestment involved screening every corner and air vent hole in the attic, so that rats could not squeeze through even the tiniest openings. Since the house was relatively new, it was much easier to seal effectively. I am happy to report that the rat purging and proofing were effective. To this day, we have observed no traces of rodent activity in our attic.
Many years after purging our house of rats and no longer attuned to signs of rodent invasion, we awoke one morning to a peculiar and inexplicable sight. When my husband and I reached the foot of the stairs en route to the kitchen for breakfast, we noticed shredded, fouled bits of toilet paper strewn outside the door of our first floor powder room. My husband opened the door of that bathroom and observed what appeared to be the aftermath of a sewer backup or explosion. Sewage, along with bits of toilet paper were sprayed around the floor and all over the toilet. After recovering himself, my husband conducted a further inspection where he noticed that the toilet paper roll appeared to be gnawed, as well as the underside of the powder room door. We were baffled. Our best guess was that the problem was sewer-related plumbing issue.
Since it was Memorial Day weekend, there was no one to call for assistance. So armored in protective gear including a hat, mask, and gloves, my husband set to sanitizing the bathroom. To complete the final round of purging and bleaching, he crouched down on the floor next to the foot of the pedestal sink only to find two eyes staring at him from inside a gap in the base of the pedestal. He yelled, “AAHH!,” as if he were being attacked by Freddy Krueger, the villain of “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” I had never before heard my husband scream in shock and fear. He ran out of the powder room and slammed the door shut.
When our hearts stopped racing and we were able to resort to reason, we concluded that the rat had emerged from the toilet via the sewer system, spewed raw sewage throughout the bathroom, chewed the toilet paper toll, squeezed himself under the door of the bathroom perhaps to escape, then returned to the bathroom and burrowed in the pedestal of the sink.
Research has shown that rats can flatten their rib cages to fit through narrow crevices. If their heads fit through a gap, so can the rest of them. Also, rats are burrowing animals, whose bodies are long and flexible. They spend their lives running through tunnels and tight spaces. Thus, slipping under a doorway is commonplace for a rodent. To protect ourselves and our baby daughter, who was fortunately too young to understand what was going on, my husband then barricaded the door of the bathroom so that the rat was confined to what he seemed to think were his quarters, until we came up with an eradication plan.
We called vector control, our contactor, plumbers, and various exterminators. But since it was Sunday of a holiday weekend, no one would help us. We convinced our contractor to come over first thing Tuesday morning. In the meantime, we had to share the same premises with a sewer rat. During those two days, my husband made periodic inspections of the powder room. It seemed that the rat was making itself at home in the bathroom and retreating to the comfort of the foot of the sink when he tired of making a mess and spreading germs everywhere.
Our contractor arrived early Tuesday morning, well armed and with an assistant whom he described as having grown up on a farm and inured to rats. I hadn’t realized that rodents were considered farm animals, but I was relieved that someone wasn’t utterly revolted by our situation. The heroic assistant had to disconnect the sink and move the pedestal in order to capture the rat. He succeeded in his mission, removed the rat, killed it, and disposed of it. I asked no questions about his methods. He then set to decontaminating the bathroom. My husband and I were deeply grateful to him and relieved that the fetid creature was gone from our lives. We called the Department of Public Works of our town to explain our situation. Later that day a representative came over and informed us that this was a “one-in-a-million” situation. He theorized that the sewer flap opened at the exact moment a rat happened to by swimming through the pipe leading up to our toilet. It was a “freakish coincidence, “ he insisted. There was nothing for us to do. He concluded that our toilet and sewer were in good working order.
Even though things returned to normal and our powder room received a clean bill of health, as well as numerous scrubbings, we kept the toilet seat closed and weighted down with a gallon jug of water at all times. We were taking no chances. I, for one, avoided using that bathroom.
About a year-and-a-half later, when my daughter was a toddler and I trusted that our vermin problems were resolved, I went out to run some errands, leaving my child in the fine care of our beloved babysitter. After about an hour, the babysitter called me, whispering into the phone as if she was an informer disclosing state secrets. She explained that she was calling from the front hallway just outside the powder room and did not want my daughter to hear her. She had been about to use the toilet in said bathroom, and as she lifted the lid and was starting to lower her pants, she observed a rat rising forth from inside the toilet. She quickly slammed the lid shut, replaced the water jug on top, and exited the room. She too had grown up on a farm and seemed much more rational and collected about the matter than I would have been. After all, she came mighty close to exposing her bottom to a rat.
I immediately called our loyal contractor and returned home. I barricaded the bathroom door until he and his helper arrived. For a second time, the assistant locked himself in the bathroom with the rat and emerged some time later victorious. Again, I asked no questions nor made no judgments about his actions. The rat was gone, and the powder room was clean. This time, in addition to contacting the city to inform them that we had been struck twice, we called a licensed, expert plumber who cleaned out the sewer line and replaced the sewer flap. It turned out that the sewer flap was not closing properly, and instead of functioning more like a barrier, it had been operating more like an unhinged swinging door, making it easy for local rats to drop in. Problem solved! We have not met with a sewer or attic rat in our home for over eight years. Nonetheless, the gallon water jug still sits atop the toilet seat in the powder room, and I will not use that bathroom, ever.
While roof or attic rats are fairly common in my neighborhood, I recognize that sewer rats are not. Based only on what has become my own repeated experience with many types of rats, it appears that rat invasions are more common in suburbia than in the city. I can find no data to support my theory, and I suspect, in reality, that the ratio of rats to humans and the percentage of rat home invasions are far higher in New York City than it is in the suburban Bay Area. According to a Bay Area exterminator, the rat population has reached “epidemic proportions.” It is possible that the drought is driving them into people’s homes, searching for food, water, and shelter. He provided no data for his assertions. Perhaps some suburban folk are less tolerant of life’s inconveniences or have higher standards. Maybe people are more sensitive to and alarmed by rats here in the lovely, fragrant suburbs of San Francisco, because the rat seems incongruous. These vile creatures are not in sync with the sweet Star Jasmine, the blue skies, sun shine, and clean streets. Perhaps, like with many inconveniences and annoyances of daily life in New York City, when it comes to the rat, most New Yorkers just roll their eyes, shrug, pretend they don’t notice, or say “Whatever.”