New York City Names a Rat Czar to Fight Infestation
A succession of mayors have tried and failed to eradicate the city’s rodent population. Now, Eric Adams has appointed Kathleen Corradi, a former schoolteacher and sustainability expert, to tackle the city's epic rat problem.
Under sunny skies in Harlem, New York Mayor Eric Adams recently introduced the city’s first director of rodent mitigation, Kathleen Corradi. Known informally as the rat czar, Corradi is a former city schoolteacher and sustainability expert with the city's Department of Education. She will oversee and coordinate the efforts of government agencies, community organizations and the private sector in their ongoing efforts to eradicate the city’s rats.
Applicants for the rat czar job were required to have relevant experience, a bachelor’s degree, proficiency in Microsoft Word and “most importantly, the drive, determination and killer instinct needed to fight the real enemy — New York City’s relentless rat population.” Qualified applicants were also expected to possess a “virulent vehemence for vermin.”
“I'm excited to bring a science- and systems-based approach to fight rats,” Corradi said with the mayor at her side. “I'm honored to lead this work … and look forward to sending the rats packing."
A Long History of Infestation
Rats came to New York City in the second half of the 18th century, an unintended consequence of international trade. Early in the 20th century, it is estimated that half of the ships entering the Port of New York were rat infested.
Intelligent and adaptable, brown rats are well equipped for survival in a city crowded with humans. They can leap several feet, fall three stories without injury, tread water for days and squirm through holes an inch wide. And despite well-documented encounters, they are nocturnal and tend to remain largely out of sight.
It is nearly impossible to know exactly how many rats are scuttling around New York City. For years, the popular assumption was that there are more than 8 million of them, one rat for every person in the city. But there is a general consensus that the number is probably closer to 2 million, a figure arrived at by an independent study done in 2014 using data collected by the city.
Recent years have seen a significant rise in rat complaints, which city officials attribute to the pandemic. Work-at-home policies meant more trash bags piled up on the sidewalks. Outdoor dining sheds provide food and shelter for rodents as well as COVID-averse diners. Budget cuts to the Sanitation Department in 2020 resulted in a reduction of services. Trash containers were not emptied. Streets were not cleaned.
A Formidable Foe
The appointment of Kathleen Corradi as rat czar signals a renewed effort to rid New York of rodents. But this isn’t the first time a mayor has waged war on rats and it’s unlikely to be the last. A succession of mayors have tried and failed to eliminate the furry pests.
In 1948 a special rat control committee was established by Mayor William O’Dwyer in response to a perceived increase in the rodent population. The committee was tasked with designing a plan for extermination to be undertaken by the Parks Department, the offices of the five borough presidents and the Port Authority. O’Dwyer resigned from office two years later. Whatever achievements he could claim, rat removal was not one of them.
Thirty years later, Rudy Giuliani created the Interagency Rodent Extermination Task Force, the city’s largest extermination effort up to that time. Armed with an annual budget of $8 million, the task force added 200 new members to the city’s rat patrol and created a public relations campaign that encouraged citizens to join the fight.
At the announcement, Giuliani recounted an episode he’d witnessed at the official mayor’s residence when a big rat skittered across the front porch of Gracie Mansion, ''Rats are horrible,'' he said. ''When you see them, no matter how immune you are to anything or how brave you think you are, the rats get you really scared. … they are frightening animals.''
In 2013, Bloomberg’s last year in office, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority experimented with a sterilization program to rid the subway of rats. The stated goal was a 75 percent reduction of the pests. The result was statistically insignificant.
The rats at Gracie Mansion were still there when Bill de Blasio took office in 2014. But at least they kept to an adjacent park and stayed off his front porch. Three years into his first term, he announced his own $32 million rat reduction initiative. The interagency plan intended to reduce rat populations by 70 percent within a year by targeting neighborhoods with the greatest infestation.
Mayor de Blasio hoped to achieve these results by eliminating food sources and available habitats. But he also had a new weapon to deploy in the fight. By packing dry ice in burrows, rats would suffocate from the release of carbon dioxide. Initial tests showed promise, but not during a demonstration for the press when a would-be victim escaped from his hole and scampered to safety in front of the mayor and his minions.
Taking up the Gauntlet
Mayor Eric Adams’ history with rats goes back to his childhood when he kept one as a pet in a home overrun with rodents. As an elected official, Adams has never missed an opportunity to voice his hate for New York’s vermin population. A defining moment of his Brooklyn borough presidency came when he demonstrated a new rat-killing device that involved ladling dozens of soggy, bloated carcasses from a vat of toxic soup. The stomach-turning trap was not as successful as anticipated.
The city’s battle with rats took a new twist when Mayor Adams was cited three times for rat-related infractions after a health inspector visited his rental property in Brooklyn. Two of the tickets were dismissed when he produced receipts from an exterminator totaling thousands of dollars. The mayor was ordered to pay a $300 fine for the third.
With the rat czar at his side, Adams has escalated the fight against infestation. “Kathy will take the lead on our multi-agency effort to test new mitigation techniques, expand outreach and education efforts, and increase maintenance and remediation work,” he said at the announcement in Harlem. “The rats are going to hate Kathy, but we're excited to have her leading this important effort."
The director of rodent mitigation had a message of her own: “You’ll be seeing a lot of me and a lot less rats.”