The Rat Problem
Episode 1: “The Rat Problem”
By Theresa Gaffney and Peter Senzamici for the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism
In this transcript, all words including speakers, ambient sound, and music notes will appear in size 11 black type. Speaker names are bolded and in all caps.
- CAROL: A local resident of Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, where our story begins. She’s in her sixties and has lived in New York her entire life, but she doesn’t really have a New York accent. We interviewed Carol outside around her block, so her voice is accompanied by traffic, neighbors, and other sounds of the street.
- PETER: Our first host and narrator! Peter, in his early thirties, speaks in a low voice at a steady pace. He appears as a narrator in a stable, studio-like setting for most appearances, but he also appears in one scene out in the wild. That tape, with wind and New York City traffic and bustling sounds around him, will be denoted as PETER (Outside).
- THERESA: Our second host and narrator! She’s in her mid-twenties and her voice is a little higher, and her cadence a little quicker. She also comes in from a studio-like setting for most appearances, with the exception of one scene out in the wild. That tape, with wind and New York City traffic and bustling sounds around her, will be denoted as THERESA (Outside).
- BOBBY: A native New Yorker who moved upstate. He’s got a definitive New York accent and an off-the-cuff manner of speaking. He’s also a rat expert who consults with us about the ways of the rat. We interviewed Bobby outside around a market area, so his voice is accompanied by traffic, shoppers, and other sounds of the street.
ANONYMOUS BROOKLYNER: In a scene outside around Brooklyn, we run into a Brooklyner who has some insight to share with us! He talks in a low voice, and sounds a little “off-mic,” meaning he was standing far from where we were recording at the time.
In this transcript, ambient sound will appear in black, size 11 type. Descriptions of ambient sound will be indented away from speaker text.
Music: In this transcript, music will appear in black, italicized, size 11 type. Descriptions of music will be indented away from speaker text. When there are lyrics to the music, the lyrics will be transcribed in regular, non-italicized font, indented from the music and ambient sound descriptions.
End Transcript Key.
Crunching leaves on a Brooklyn sidewalk.
And I got to the point where I just didn’t want to go out at night.
You were just grossed out all the time and at night to go out at night became a really big problem. There was a moment when I would, I would ask my wife to meet me at the train station because I was literally afraid to walk home at night, it was that bad.
That’s Carol Morrison. She’s a social worker who lives in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. It’s a beautiful area, with tree-lined streets, steps from Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Museum, there’s expensive condos everywhere. But the neighborhood has one major problem.
Theme Music enters: It’s a funky, upbeat, charming tune with staccato electric guitar and some synthesizing. The exact opposite from what you think when you think of city rats.
That was too crazy for me like, no the rats should not own the street. ……
I don’t know that we can coexist peacefully, I feel that we need to be able to figure out how to clean up our community, so that we can at least mitigate what is a serious problem. It is personal.
Theme Music bops along for five seconds on its own and continues quietly under Peter and Theresa’s introduction.
This is INTRACTABLE, a show about problems that seem simple but keep coming back to bite us!! I’m Peter Senzamici—
—and I’m Theresa Gaffney. And this season, we’re digging—or, let’s say, burrowing—into one humankind’s most formidable foes.
PETER & THERESA (together)
The word “Rats” echoes for 3 seconds as if it was said in a large dining hall right as everyone went silent.
Theme Music cuts out sharply right as the final echo fades.
Welcome to Season one of Intractable, where rats are the name of the game. And I’ll just lay this out right now, at the top of the show. I hate rats. I think they’re gross, like Carol who we just heard from. And that’s the normal response, in my opinion. But Peter, you actually really like rats. Please explain yourself!
Yeah, so this series is going to explore all the ways we try to get rid of rats, or at least how we’re trying to see fewer of them in the streets, and I get that, I’m all for that. Nobody wants to step on a rat when they’re just trying to go to the bodega for some snacks. That being said… I did have two pet white rats as a kid, named Ethel and Lucy after the show I Love Lucy. They were amazing, I loved them, and yeah, generally I think that rats are super fascinating.
I definitely don’t love them like Ethel and Lucy, but I do find them fascinating in the way that disgusting things are genuinely interesting. Like, imagine Ethel and Lucy were way dirtier and on the street, eating trash and didn’t have any hint of domesticity. Then scale that to an entire city block. And, like, a million more rats. And that’s kind of what Carol’s dealing with.
Leaves crunch under feet on the sidewalk.
But the thing that’s always perplexed me is that I live only a few blocks away from Carol, and the difference between my street and her street is totally wild. I’ve never seen a rat on my block, but on her’s?? I’m constantly stepping over them, around them… and if I don’t see them, I’m hearing them rustling around in trash bags, looking for food.
Feet stomp along the sidewalk, as if to alert nearby rats that a human is walking by, and they DON’T want to see any rats.
Feet kick bags of trash to wake up any rats hiding in the plastic bags lined along the sidewalk.
Yuck. I mean, to a certain degree, most of us think of rats as kind of ubiquitous in New York. But we learned recently that the problem of rats in the city was not, like, *pre-ordained* in any way. And in fact, there’s one specific moment in New York history—literally, there’s basically a span of one single week, where everything changed.
And we’ll get to that soon. But the rats are here now, and it doesn’t seem like they’re going to go anywhere soon. So to find out more about what makes the rat problem so intractable, I met up with this guy Dr. Bobby Corrigan. We were behind a Starbucks in his hometown a little north of the city. But you know, social distancing, pandemic, etc., so we couldn’t sit inside. Instead, we hung outside, behind the coffee shop’s actual dumpster…
The sounds of a strip mall by the highway fade in—a mac truck zooms by, cars drive over construction in the road.
…That’s an audio treat for you, right? So notice, as we just made the turn here, just now, the smell, right? That’s critical, right? Because that smell.. One is you’re picking up with the nose. But as you’re moving through here, your ankles are swimming through billions of molecules of food molecules that smell so the and so we have, you can see all the grease, the foam and grease…
Water splashes and splatters all over the concrete behind the Starbucks.
It was a warm Sunday in October. The Starbucks was in a strip mall near a busy road. We stood by the dumpsters as an employee tossed water from a mop bucket a few feet away from us. And it really stunk.
So that’s what I’m going to cue in on first is, hey, if I’m a rat, anywhere nearby, this is being distributed down the street, blocks, these molecules – blocks away – are actually still drifting, you know. So when people say where these rats come from, must be …
Bobby’s voice continues, quietly, under Peter’s narration. He’s got a lot to say.
Bobby says that rat populations are directly tied to human behavior. One person’s trash is a rats’ buffet. And because it’s so obvious to him, Bobby doesn’t hold back when critiquing mankind.
If I was to give it an environmental grade for homosapiens? Of course they get an F! You would give it an F. What is so difficult about the wise human beings, Homo sapiens, to keep this small space tidy, but we can’t do it? We just can’t do it.
Bobby’s voice continues, quietly, under Peter’s narration.
But he knows it’s not really that simple. He knows a LOT about rats and why they’re so good at city living. He really respects the rat…. You might even say he kind of loves them.
City rodents, too, use tools. They’ve been shown to make decisions, they actually plan, these rodents can plan, make decisions; choice, good or bad. And then if they make a bad decision, they regret making that bad decision. Rats of all things have been shown to have altruism. Rats will help another rat out without getting anything else back, altruism, and be kind, in two words, right? Be kind.
We have so severely understood, under-understood, we’ve under-understood the world of other animals that we don’t feel like cuddling with. We love our dogs, we love our puppies, we love our cats. Um, and so why not love the rat.
There’s a reason we wanted to talk to Bobby—he’s kind of a big deal. In fact, he may be the most prominent rat guy in the world. He has a PhD from Purdue where he wrote his thesis on rat population biology. He taught there for over a decade and worked for New York’s Department of Health. Now, if you happen to be a city and you have a rat problem, he’s the guy you call. For a job that’s so wrapped up in dirty, filthy, disgusting rodents, it’s a pretty sexy gig traveling the world as an expert consultant.
Of course nobody starts out as an expert, though. Bobby’s journey to rat maven status started, like many rats do themselves, deep in the sewers of New York City.
Water drips from pipes, flows like a tiny stream through the sewers.
He’d taken a job as an exterminator to save money for college, and, in those smelly sewers, he found himself surrounded by rats.
When I noticed, you know, these rats in these sewers, were meeting they’d be running down this ledge in the sewers. And then once in a while i’d notice how they would meet and some would groom each other and be friendly, and sometimes mating would ensue. And other times, two rats meet on that same ledge in a different part of the sewer and it would be all hell would break loose … And I realized, you know, there’s a lot going on here. Just like people, that’s why we studied them, but I realized, but I wonder what it is. Why would these two rats fight and these other two get along, and others would pass by each other with no interaction whatsoever? And I was like, there’s more to this then, you know, then what most people think.
Theme Music comes in again. It’s a funky beat of staccato notes, but consistent, almost like a loop.
Bobby hadn’t ever really thought about rats before this, but it wasn’t because he wasn’t interested. It’s because they just weren’t there. We think of rats as the quintessential New Yorkers, but they haven’t always lived rent free in our sewers, subways, and in our heads. In fact, there was one very specific moment in the city’s history when the rat population was set to explode. And it’s not like Bobby’s super old, so we aren’t talking about the 1800s.
Growing up, there were no rats in Brooklyn. In 1968, only 11% of the city of New York showed positive results for rats.
Theme Music comes to a halt right as Peter says “1968.”
- The same year as the Great Trash Strike of New York City. Okay, well, there were a lot of trash strikes back in the day, but when older New Yorkers talk about *The* Trash Strike, this is one they mean.
Old-fashioned metal trash cans bang and jostle, reminiscent of the din of the street in the olden days, when trash was stored that way. This goes on for a few seconds, with one final bang of a lid at the end.
Music enters. It’s quiet, calming music, like 60s-era acoustic guitar.
For most of the 20th century, trash had to go to the curb in metal cans, like the one Oscar the Grouch lives in. But during the strike, trash piled up for nine days, and there just weren’t enough metal cans to put it in. You couldn’t even buy them, they had completely sold out.
Luckily (or maybe not), Dow Chemical had just come up with a new plastic garbage bag and, in a clever marketing move, gave them away – for free – around the city. After the strike, the health department SCRAPPED their rules on metal cans, and plastic bags became the receptacle of the future. And so began the era of the rats. They loved the new easy access to our tasty trash.
Music fades out.
If you want to know the story of New York rats, follow the story of our trash. And what we did. So soon as we went to the plastic bags, everyone’s like, this is fabulous! Look how fast the garbage has gone! And it’s quiet, no more banging of the cans and can lids in the streets.
What do we do? We got in bed with the rat, right? Because all night long, the rats and foraging and those bags full of protein and the complete nutritional balance.
This is honestly wild. Finding out something was actually done right in the olden days, but then we chose to start doing it wrong?
Yeah, like, we understood the basic premise of: keep the food locked away, and, the rat population would stay low.
After we learned about this monumental shift, I wanted to come down to Brooklyn to really see the problem that everyone’s been talking about. If trash is the problem, why didn’t they just fix the trash? Like, I convinced myself that maybe it *was* that simple, and if someone could just tidy up the trash situation, the rats would go away. So I went to meet up with Peter.
Wind, traffic, and other city sounds slowly fade in. Theresa and Peter’s mics bounce against their bodies.
So where does Carol live in relation to here?
So Carol is right around the corner. She’s like two buildings in, I can show you what she’s dealing with.
We started kicking bags of trash looking for the rats that I always see wriggling inside them. It was freezing and windy so there weren’t too many, but the trash was everywhere.
Peter kicks trash cans—poomf, poomf, poomf—to see if there are any rats inside of it.
Well, you can see these people have bins too. It’s not like nobody has bins. It’s just the bins don’t move out to the street.
Literally this pile of trash is taller than me. Yeah, it’s like it’s literally like a house for rats.
It’s usually pretty obvious when they’re inside of that.
Because it’s moving.
Because it’s moving.
And just when we thought we were going to have a rat-free evening…
Oh, did I just see one? I think I saw one.
We maybe saw one.
Right at the tree right there, you see it?
Oh, I see it. Oh! It’s a fat baby. No, it just ran under the car. Oh, there’s another one.
It—that is a new one. Oh, there’s two. Oh, they’re so big. And they’re just poking around this bag.
Theresa and Peter’s conversation fades and continues quietly under the narration.
At this point, I’m thinking—damn, metal trash cans would fix this easy. We basically have the rat problem solved! And to be honest, I’m feeling smug, like, I’m in on some secret, or something. But then as Peter was trying to get some sound of the rats we saw rummaging through the trash, this guy comes up to us and starts talking to us about the rats. And he immediately started poking holes in any ideas we have about making the trash situation better.
The conversation with this Brooklynite begins to fade in under the narration. “I know, I know,” Peter says.
Each building puts out 100 bags on garbage night, between recycling and black bags. Each building puts out — so how many cans they gonna have for that? You think they could put 100 bags in cans outside? Is it harder for the sanitation, am I correct?
So. The trash is definitely a problem in Prospect Heights. But like we learned from Bobby, and then also this random guy, it’s not an easy problem to solve.
And most of us, when we see a problem, it sucks but we kind of move on with our lives. I mean, who’s got the time. But Carol, who we had heard earlier talking about how she needed an escort home from the train to avoid the rats? Carol’s different. Carol has the time.
Or at least she made the time. Like we said earlier, She’s a social worker, so she knows how to find resources to solve problems for people. And the rats were such a problem, she started a task force to hold local officials and landlords accountable.
As Carol’s voice comes in, she’s talking over Peter a little. “But maybe they could enforce…” Peter tries to start, but Carol cuts him off.
Why are they not fining these buildings for this disgusting, egregious behavior around rodent control, around garbage just being put out, you can see it right across the street, you see that they have bins, the garbage is not even in the bin, you know why the garbage isn’t in the bin? Because people are afraid to open the bins because there are rodents in them. And they’re not cleaned out. And they’re not…. There’s no prevention and, and it goes on and on and on. And it’s been like that for as long as I’ve lived here.
Carol’s rant continues underneath the narration.
Carol’s been fighting this fight for the past year, against the city itself, against landlords in the area. She even got the health AND sanitation departments to actually talk to each other and coordinate anti-rat action, just for those two blocks. But that’s for later episodes.
For now, Carol’s had to learn about her enemy and has become something a rat expert in her own right.
Rats are really communal beings, and they give birth to pups, 6, 10 at a time; they go into their burrows. You can clean out a borrow and a rat is never going to go back to that same borrow again. They have a sense of what is safe, what is not safe. And if rats know that some of their other rat family members have been missing… Are they going to reproduce more? That’s a question. That’s really a question for Bobby Corrigan.
As Carol is talking, a neighbor with a low voice and jangly keys walks by. “Hello,” he says.
So much of an expert that she has been in contact with *the* expert, our guy Bobby.
Well, kind of her guy— you know, that’s actually how we met Bobby, through Carol. He’s a world renowned expert, but that doesn’t mean he’s above advising her on the situation in Prospect Heights.
So I asked her for an update, I don’t know, four months ago, or something like that. I said, just, you know, you still going strong, right? And all of this. And she said, we’ve made great improvements and the bad actors are, you just—she said a lot of them have actually fixed it. So she goes: things are getting better. And that’s why I said, well, then whatever you do, don’t stop. You know, sorry. It’s like adopting a child. If you get a hand off, you can give it to or somebody takes it from you, but don’t stop, because they’ll be back.
Music rises up. It’s rock music with electric guitar, and strong, definitive beats. The volume is quiet but it’s the loud type of music that might be played at a house party.
Wow. So, basically, she can never stop fighting the rats.
She can never stop fighting the rats.
Music rises and continues for about thirty seconds. A low, croaky voice comes in singing:
The rat salesman is coming to town
All the boys and girls will gather around
There’s a rat for Jimmy and one for Jane
There’s a rat for you if it’s all the same
He’s got rats that dance and some on wheels
He’s got a rat that won’t shut up about the way he feels
Step right up and get yourself a rat
And when you do, you’ll know where it’s at…
Music fades on it’s own. The final lyrics are stretched out until they cut out.
Next time on Intractable, we’ll delve into the life of a rat in Carol’s neighborhood. How did they get there, and what do they do all day?
Theme Music rises in one last time.
So a day in the life of a rat is going to go like this—First they wake up—9 pm—A lot of licking, a lot of grooming—They’ll do some housework, just like us—And then they’ll say, you know, time for breakfast—They’ll go on top of the bags, run around the bag—They’ll go to the next bag run around this bag over here using the nose and saying, yup, I had chicken last night. And I’m having fish tonight—They’ll spend some of their time out exploring sniffing for different pheromones—“Do I smell the dominant male pheromone?”
Theme Music continues.
This episode of “Intractable” was reported by Peter Senzamici and produced by Theresa Gaffney. Our theme song is Retro by Wayne Jones. Thanks to users Robinhood76, CraigSmith, and InspectorJ on FreeSound.Org for the sound effects. Thank you! to the band Half-cocked for their wonderful song, “Rats,” and ValentinSosnitskiy for additional music. Links to all the sound and music can be found in our show notes. Special thanks to Curtis Fox, Kalli Anderson, and Karen Shakerdge.
Theme Music fades out.