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Archive for Wednesday, March 21, 2007

New York tackles its gnawing rat problem

March 21, 2007

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— "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 Ph.D 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 passers-by - 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.

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.

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