If you’re in New York City, watch out for the R.A.T.S. No, that’s not a reference to the vermin known to inhabit old buildings, the subway system, and the city’s vast network of underground sewers and tunnels. It stands for Ryders Alley Trencher-fed Society. That may seem like a fanciful name that was somewhat twisted around to achieve the acronym, but it does make total sense once you know who and what the R.A.T.S. are.
Ryders Alley is just what it sounds like, a narrow one-way stretch of street that runs about half a city block southwest of DeLury Square Park on the Lower Westside. And the group is definitely a society. The real key to who and what they are comes in the words “Trencher-fed.” This refers to a hunting group of dogs, usually foxhounds or terriers, which do not live as a pack but are kept by their separate owners and only come together for the hunt.
Tons of rats
Put it all together and, as the name implies, this is a dog pack that hunts down and kills the city’s many rats — which are so ubiquitous that they have their own Wikipedia page. However, while it’s long been an adage that there are as many rats in the city as there are people, researchers finally disproved this in 2014, determining the rat population of two million to be about one fourth the number of humans at eight point four million.
While not as impressive as the higher number, that’s still a lot of rats. Another way to look at it is that there are 750 tons of rats in, under, and around the city.
Dogs with jobs
The group uses terriers and dachshunds and, again, the logic for why is right in the names. Terrier comes from the French “chien terrier,” or dog of the earth, and dachshund is German for “badger dog.” Both breeds were originally used to hunt badgers and rodents. Fortunately, New York is not known to have a large badger population.
According to a New York Post story on the group, while the dogs are naturally inclined to hunt rats, they do have to be taught how to kill them properly so they don’t create a bloody mess everywhere. This involves grabbing the rat by the neck and shaking it until it’s dead. Luckily, this is an instinctual move for most dogs and you’ve probably seen your dog do it with a toy as well, so it isn’t that difficult to train them to not rip the rats apart.
This doesn’t mean that the job is entirely bloodless, though, and it is very common for the dogs to be bitten by rats, although that’s more a minor annoyance than anything else. As R.A.T.S. founder Richard Reynolds told the Post, “Rat bites are nips, and to a terrier, all that does is make them more determined.”
A serious problem
While there probably isn’t a major city on the planet that doesn’t have rats, New York seems to have taken the lifetime achievement award when it comes to spectacular rat problems. Incidents there have included an entire fire station in Queens condemned and gutted due to an infestation, a KFC/Taco Bell combination near NYU being overrun to the bemusement of a local film crew, and in the fall of 2015, the entire Internet was amused by the adventures of the city’s own Pizza Rat, inspiring a Staten Island minor league baseball team (yes, they have one) to consider changing their name from the Yankees to the Pizza Rats. (Spoiler: the name-change idea fizzled.)
Rats aren’t just a danger to buildings or abandoned food. They are also notorious carriers of disease, harboring various bacteria and viruses. It was rats that carried the plague through Europe in centuries past, and scientists have identified at least 18 human diseases carried by rats including hantavirus and Leptospirosis.
Even a rat bite on its own can be dangerous, leading to tetanus or a fatal condition called “rat bite fever,” and infants and children are frequent targets of rats.
Send in the angels
The R.A.T.S. aren’t the only ones out there using animals to deal with the problem. In a sign of the times, the crime rate in New York has gotten so low that the Guardian Angels, former protectors of subway riders, have now branched out. Nancy Regula, girlfriend of group founder Carlos Sliwa, has created colonies of cats throughout the city in areas of rat infestation. She does this by capturing wild cats, having them neutered, and then releasing them into the new colony.
The Guardian Angels have only been in the ratting business for a few months now, while R.A.T.S. has been around for over a quarter of a century, but between the two of them, they’re poised to make a major dent in the Big Apple’s furry little problem.