Maeve Higgins: Well, if this ain’t a bummer — rats in the toilet is no urban myth... I know

Every borough and neighbourhood is home to hundreds of thousands of them, some more than others
Maeve Higgins: Well, if this ain’t a bummer — rats in the toilet is no urban myth... I know

Rats on a sidewalk in New York. Maeve’s friend Jeff lives in Chinatown and has had an increasing number of unpleasant run-ins with rats on the streets there. Picture: Charlie Hamilton James

YOU’D like to think you’re alone when you’re on the toilet, wouldn’t you? You’d like to believe that you and your bare bottom are sitting there in complete privacy. Surely it’s safe to assume you’re not being eyed up by a creature that had somehow clambered up through the pipes, a creature like, say, a rat? Surely that’s an urban legend, the product of a feverish mind, an anxiety-ridden over-thinker?

Sadly not — the perverted rat scenario I just laid out is entirely possible. One such rat, wringing wet and bug-eyed, appeared just a few weeks ago in a toilet in Long Island, New York, in a bathroom belonging to the Arnheiter family.

I spoke to the father, Carl Arnheiter. “We heard a gurgle in the next room, my son was playing on an iPad, and I said, “what was that?”

“He said he didn’t know, and now we’re headed into the bathroom, and the bathroom light is on. I go to turn it off and see the toilet is not flushed. As I’m saying, ‘Who didn’t flush the toilet?!’ I look, and what I expect to see in there is actually moving! Moving slowly.”

A medium-sized brown rat was struggling for air in the toilet bowl, a rat that had somehow clambered up the pipes, bringing sewage with him back up through the system. Now, with his head bobbing in and out of the dirty water, he was thrashing around, unable to claw his way out.

It’s hard not to feel a slight end-of-days vibe in New York City these days, with the temperature plunging below freezing and the trees bare and grim looking.

Huddled in winter coats with masks covering our faces, we wait for trains and buses that are delayed or cancelled because so many public transport workers have sickened. While the Omicron variant is slowing down, Covid-19 remains a powerful force, but nothing adds to the dystopian feel of the place more than the rats.

The rats are absolutely running amok. Not a day goes by when I don’t see at least one rat, and it’s usually more than one. I catch sight of them skittering across the street in front of me, leaping along the subway tracks, or snacking calmly under restaurants’ outdoor tables.

I’m not the only one. In November, The New York Times stated: “Reported rat sightings, health inspections finding evidence of rat activity and cases of a disease spread via rat urine are all up amid the pandemic.”

During the pandemic, rubbish collection and street cleaning budgets were cut, and outdoor dining picked up; these are the likely reasons for rat sightings increasing by 40% in 2021 compared to 2019.

Of course, rats are not new to the city. Every borough and neighbourhood is home to hundreds of thousands of them, some more than others. The city government hosts a rat information portal, where you can enter your zip code and see what level of rat action is happening where you live.

Of course, you could always just step outside and take a look around. My friend Jeff lives in Chinatown and has had an increasing number of unpleasant run-ins with rats on the streets there.

“I was walking down Mott St, and there were tons of rats streaming past my feet from the trash bags, and I jumped up because they were going right past me, and I landed on one.”

Disgusting, right? I wondered if the rat was OK. Jeff told me it was not OK. “I squashed it like a bug. It was disgusting and sad. I felt really bad for it.”

Rats are not a problem unique to New York City. The pandemic changed how rats found food in urban areas across the country.

In the beautiful seaside neighbourhood of Ocean Beach in San Diego, Cindy Pencek had several new rat visitors to her fruit trees in the spring of 2020.

“When the restaurants closed in nearby downtown, they came to our house. They came every night during summer to eat the fruit off the trees — we have apricots, plums, etc. They stayed in the trees, so the dogs weren’t scaring them away.”

The plot thickens: rats can climb trees? According to a fact sheet compiled by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, “Rats can climb brick walls, trees, and telephone poles, and walk across telephone lines. Rats can fall from a height of 50 feet without getting hurt. Rats can jump three feet in the air from a flat surface and leap more than four feet horizontally.”

The brightly illuminated hub of the Broadway Theatre District in Times Square, New York City, among other areas, is home to more than tourists it seems.
The brightly illuminated hub of the Broadway Theatre District in Times Square, New York City, among other areas, is home to more than tourists it seems.

They seem to be highly diligent and flexible, and, as Ms Pencek learned, they succeed at whatever they put their little minds to.

“They burrowed into the compost bin to eat as well. We eventually put metal mesh under the compost bins, traps under the house, but we couldn’t do anything to stop them from eating the fruit.”

The fact sheet bears this out: “Rats can chew through lead, cinder block, and aluminum sheeting. Rats’ teeth grow about four inches a year, and they have to gnaw on things to keep their teeth from pushing through their skulls.”

None of us want rats’ teeth to push through their skulls, do we? Of course not, but it’s probably not safe to simply make peace with their extraordinarily destructive habits.

The problem is that rats can be dangerous to humans and our pets. Direct rat attacks are rare, but they do happen.

More likely is a disease; rats can carry more than 35 harmful human diseases. They can transmit these directly by coming into contact with us or indirectly when we come into contact with ticks, mites, or fleas that have fed on an infected rat. And then there is the rat in the toilet, the one you’ve probably been wondering about.

I asked Mr Arnheiter what he did when he first found it.

“I freaked out. I thought this was a total urban legend! No way. My wife started filming and asking how she could help, but she just filmed me freaking out.”

I did not watch that video, but I did look at a photograph of the rat in their toilet to fulfil my journalistic duty. I wish I didn’t, but here we are.

In the end, Mr Arnheiter used a long pair of kitchen tongs he no longer uses for his outdoor grill to snag the rat by the tail and deposit it into a five-gallon bucket. “It was pretty exhausting and started squealing when I dropped it in the bucket. I didn’t want to release it in the yard and didn’t want to kill it. It had had a pretty rough afternoon and didn’t want to add to that, so I drove it to a cornfield and released it near a rock pile.”

A happy ending for that rat, however temporary. What will become of the rest of them is not so clear.

Mr Arnheiter called city officials who put him through to someone in the sewers office, where he asked, “This is urban legend stuff, this doesn’t happen, am I the only one this happened to?”

He told me they responded, “Oh no, not at all.”

He said it sounded like this was their 10th toilet rat that day.

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