By FRANCIS X. CLINES
Published: August 1, 2011
What would John James Audubon do? The naturalist who shot birds before he painted them ended his days, 160 years ago, studying and shooting rats in New York City, vowing “not to expose the inhabitants in the vicinity to danger.” This city’s rats continue to flourish, with particular enthusiasm at Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, where they can be seen scuttling nonchalantly near the children’s swings and inside the sandbox.
Videotaped highlights by alarmed parents and TV news crews feature one determined rodent hauling a ripe red tomato to his rat hole, while others dart in and out of gaping nest holes massed like prairie dog villages along the park garden strips.
There’s a dilemma at the heart of the brazen traffic because a red-tailed hawk lives in the park. By city policy, it must be protected, so no poison can be laid for rats that the hawk might eat. The raptor occasionally scoops up a rat for a meal but hardly at a rate to daunt the packs.
New Yorkers are their own study in nonchalance, passing the daily wait for the subway by idly eyeing rats darting in the track troughs. But the scene at Tompkins Square has put a dark Hieronymus Bosch edge to that coexistence. Alternative controls are being promised, mainly stronger waste bins in the park and, possibly, toxic measures whenever the hawk’s travel season arrives.
The overriding fact is rats thrive on human garbage. Special pleas are being extended to park humans to stop feeding pigeons and, even more, cease carelessly discarding food wastes all about. There’ll never be enough hawks to take up the slack from slovenly humans. Audubon depicted his red-tailed hawk soaring imperiously, clutching a bloodied prey. But it was a rabbit, not one of the hearty Norway brown rats scurrying across the good life in New York. FRANCIS X. CLINES