Why so many cars have rats now
For eight years, Libby Denault had taken her Prius to the same body shop in Brooklyn for tune-ups and other repairs, which she always handled promptly.
But in January 2021, the mechanics at Urban Classics Auto Repair in Bedford-Stuyvesant are perplexed: the message “check engine” continues to flash on the dashboard of Ms. Denault’s car, even though the vehicle is driving very well. “They did a bunch of tests and couldn’t figure out what it was,” she said.
Finally, they found the source: a rat. He had gnawed on a sensor wire. She ended up with a $700 bill.
Rats crawling under car hoods is nothing new to New Yorkers, but over the past couple of years many body shops across the city have seen the number of drivers showing up with related issues. to rodents increase significantly. Of 28 mechanics interviewed citywide for this article, 20 of them reported an increase in vermin in cars, and of those, 10 said the number of such appearances had doubled during the pandemic.
“I see new cars, old cars, everyone coming in now with these rat issues,” said Ozzy Dayan, mechanic at Manhattan Auto Repair in Hell’s Kitchen. “It brings me a lot of business, but it’s disgusting.”
The recent Covid trend of New Yorkers buying cars may be partly to blame. Between the summers of 2019 and 2021, new car registrations increased by 19%, according to data provided by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles.
And more cars mean more nesting opportunities for rats.
Brooklyn design strategist Jenna Carpenter-Moyes bought a used car in May 2020 to get around the city during the pandemic. That summer, while driving through the Hudson Valley, she noticed her engine straining as she climbed a hill.
“The ‘check engine’ light came on and I took it to my mechanic, who opened the hood and found chicken bones, bread and part of a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich sitting there,” Ms Carpenter-Moyes said. She paid $1,200 to fix and clean the car, but the battle to keep rats from picnicking under its hood is now constant, she said. “I consume a lot of peppermint oil.”
During the pandemic, rat sightings have also increased (or at least more New Yorkers have complained about it). Between 2020 and 2021, the number of calls to the 311 hotline increased by more than 8,000, according to NYC Open Data. Michael H. Parsons, a Fordham University researcher and urban rat expert, is the co-author of a 2020 study on increase in phone calls about rodents. “When things started to shut down, the rats lost access to their usual food sources,” he said.
Like other New Yorkers, the Rats had to improvise and adapt.
“Rats can adapt very quickly to changes in human behavior,” said Jason Munshi-South, a Fordham biology professor who conducted research with Dr Parsons. “So when the pandemic changed our behavior, it also impacted rats.” Rats that generally stayed close to their food sources began to take more risks, such as making cheeky midday runs to piles of garbage bags and other potential meals and hangouts.
But recently, while human behavior has returned to something approaching normalcy, rats haven’t returned to their old ways; they simply expanded their tactics. As they continue to dig through the trash and run away with it pizza slicesthey may also exhibit a higher frequency of rare and unusual behaviors, such as attacking and feasting on other urban animals like pigeons and even other rats, said Dr. Parsons.
Laura Cali, an archivist in Park Slope, Brooklyn, found evidence of rats in her car last February. “I was just disgusted, because I didn’t really understand how and why they would do this,” she said. “Then I learned that they were looking for heat and going under the hood if you had just parked. It’s really disgusting to go back to your car and wonder if there’s going to be a family of rats under your hood every time you start your car.
The proliferation of outdoor dining sheds and new soy-based insulation for automotive wiring — essentially catnip for rodents, Dr Parsons said — are other possible causes for the growing number of rats eating in vehicles, according to some researchers and mechanics.
Charlie Salino, a mechanic at Parkside Auto Care in Park Slope, said his customers often know when a rat has rooted around the engine because of obvious signs like droppings. But determining the extent of the damage requires an investigation. “Rats can fit into spaces that we can’t get to without dismantling engine parts,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a quick fix that I can do in an hour and sometimes it costs $1,000 to fix all the damage. You don’t really know until you get into it.
Dr Parsons said the increased activity of rats, in cars and everywhere else, is a symptom of wider social issues. “Our habits determine the number of rats in our area.” he said. “All those aromas coming from garbage bags, litter and crumbs – that’s enough to get the ball rolling.”
“It’s about social urban hygiene,” Dr Parsons continued. “We need to change the way we think about how we take care of our neighborhoods, and we can get rid of the rats.”
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