A generation ago, “Rat Man” cruised the streets of Rochester.
He got around in what he called his “Rat-Mobile,” a black 1974 Chevy van with a chrome bumper and a grill that looked like a livestock gate. Images of rats – live ones, dead ones – were plastered all over the exterior, and a trash can stood atop the roof.
“This is the only kind of legal garbage can, with tight-fitting cover,” read a message on the can. “Obey the law. Do not feed the rats.”
“Rat Man” was Roy Fries, a self-proclaimed “lone crusader” whose crusade was condemning public officials for not doing enough to control the rat population. He wore a green hardhat with pictures of rats – what else? – and a rat trap, a box of rat poison, and a toy mouse on a string around his neck.
These days, protestations about rats persist but are decidedly subtler.
Representatives of 30 civic organizations from across the city recently sent a letter to Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo urging the county to resurrect a rat baiting program that flourished in Fries’s day. The program largely consisted of placing rat poison in sewers.
“While rodent issues have always existed, the county’s baiting of rats kept them at a manageable level,” read the letter, on South East Area Coalition letterhead. “Since (the baiting stopped) neighbors and merchants across the city have dealt with an increase in rat population and the negative effects they bring, including damage to properties and public health issues.”
A handful of signatories interviewed by CITY said they had not personally witnessed an infestation, but had gleaned there was a growing menace from chatter about rats on social media channels focused on their respective neighborhoods.
Quantifying the number of rats in any geographic area is an impossible task.
But anecdotal evidence suggests the civic associations might be on to something with their assertion that the rat population has climbed, at least in the last year.
Monroe County fielded 480 complaints about rats or mice last year, according to county data. That figure represented a 35 percent jump over 2017, when 355 complaints were lodged. Complaints numbered 404 and 377 for 2016 and 2015, respectively.
At the same time, complaints in 2019 are trending downward. The county has received 249 complaints to date this year, and data from previous years show that complaints slow considerably in the last three months of the calendar year.
Also, Rochester fell six spots to 45 on the most recent “Top 50 Rattiest Cities” in the United States list compiled by Orkin, a pest control company with locations across the country. The company tallies commercial and residential rodent treatments it performs in each city annually.
“There’s no doubt when the presence of a rodent or a pest is detected in a neighborhood that can impact people’s quality of life,” county spokesperson Jesse Sleezer said. “But on the whole, are we seeing a major uptick in rats either in the city or other parts of the county? No. Sometimes, when neighborhoods detect an impact, they react strongly to that.”
To put the recent number of rat complaints in perspective, though, consider that the county was reportedly fielding upward of 100 complaints a month in the 1980s.
In 1976, while debating the merits of a federal rat control program, Monroe County’s health commissioner said, “I’d estimate there are as many rats in the county as there are people.”
Congress launched a robust “Urban Rat Control Program” here and elsewhere in the country in 1969. The county reportedly spent $800,000 annually suppressing rats in the early years of the program.
Most of the money came from the federal government, and paid for 30 rodent control workers.
Budget cuts reduced the county’s rat control crew to seven by the early 1980s, when the county was reportedly baiting 15,000 rat traps in sewers each year.
In their letter to Dinolfo, civic leaders wrote that the county “recently” stopped its baiting program. But the program was cut altogether in 1992.
Nowadays, county rat baiting is limited. In response to complaints, county public health officials mostly visit property owners to offer advice and educational materials.
“(The Monroe County Department of Public Health) continues to apply pesticides on a limited basis as determined to be appropriate by the departments’ trained staff,” the county wrote in response to the civic associations.
“Nothing has changed in this regard. However, property owners are responsible for controlling rodent infestations on their own property,” the response continued. “In some cases, this may require hiring a professional extermination service to mitigate the infestation.”
There was a time, though, when Rat-Man would swoop to the rescue for free. Fries died in 2006.
“Many years ago we were recipients of his help when we had large holes in our backyard where rats were nesting,” Edna Bridgewater, of Irondequoit, wrote in a letter to the Democrat and Chronicle in 1983.
“(Fries) fed the holes with bags of rat poison and we watched the bags actually disappear as the rates pulled them into the holes. We have not had any rats since,” her letter continued. “Where else can you call someone, receive a service, and pay nothing?”
David Andreatta is CITY’s editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.