Decimating the city’s rat population has been on the agenda of State Sen. Bill Perkins, D-Manhattan, for at least a decade. When former Mayor Rudy Giuliani was in office and Perkins was on the City Council, several properties in Perkins’ Harlem district that had fallen into disrepair became garbage dumps, and thus the stomping ground for rats. Today, Perkins is still fighting rats — but this time he’s taken the fight underground.
Perkins recently introduced a bill that would slap a $250 fine on any person caught eating on a subway train, platform or station. A study from Perkins’ office on rats in the subway system, called Rat Attack!, prompted the legislation, which must be approved by the Transportation Committee before it goes before the full State Senate.
MetroFocus chatted with Perkins about his proposed bill on Monday afternoon.
Q: Are people really to blame for rats in the subway system?
A: I travel all over my district on the subways and I’m a daily witness to what is happening in our public transit system. It is clear to me that there is a rapid growth of rodent infestation and a disturbing increase of people eating on the trains. The rodents don’t grow their own food, nor do they go shopping at the market. Their population is a function of the availability of food. We feed them and therefore we breed them.
Q: What’s your worst subway rat story?
A: They come out of the system and onto the platform scampering, and I wish I was exaggerating. I’ve seen rodents trying to pull a discarded piece of pizza into their little hideaway places. I saw a rat run across the body of someone sleeping on a bench. I was like, “Oh wow!” It wasn’t a bum either. I’ve seen some come out of subway grills. Recently, my Chief of Staff Cordell Cleare and I walked out of the subway at 125th Street and St. Nicholas and saw two rats run into a business!
The rodents don’t grow their food nor do they go shopping at the market.
Q: Why don’t you just prohibit people from tossing their food onto the tracks or the ground, instead of banning eating all together?
A: I don’t think everyone is purposefully dropping chicken wings, but what happens if it falls off your plate? You may not even know it. Sometimes it just happens. Some people do throw their food into the tracks contemptuously, ignorantly. They don’t have table manners. But it’s a losing battle. Clearly, we don’t need to be eating on the public transit system, especially if that has become the main source of food for the rodent population, which has been growing exponentially.
I’ve had the privilege of checking out transportation systems in other cities. In Washington, D.C., it’s as clean as a whistle. In Taiwan, too.
Q: Is banning eating on subways really the best way to get rid of rats?
A: We do need more general maintenance, but if you don’t eat, and you don’t leave food on the train or on the tracks, maintenance can focus on other aspects. And by the time a maintenance guy sees the chicken wing, the rat has already gotten to it! It’s a competition between the man and the rat.
Q: What about people who only have time to eat on the subway, when they’re traveling between jobs or to pick up kids?
A: Obviously there are emergency situations, but do you think someone is going to die from hunger by not eating on the train? We don’t want to be complicit with the rapid growth of the rat population.
Q: How will this be enforced?
A: Enforcement is always the key. We used to tell people to curb their dogs, and they never did until a law was passed by then-Assemblyman Ed Lehner: the “Pooper Scooper” law. It said if you’re caught not picking up after your dog, you’re gonna get fined. If you can pick up after your dog, you can not eat on the subway.
Q: What’s next for the legislation?
A: [MTA Chairman] Joe Lhota recognizes there is a problem. He and I spoke when he was in Albany and he said we’re going to be working together on this. We have a history. We worked together when he was working for Giuliani and I was on the City Council. Hopefully the bill will get support. I know people can learn to live with it. Once you know you can’t do something, you stop doing it.
Q: At this point, do New Yorkers really care that much about seeing rats in the subways?
A: I know cultures where they don’t abhor the rat; there are places where they worship the rat. That’s not New York and that’s not me! New York has seen a lot of tourists. One of their entertainments is watching our rats! I hope they’re not going home and saying you’ve got to go to New York and see the rats!
MetroFocus Multimedia Web Editor Georgia Kral conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed.