Subway rat wars: NYC transit system to try sterilization

New York City is teaming up with an Arizona pest-management company to try to sterilize female rats in the city's subway system so they can't multiply.

In a never-ending war against rodents that infiltrate New York City's subway stations, transit officials are unveiling a new weapon: birth control.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, working with SenesTech Inc. of Flagstaff, Ariz., hopes to sterilize the rats so they can't reproduce.

Under a pilot program that's slated to get under way soon, bait boxes containing a sterilizing formula called ContraPest will be placed inside some locked subway platform trash rooms. Rats that eat the bait will become infertile within days, if all goes according to plan.

“Here in New York, rats have such a buffet available to them,” SenesTech CEO Loretta Mayer told Businessweek.com, “but they don’t necessarily get a lot of liquid, which is why we’ll be offering them … a semi-solid covered in kind of a cheese wax and also liquid from a bottle feeder — they’ll have a bite to eat and a glass of wine, you know?”

SenesTech, whose tagline is "humane animal population management," says it has successfully used its sterilization technique in Southwest Asia to control rat populations that were devastating rice crops.

MTA spokesman Charles Seaton told MSN News on Monday that rat population studies are being done and research is being conducted to determine what bait base compositions will attract the rodents over the competing food supplies they find in ordinary trash.

"After that is determined the field study with active bait would be initiated in four selected subway station trash rooms. The field study is expected to take about three to four months once initiated," Seaton said in an email.

No rats will be tagged, but officials will use footprint tracking plates and counting technology in feeding boxes to see if the sterilization plan works.

Past techniques used by transit officials — poison, deadly traps and removing trash cans from a small number of stations — haven't yielded much long-term success because rat populations quickly rebound. City rats, also known as Norway rats, are resilient creatures that can have as many as 12 pups a litter and as many as seven litters a year, transit officials told The New York Times.

No one knows exactly how many rats lurk in the city's subway tunnels  — estimates go well into the millions.

"Rats in the subways are not believed to be the largest rat populations in NYC," Seaton said. "City sewers would be the place where the rat populations are potentially higher than the subways … and parks are also very good habitats for rodents."

But the subterranean infestation was deemed enough of a problem that Transport Workers Union Local 100, the city's largest transit union, last year held a photo contest for the "nastiest" shot of a rodent. The grand prize was a $500 electronics store gift certificate and a one-month free transit pass. (The winning photo can be seen here.)

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