June 29, 2020
Warning: Graphic content: Video features dogs hunting and killing rats.
If you've lived in New York City, you may not have smelled a rat, but you've definitely seen one.
Enter the Ryders Alley Trencher-Fed Society, R.A.T.S. for short. They're a group of hunting dogs and owners who have been prowling New York's alleyways for at least three decades for rodents. As a bonus, they're ridding the city of the scourge of the furry scoundrels.
"It enables us to do what we do, and we help out the community secondary to it," said R.A.T.S. member James Hoffman. "First, it's for the dogs. Second, we help out people."
Now these four-legged superheroes may be more helpful than ever. The coronavirus pandemic has forced the closure of many restaurants and community establishments that rats normally rely on for food. The CDC warned that the disappearance of their normal food source is causing rats to become bolder and more aggressive. So with approximately 2 million rats in the city, there's plenty for the R.A.T.S. team to pounce on.
Many breeds of small dogs were bred to hunt. When you see a dog shaking a toy furiously, it's actually practicing snapping the neck or back of its prey. Rat terriers, for example, instinctively kill their namesake. Yorkshire terriers were used to catch rats in mines. Dachshunds, or weiner dogs, were intended to go after badgers and other animals who live in burrows like mice and rabbits. Now, in an urban environment, they're perfect for squeezing into car engines to grab rats that may climb up there, R.A.T.S founding member Richard Reynolds points out.
"You get a breed and you take your chances," he said. "And with some breeds, the chances are much more favorable than others."
Reynolds said the first meeting of the group occurred after a New Jersey dog show was held near an open field overrun with rats. The dogs started instinctually going after the rodents.
"The park superintendent said, 'Hey can you come back here and do this?' and that started the whole thing," Reynolds recalled.
An ideal R.A.T.S. outing has eight dogs, but since the pandemic hit, they've tried to limit owners, pets, and gatherings due to the coronavirus. On a recent night, there were six dogs: two Patterdale terriers named Mighty and Coco, two Jagdterriers named Rommel and Zoey, a Norwich terrier named Laddie and a pooch named Paco. All were begging to start the hunt, which is why they mostly stay leashed. Without the leads, the dogs would zoom off in all directions.
"There's footprints on the ceiling," Reynolds, who owns Rommel and Zoey said. "They need to hunt at least twice a week."
The group hunts in a particular area until the rats get the idea and skitter away. A particular space in Manhattan's Lower East Side near the Williamsburg Bridge, however, has proven fruitful for several years.
With fewer scraps, the rodents have pushed into new territories. A few residents said the number of critters lurking in dumpsters or near their trash bags has increased considerably. Construction sites have become playgrounds. Some people point out problem areas to send the dogs.
Believe it or not, hunting rats is not illegal in New York City. But to get unfettered access to these pests would require permissions from construction sites or from residential owners to access dumpsters. So, R.A.T.S. is officially not a group, although they have no problems with people knowing they exist.
"You're not old enough to remember Mission: Impossible but the guy would go into a phone booth and the phone would ring and it said, 'This tape will self destruct in five minutes and we don't even know you,'" Reynolds explained to this reporter. "That's kind of the way we work with the city."
Some organizations like PETA have argued letting dogs violently take down these rats tortures them. Reynolds argues its more humane than glue traps or rat poison, which takes days to slowly kill the rodents.
"We're offering a very quick, not painless to be sure, but at least quick and merciful death," he said.
All the dogs can kill individually, but they sometimes work in a pack. One of the smaller dogs is sent in to flush out the rodents, and the other canines surround the area waiting to catch the rats that scatter.
It's a job some take too seriously. Laddie is sent into one caged area to flush out rats, but they scurry away too fast for any of his teammates to catch him. However, the determined pooch refuses to leave the area despite coaxing from his owner, forcing one of the members to squeeze through a narrow gap in a chainlink fence to grab him.
Despite his adorable look, Laddie is a fierce predator who loves playtime but not cuddling. Admittedly, he didn't do well on his first time out: He caught a bagel, not a rat. But he got the hang of it, and now enthusiastically dives headfirst into trash bags to get his prey.
Mighty, on the other hand, caught his first mouse at 7 months. But the 9-year-old dog may not be as driven anymore, owner Hoffman fears. He got a minor cut on his nose from a rat that got away. No dog has been seriously hurt, but they bring a full first aid kit. While Hoffman pondered retiring the dog, Mighty pounced on a giant rat and the owner changed his mind. As the dog chewed on his catch, you could hear the skull crunch.
"I take back what I said!" Hoffman excitedly yells.
It's Zoey who was the winner that night, catching a 480-gram rat. Despite her petite frame, she's surprisingly strong. If you're not paying attention she will pull free from whoever is walking her. She has a hard time letting go of her prize, even with her handler giving the "drop it" commands.
All the rats are collected by their tails and carried in a plastic bag. A sister organization to the group in Washington, DC was accused of leaving dead rats in people's doorways -- although they say they didn't -- so everyone figured it was easier to collect the carcasses and toss them in one dumpster together. They were intact for the most part, though some were missing heads.
When the dogs started to pant and lie down, the owners decided to call it a night. After about two and a half hours of hunting, only 14 rats were killed while many more ran off into the night. Hoffman lines the bodies up on the sidewalk, and the group takes their customary picture. But of course this won't be their last time out. There are plenty more rodents living their lives in New York City, and the R.A.T.S. dogs will be ready to take them out.