New York City is full of peculiar phenomena—rickety fire escapes; 100-year-old subway tunnels; air conditioners propped perilously into window frames—that can strike fear into the heart of even the toughest city denizen. But should they? Every month, we’ll be exploring—and debunking—these New York-specific fears, letting you know what you should actually worry about, and what anxieties you can simply let slip away.
Earlier this year, a baby rat emerged in the bathroom sink of a Brooklyn resident named Bari Finkel, and, subsequently, in the nightmares of everybody who read about it on the internet. Finkel’s boyfriend covered the rat with a plastic bag, but, as she explained to Gothamist, it “escaped back down the drain when we lifted the bag for pics.”
So yes, it is now established fact that rats can make their way into your apartment via the plumbing—but how often does it actually happen? And how terrified do we need to be of this phenomenon: regular terrified, or lying-awake-at-night-covered-in-a-sheen-of-sweat terrified?
According to John McGowan, owner of Brooklyn-based Bugged Out Pest Management, incidents of rodents coming through the pipes occur “very seldomly.”
“You get that quirky call once a year—that somebody has seen a rat in their bathroom,” says McGowan, who has been in the pest control business for ten years. “It’s pretty rare. I haven’t had an incident like that in about two years.”
If rats do emerge from the plumbing, McGowan said, it’s likely the result of an uncapped pipe somewhere in the apartment—a fixable problem, but not something that tenants are likely to be aware of in the first place.
Ultimately, the only thing saving us from frequent pipe rat sightings may the rats themselves. As explained in this thoroughly disgusting National Geographic article, rats are strong, agile, and flexible enough to get through pretty much any opening that exists—an adult rat can squeeze through a hole that’s less than an inch in diameter and tread water for three days.
However, pipes are not their preferred means of ingress. “Rodents like to stay away from humans, and yet [get] close enough to gain access to food,” McGowan explains. In addition, the Norway rats that make up most of New York City’s rat population like to stay underground. Shimmying up through a water pipe would likely be something of a last resort for a particularly hungry rodent.
As for the one true nightmare scenario, McGowan has seen it only once in his decade-long career.
“When I first started pest control there was a building that I used to exterminate on Central Park West,” he explains. (He later identified the building as 101 Central Park West, a ritzy Schwartz & Gross-designed Prewar co-op building where Harrison Ford once owned a duplex.) “And there was a handyman in there. He went to use the bathroom inside the basement area and a mouse came up and bit his butt. He went to the hospital for it and everything.”
That’s right—not only can rodents swim up into your toilet and bite your butt, they can do it in the city’s fanciest and most expensive buildings. But Ford, who lived on the 14th and 15th floors, was likely never in much danger. As McGowan points out, “every rodent situation starts from the bottom and works its way up,” just like so many of us in New York City. (Finkel’s apartment, it is worth noting, was located on the ground floor.)
If you do find yourself afflicted by this or similar rodent problems, the solution is pretty simple and straightforward: call an exterminator. If the exterminator is able to determine that the rodents are coming through a water main pipe, you’ll have to bring in a plumber as well, to figure out where there’s an opening that needs to be sealed off.
Beyond that, maybe avoid using toilets located in basements if at all possible. And don’t think you’re safe just because the cheapest open listing in your building is asking $7.2 million. “Nobody’s different when it comes to a rodent issue,” McGowan says. “They attack everywhere.”
Got a weird New York anxiety that you want explored? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, and we may include it in a future column.