LEVITTOWN, NY — Nassau County Legislator John R. Ferretti Jr. has heard enough. Since the summer, his office has taken calls, sometimes as many as a half-dozen a week, from residents relating a familiar tale: Rats are running rampant through their neighborhoods.
Some stories sound like they're straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock film.
"These rodents are terrorizing people," Ferretti told Patch in a phone interview Tuesday. "I hear stories of people sitting in their backyards and six or seven rats are running through their feet as they're sitting in their yard eating with their family. It's a real issue."
Ferretti said the entire county has a rat problem, particularly in Levittown and Plainview. Increased sightings are common where there's new construction — rats will flee when their nests are disturbed.
Nassau County's Health Department has also told Ferretti the coronavirus pandemic could be having an effect.
"Rats live somewhere. They eat somewhere ... dumpsters ... that's where they live," he said. "When restaurants and schools and all these places that generally have dumpsters where rats go are not throwing out garbage, the rats need to find some other food source. And so, they're in our residential communities. They're looking for food."
Lisa Salerno-DeVito, of Levittown, told Patch in a Facebook message the rat problem is "out of control" in her neighborhood.
"We have closed up holes, put poison etc. You name it, we’ve done it," she said.
She and her neighbor worked together and caught 29 rats in just a month, Salerno-DeVito said. That includes five dead rodents found in a single morning.
"And we still have them digging in our yards," Salerno-DeVito said.
Health department personnel visited and gave tips; they advised them not to use snap traps.
In July, Nassau County health officials confirmed a Plainview neighborhood was infested with rodents. Department of Health inspectors visited the area where a homeowner reported seeing rats.
MaryEllen Laurain, a spokeswoman for the county health department, told WABC-TV at the time that inspectors talked with the homeowner about steps to keep rats away.
"Nassau County does not provide extermination services," she said. "The Department of Health does provide education and guidance to homeowners on eliminating conditions that attract rodents."
Rats and mice spread more than 35 diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These diseases can be spread to people directly, through handling rodents, contact with feces and urine, and even through bites. Rodents can also spread diseases indirectly, through ticks, mites and fleas that fed on an infected rodent.
Now is the time to take on the county's rat problem, Ferretti said, particularly given the public health crisis created by the coronavirus pandemic. He's proposed reallocating $450,000 in the county budget — a move that he emphasized will not increase taxes — to do just that.
Ferretti envisions restoring the county's extermination plan, cut years ago, to solve the issue.
"We have to act. We have to be proactive here," he said.
Currently, the county health department offers residents tips on eliminating food sources to prevent a rat intrusion. But the animals feed on more than just leftover garbage: They eat bird seed, dog feces, grease from outdoor barbecues — all things residents keep in their backyards. A lax neighbor could attract the animals to neighboring properties.
"So the problem is, in places like Levittown, we all live on 60-by-100-foot lots. We're pretty close to our neighbors. And so, if you have a neighbor that's not cleaning up after their dog in their backyard, you got an issue," he said.
Ferretti added: "The Department of Health can go out 100 times to that one property owner, but they're not going to be able to identify the food source because it's on their neighbor's property."
Ferretti's anti-rat funding amendment to the budget will go up for a vote Thursday. He's confident it will pass in the Legislature, and hopes Nassau County Executive Laura Curran will sign off on the change. Ferretti has even created a petition, posted on the lawmaker's website, urging Curran to authorize the extermination amendment.
He's waiting to put together a specific plan on how to use the money, but hopes to implement a similar concept to the previous program, where either county workers will be able to set traps or they'll be able to hire exterminators.
According to the health department's website, there may be "just as many rats in the suburbs" as in cities.
"It is just easier to see them in the city because there are fewer places to hide," health officials said. "Rats like our yards with places to hide, places to build their burrows, and a lot of food."
While rats are skilled swimmers — they can swim more than a half-mile if necessary — rats cannot come into Nassau County through the sewers.
"We have a closed sewer system that does not have any open places for them to enter the sewer system," health officials said.
Rats can also be active any time of the day. The rodents do not see well and prefer areas that are quiet and dark. But they're active at other times of day too, more so if there are safe areas for them to run.
The county also offered advice for those seeing the rodents for the first time.
"Rats travel throughout the county," the health department said. "There may have been rats living in yards near you. When rats set up a home in an area, they may be seen in two or three yards, but a neighbor four, or five homes away would not know there are rats in the area. Having rats doesn't mean someone has a 'dirty' yard. Rats simply find a good source of food, look for shelter, and build their homes. Once rats are exterminated, if their food and shelter is removed, it is likely you will not see them for another 7 (or 15, or 30) years."
Sometimes, rats are just passing through.
Residents can hire an exterminator or call the health department for more information on tips to get rid of them.