The place: a modest house at the end of a narrow street in Culver City, Calif. The problem: The house’s owner had been feeding bread to a population of rats, which had moved into her kitchen and living room and then into the ceilings, where they had begun encroaching on the neighboring tenants from above. The diagnosis: “Unbelievable,” said Dave Schuelke, a buff and ruddy-faced exterminator who is one-half of the pest control and home repair company Twin Home Experts. “I’ve never seen this before.”
Mr. Schuelke was speaking breathlessly to a camera that he had trained on himself. He was alone behind the house, but his intended audience was the nearly 250,000 subscribers of the Twin Home Experts YouTube channel, where he and his identical twin brother, Jim, post videos of themselves on the job. Nine years ago they began uploading videos about general home repair, with titles like “How to Unclog a Toilet Without a Plunger” and “How to Find a Sewer Odor,” but, more than 70 million views later, their content has skewed toward rats. “Attic Rats! We Smoked Them Out” is one recent title. Also, “Destroying Fat Rats in Washington, D.C.” And “Rat Trapping in Mexico City, We Baited With Churros.”
“People want to see that type of gory-looking stuff,” Dave Schuelke said, setting down the camera. “People want to see the action.”
View counts are directly related to whether a video’s thumbnail shows some sort of tool — a screwdriver, or a Sawzall, or a bulked-up trap — pointing at a rat. The thumbnail of the Schuelkes’ most popular video, with over five million views, features an airsoft gun pointed at a rat nest.
Eric Adams, the mayor of New York City, that ignominious ratropolis, has also been playing on this morbid fascination with the midsize rodents. Since the beginning of his term in 2022, Mayor Adams has been vocal about his fear and hatred of rats and about his drive to kill them. In November, his office posted a job listing for a rat czar; whoever took the job, the listing noted, had to be “somewhat bloodthirsty.” Deployed as a lighthearted rallying point amid other, more charged policies, the anti-rat agenda has been covered extensively by media outlets. “We’re making it clear that rats do not run this city,” Mayor Adams said in a news conference last year.
Reasons for controlling the urban rat population are abundant: The animals can spread diseases to humans, destroy property and damage native ecosystems. But rats are also cognitively advanced social animals, and questions about how to effectively control them can raise tricky ethical questions. Glue traps will leave rats starving, for days, before dying. Poison leads to a slow, painful death and can endanger other wildlife. Standard wooden snap traps often catch limbs or tails, forcing rats to gnaw them off in desperation. Live-catch traps are difficult to implement, and when many rats are stuck in the same place together without food, they sometimes eat one another.
Even if rats are extracted from an urban environment, what do you do with them? Release them into the woods, where they can damage existing ecosystems? Keep them as pets? Rats are reviled but resilient, dangerous but inculpable. “Right away, you end up in a very uncomfortable position,” said Robert Corrigan, a New York City rodentologist who has studied urban rats for decades. “There’s no way to get out.”
Where the Wild Rat Traps Are
The Schuelke brothers, along with a handful of employees, had been moving around the house in Culver City for about three hours, looking for rat nests and openings through which the animals could squeeze. The twins’ strategy was to close off every rat entry and exit point and lay traps around the house as the animals grew hungrier and more desperate.
But the whole place was compromised. Holes in the roof, the walls, the floors. The house’s owner, an 82-year-old woman named Ann Chung, said that she could hear rats underneath her at night. She expressed a kind of fondness for the animals — she was feeding them twice a day — and mentioned that, in some countries, there are temples dedicated to rats. (For instance, the Karni Mata Temple in India.) But they were now shredding her collections of newspapers, books and clothes and staining her carpets twice over with urine and grease. “I am defeated in life, in everything now, because of these rats,” Ms. Chung said.
There are more than 4,400 mousetrap patents in the United States, but it is difficult to find designs specifically for catching rats — most are just bigger mousetraps. Rat infestations are also often more of an industrial undertaking than mouse infestations are, less of a do-it-yourself project and more of a job for professional exterminators, who are better at reusing traps. Partly because of this, Woodstream, the country’s largest rat and mousetrap manufacturer, sells some 60 million mousetraps a year and nine million rat traps, according to Miguel Nistal, the company’s president and chief executive. Most of these are the classic wooden spring-loaded snap trap, which Woodstream sells under the brand name Victor.
Mr. Nistal said that the main complaint he gets about his rat traps is simply that they don’t kill rats. Mice are relatively uncomplicated pests; they go for whatever food source is available and, because they’re small, are easy to dispatch. But Mr. Nistal said that, according to his company’s research, only about 65 percent of the rats that trigger snap traps die. They will wriggle free or outsmart the trap, swiping the bait out safely. Rats are also wary of new things, like traps. “When you and I are gone, and there’s nothing else on earth, there will be roaches and rats,” Mr. Nistal said.