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Critters of New York

Flaco’s Law Might Save the Next Flaco

New proposed legislation would have New York City test a less toxic method of rat control: contraceptives.

Councilmember Shaun Abreu speaks as part of a rally in support of Flaco’s Law on April 11th, 2024. (Hell Gate)

From the moment of his escape from the Central Park Zoo, the inherent tragedy of Flaco's freedom was written in the stars (the rat poison and pigeon herpes did the actual killing). But in death, will Flaco go on to help save thousands of other birds? 

That's the goal of new legislation, introduced on Thursday by Manhattan Councilmember Shaun Abreu, that would aim to have the City use rodent birth control instead of anticoagulant rodenticides. Those rodenticides ooze into the city's foodways, and kill thousands of birds each year. Another bill that's considered part of the same bird-friendly raft of legislation, now known as Flaco's Law, would force commercial buildings to turn off their lights at night, to avoid drawing in birds and having them collide with buildings. (That bill was introduced last year, but stalled out in committee; another bill regarding bird safety, at the state level, has the annoying backronym Feathered Lives Also Count, which, yikes).

Abreu's bill would mandate a six-month pilot program for rodent birth control in his district, where the City is also running its trash containerization pilot. Abreu is hopeful that his bill will at least get a hearing—he's the chair of the council's Sanitation Committee. 

"What we do know is that rodenticide is not effective and it doesn't work," he said at a press conference held next to City Hall on Thursday, hours before he was set to introduce the bill. "We can feel good by killing 100 rats—well, actually by the way, we shouldn't be feeling good about that—but it's not going to address the explosive rat population."

The birth control, in the form of small pellets, would not kill the rats, but render them sterile—and be too low a dose to have much of an effect on other, larger mammals. Unencumbered, rats can have as many as 15,000 offspring each year. 

A previous attempt at rodent birth control last year in Bryant Park was deemed a failure, but Abreu chalked that up to the fact that rats were able to feed on nearby trash, and not the contraceptive pellets. In the part of his district where the pilot would run, he pointed out, the trash is now containerized. 

Supporters of the law described giving rats contraceptives, which is already being deployed in Paris as part of a rat coexistence campaign, as a more holistic approach to dealing with the city's rats. 

"Calling for a war on rats is immature. We need to dispense with this outdated mode of thinking, and if it is a war on rats, clearly the rats are winning," said Kathy Nizzari from the Lights Out Coalition, which is pushing the bills. 

The supporters of Flaco's Law paused during the press conference to allow the graffiti artist Calicho to put the finishing touches on one of his now-ubiquitous Flaco murals. 

If the pilot program were to be successful, Abreu would introduce another bill to make the program citywide, and move to eliminate the use of rodenticide by City agencies. 

In an interview after the press conference, Abreu stood just feet away from a black rodenticide box placed alongside a bed of flowers in City Hall Park. Hell Gate asked him if, as Sanitation chair, he'd make a push to get rid of these boxes. 

"I think at parks, at a minimum," he told Hell Gate. "I would support not using them at parks, personally."

From graffiti to tattoos, to most probably one day, a statue, Flaco has left his mark on New York City. Will his death save thousands of bird lives? Or will even the most rational attempts at sensible and nontoxic rodent control fall into the maw of New York City's preference for the splaying of poison and trash in all directions? We'll soon find out if this attempt has wings. 

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