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Rats living large in Rittenhouse Square

Illuminated by a streetlight, a rat lurks in an opening between bushes on the northeast corner of Rittenhouse Square about 9 p.m. on Sept. 23, 2013. (Colin Kerrigan / )
Illuminated by a streetlight, a rat lurks in an opening between bushes on the northeast corner of Rittenhouse Square about 9 p.m. on Sept. 23, 2013. (Colin Kerrigan / )Read more

Since Barbara Freedman moved to the exclusive Rittenhouse Square area two years ago, she's increasingly found herself running into an unexpected neighbor at the park: Rats.

Freedman and others who live near the Center City park, or visit it, say they've been sighting the vermin more frequently in recent months. City officials acknowledge the problem and say a number of efforts have been taken to curb the square's rat population.

"I think it's horrifying," Freedman said. She said she frequently spots the critters on the northeast end of the park, near the trash cans and bushes at 18th and Walnut streets.

"I never realized that this would be in my neighborhood," she said.

Sitting in one of the city's wealthiest neighborhoods, blocks around the six-acre park contain a wide range of shops and eateries; restaurants Parc, Barclay Prime, Rouge and Smith & Wollensky border the square itself.

On a recent evening, rats could be seen more than a dozen times during an hour-long walk around the square, which is filled with benches, trees, shrubs and open grassy areas. The park, about a block and a half long on each side, is bordered by Walnut Street to the north, 18th Street to the east, South Rittenhouse Square to the south and West Rittenhouse Square to the west.

The rodents scurried around trash cans and in bushes. A pack huddled at the edge of a row of bushes leading into grass on the east end of the park, darting in and out of the shrubbery. Another pack gathered to devour food crumbs under bushes along Walnut Street.

Other rats dashed across one of the square's walkways. A man and woman picked up their pace after noticing a rat in their path; the woman exclaimed "another one!" as the rodent scampered by.

An influx of rats at the park was first noticed in late spring. Since then, the city has cleaned the ground under all 60 trash cans at the square. Trash pick-up has increased. Garbage cans now have metal liners, after vermin destroyed the existing plastic ones. Bait is being put in burrows more frequently, and officials say the dead rats are being removed and the holes closed quickly.

"I think we're making very significant strides," said Mark Focht, first deputy commissioner for the Department of Parks and Recreation. He said the city is aware of the rise in rat sightings, but couldn't say how many more rats have made the park their home, or why it's happening.

Oddly enough, the success of Rittenhouse could be part of the problem.

Rittenhouse "has historically been more problematic with rats" than other parts of the city, Focht said, in part due to the number of restaurants and dumpsters – which make it easy for rats to find food – in the area.

"Rittenhouse Square is a pretty nice place, whether you're a person or a rat," he said.

In urban areas, rats are drawn to locations with amenities like garbage cans, dumpsters and shrubs that provide meals and shelter, said Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Pest Management Association.

Henriksen said measures like regular garbage removal and trash cans with metal liners and tight-fitting lids can help control the pest population. It's also important to educate people to throw away trash instead of littering, she said.

Rat populations wax and wane. Overall, Philadelphia has experienced a recent decline in reports of rats. Between May and August, there were 1,974 reports to the city's rat-complaint hotline. That's compared with 3,243 during the same period last year, according to Health Department data. Rat complaints had been up, however, in February and March.

City data suggest North Philadelphia is the most rat-plagued neighborhood. In 2012, there were 40.33 rat complaints per 10,000 residents in the North Philadelphia city planning district, compared with 14.94 per 10,000 people in the central Philadelphia district that includes Rittenhouse. The central section's number was the seventh-highest among the 18 districts.

Data specifically for Rittenhouse Square weren't available. But city officials hope the steps they've taken will make it harder for the rats to find meals at the park.

"Trash removal and the trash can liners were done in an effort to curb their food source," Betsy Hummel, president of the Friends of Rittenhouse Square, which purchased the $8,000 worth of metal liners, wrote in an email.

Rittenhouse-area residents say they most commonly see the creatures in the early morning and evening hours, though they're increasingly sighted in daylight.

Jordan David Fennimore, an artist who has lived in Philadelphia for 16 years, including the past eight, says he's seen a marked increase in rodents at the park this summer.

"I just see copious amounts of rats," he said. He said he's also noticed a spike in the number of rat burrows in the ground at the park; another park-goer pointed out a six-inch-wide hole in the dirt at the base of a tree near the middle of the square.

"It kind of worries me," Fennimore said. "Why is there a rise in rats?"

Some Philadelphians have accepted rats in even the city's upscale areas as an inevitable annoyance.

While walking his two dogs on a recent evening in the park, Joseph Warden recalled a day where he saw four of the creatures on a single stroll and the time one of the pups picked up a rat carcass.

"I took it away from him," Warden said nonchalantly. "It had dried up."

Warden said he spots the vermin frequently.

"Cities are full of rats, unfortunately," he said.