NY dogs chasing rats in urban hunts

The New York TimesNovember 27, 2013 

It was well after nightfall. The pack of dogs was split into two groups and was led to opposite ends of a desolate alley in downtown Manhattan.

A man collecting recyclable cans from the trash slipped out just before the owners unleashed the dogs.

The rat hunt was on.

The dogs raced toward a pile of trash bags in the middle of the alley, with the smaller dogs combing through the bags and chasing rats out toward the larger dogs.

Ernie, a 3-year-old hunt terrier, snapped up a fleeing rat in his jaws and gave him a hard shake. The rat quickly went limp. Ernie’s owner rejoiced over the kill – it was Ernie’s first.

This was another occasional outing for a group of dog owners who take their pets to downtown Manhattan to kill rats.

The hunts are conducted something like a country fox hunt but in an urban setting. Members say it allows their dogs – mostly breeds known for chasing small game and vermin – to indulge in basic instinctual drives by killing a dozen or two dozen rats each time they are let loose.

“We don’t make a huge difference in the rat population, but the dogs have a lot of fun,” said Richard Reynolds, a main organizer of the group RATS, which stands for Ryders Alley Trencher-fed Society (Ryders Alley once was a rat-infested lane downtown, and trencher-fed refers to the keeping of hounds to hunt). The group, which includes some members from the suburbs, has been meeting for 15 years, mostly in downtown Manhattan in areas where trash is abundant.

“We love garbage – if there’s food around, there are rats,” said Reynolds, a dog breeder from Tenafly, N.J.

Just before the recent alley hunt, the group had met at City Hall Park, with the energetic little dogs straining their leashes toward the bushes and assuming pointing positions. A local resident who was walking his 12-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Chloe, stopped to chat, and was incredulous when told what the group was doing.

It would appear the rat hunters are not violating any laws or health codes, and the plight of rats, at least those living on and below New York’s streets, does not generate the same level of passion as the plight of, say, the city’s carriage horses.

“The city loves us,” claimed Reynolds, casting his group as a free extermination force. He was wearing a tweed cap and gripping a spike-tipped walking stick, for poking garbage bags and for protection from the rodents.

Soon the hunting group entered the alley – Theater Alley, a deserted narrow lane – and they invited Chloe’s owner, Andrew Luan, 42, to come. He accepted.

“Looks like we got a new member,” said Jimmy Hoffman, 37, who held Mighty, his 3-year-old Patterdale terrier, on a leash.

“Hopefully you’ll get some food tonight, huh Mighty?” said Hoffman, of Bellerose, Queens.

In the alley, Ernie’s owner said she was a veterinarian from Manhattan on her third hunt, and she asked that her name not be published because “it wouldn’t go over well with some of my clients.”

“Once he got a taste for it, he has not stopped looking” for rats, she said, adding the hunt “provides mental stimulation” for the dogs.

“They are using their brain,” she said. “It’s in their nature, it’s what they want to do, but in the city, it’s hard for them to do it.”

Hunting rats does pose risks, since they are known to carry diseases.

Reynolds said there had been a few cuts to the dogs from rat bites and other mishaps but nothing serious. Still, he said, he carries “a traveling field hospital” in his truck just in case, and a staple gun in his pocket to mend wounds.

The group sometimes gets tips from homeless people or police officers, Reynolds said. In fact, he said, some officers have gone from initially being suspicious of what they were doing to suggesting rat locations and wishing them luck.

Still, not everyone supports the rat hunts. Brian Shapiro, the New York State director for the Humane Society of the United States, said there were numerous cases of dogs biting rats and ingesting poison consumed by the rat.

This type of activity exposes dogs to the “likelihood of eventual toxic exposure,” he said, adding, “The more times the owners send them out, they are repeatedly exposing them to that risk – it’s not good guardianship for a dog.”

As for the rats, he said, “You want to address them in a manner that causes the least amount of suffering.”

A spokeswoman for the New York City Police Department said there was no information available on the legality of using dogs to hunt rats in the city.

Reynolds said he hated animal cruelty, but he argued that no harm had ever come to any of the dogs, and added that rat poison causes a slow, painful death, compared with a quick death in a dog’s jaws.

Hoffman, a veterinary technician, said he was not insensitive to the plight of the rat; in fact, he treats pet rats in his work as a veterinary technician in Queens.

“I got no prejudices, but hunting is hunting,” he said.

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