An Open Letter to Rahm re: Rats

Dear Mayor Emanuel,

Recently I caught a story with the headline “Chicago Has ‘A Real Problem’ With Rats, Rahm Admits”. Like most busy people, I don’t typically read articles, but prefer to skim headlines and scan for any images that draw me in long enough to skip down to the comments section where the real action is. For example, LongtimeChi commented “…there are 50 rats in the alderman chamber… wait that is wrong there are 42 rats and rest are cockroaches. Send in the exterminators!!!!” Ouch!

At first I was offended by the photo that juxtaposed your face next to the face of a dirty rat. I know you’ve had some challenges with your public perception as of late, but to me this comparison was in poor taste. In my view, you are certainly no rat. You’re a human being with feelings, and those feelings should be respected.

You may not remember, but I had the pleasure of meeting you when I worked the front desk at a yoga studio in the River North neighborhood of Chicago. You were clearly there for a private session, not to mix with the locals. I was so surprised to see you standing in front of me in shorts and a sweaty t-shirt that I blurted out something like “Oh, it’s you!”. And you in turn pursed your lips and shook your head as if to say “Make a scene and I will destroy you”. Feelings respected, scene avoided. No problemo. Namaste.

But back to the rats. I commend you for not only acknowledging our city’s rat epidemic, but also offering some possible solutions. Eliminating pet waste: brilliant! I, for one, am sick and tired of all that doggie doo piled up on our city sidewalks. It’s time that all Chicagoans (those who have dogs at least) take responsibility and pick up that doo. Granted, I have never seen a rat feasting on doo, but then again I’m not the mayor. You are! And if anyone knows about the excrement habits of vermin, it must be you.

There are some yahoos out there who would argue that rats are more attracted to everything else that a city such as ours has to offer: crumbling infrastructure, food waste littering the alleys, and a lack of natural predators to prey on rodents. Some teachers even claim that the fifty public schools you closed last year are now serving as de facto rat condos. Laughable, isn’t it? These naysayers are probably dog owners trying to shift the blame from themselves to a more complex set of interwoven issues, all to make them feel less guilty for leaving poop lying around. One such group has even gone so far as to recommend that feral cats be introduced into a neighborhood to virtually eliminate rats, without the use of toxic poison or the need for carcass removal.

Well, I don’t have to be the mayor to see what this will lead to: a feral cat epidemic! Instead of greasy, disease-ridden rats, we’ll be tripping over fluffy, playful felines. The little furballs will undoubtedly become so populated that we’ll have to introduce another species to prey on THEM. Dogs won’t work, because apparently they are already plenty well fed – a fact you’ve clearly established. If only there was something dog-like, but hungrier, and really good at catching cats.

Of course! Coyotes! According to some studies, there are more than 2,000 “uber-urban” coyotes lurking the streets of Chicago, many of them not far from your downtown office. Never mind the fact that these highly territorial carnivores have been forced to find refuge in the city center due to the rapid destruction of their natural habitat in the suburbs surrounding us. Everyone knows that a crumbling, crime-ridden inner city needs gleaming suburbs to which upwardly-mobile people may flee. Without the quality schools of the suburbs, we’d have nothing to compare our failing schools to (other than national data). And without the lure of the suburbs, you would have little reason to continue throwing millions of tax dollars at new interstate construction (the same interstates that keep getting blocked by pesky protestors. Probably all dog owners).

And if we’re drinking the coyote Kool-aid we might as well be prepared for when their numbers get out of hand too. Why not consider mountain lions as a way to curb the exploding coyote population? I’m sure you saw the NBC story that reported “Since 2002, four mountain lions have been killed in Illinois, including one who was shot in an alley in the Roscoe Village neighborhood in 2008. In all four cases… all of them were teenage males.” Oops, sorry. Shooting teenage males on the streets of Chicago is probably the last thing you want to think about right now.

Obviously I’ve fallen into the Wild Kingdom wormhole to make a point. But while we’re here let’s consider what changes our city would have to make to accommodate such a food chain. Let’s see, we’d need strategically placed nature-spaces that incorporate an array of habitats. These spaces would need to be dispersed throughout the city so as to be easily accessible by all creatures. The real kicker is that we would need a sustained PR campaign to teach tolerance and understanding so that people don’t go all vigilante and start hunting mountain lions. It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to seriously regulate the firearms that folks would use for such a hunt. Heck, while we’re at it we could even tackle the systemic socioeconomic failures and institutionalized racism that make people feel so darn threatened in the first place.

In essence, we’d have to start behaving more like rats. According to some eggheaded scientists, the rodents have “biological roots of empathically motivated helping behavior.” Maybe that’s why they are doing so well despite our best efforts to eradicate them.

Or maybe it all comes down to dog poop. Mr. Mayor, I think you know who’s got your back on this one.

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