Last year, members of Columbia University’s Urban Landscape Lab aided in the launch of an interactive exhibit, known as Safari 7, exploring the interaction of architecture and natural ecosystems along the number 7 subway line. I mention this because each time I recall the exhibit or happen to travel on the 7, I remember the life teeming along that line. The tenacity of wildlife in this city never ceases to amaze me. For God’s sake, Queens has urban chickens. Trite though it may be, I sometimes stop while strolling the campus at night, to catch the faint twitch of life in the bushes. But it is only sometimes that I stop to wax poetically over the success of life springing from the concrete. And there is more than occasional life—less than beautiful life—lurking on campus. Although, from the way the University treats it, you would never know.
Unfortunately, some of the sturdiest creatures in an urban environment happen to be some of the most disgusting. These critters—mice, rats, cockroaches, pigeons, bedbugs—also happen to have the easiest access to our dorm rooms. Proud as I may be of the ability of a mouse to sneak into my building, I am never glad to find one scurrying over my foot in the middle of the night in McBain. To a certain extent, one must accept such things when living in New York, but, disturbed as I have been of late by recurrent outbreaks of mice and other critters in McBain, I have gotten to thinking about vermin at Columbia. As a result, I have come to the following conclusion: through some odd strain of luck, Columbia has become an ideal breeding ground for critters.
Inaccessible balconies and recessed or barred-off windows provide the perfect places for pigeons to build nests, often small enough to avoid detection until the birth of the young ones. This in turn, I believe, makes isolated and arboreal Columbia a favorite buffet for local falcons. With great regularity, the raptors catch smaller critters and tear them to shreds, leaving nice bits of entrails among the discarded cans of sugar water and bits of John Jay food along College Walk and other footpaths. “Good” food in ample supply brings out the rats and mice, who make a comfortable home for themselves in bushes and the tiny cracks of aging buildings spread across campus (and there is always a building in serious need of repair). It doesn’t take much for them to become permanent dorm residents—a hole the size of a quarter is enough space for a one-pound rat to squeeze through and set up shop. And not many will argue that many dorm rooms provide the perfect cramped, dirty spaces, littered with crumbs and dirty dishes, for vermin to live happily.
Once the critters are lodged in here, we have great trouble getting rid of them. Checking through old stories and lore, I have learned that the mouse infestation of McBain has been a fairly persistent problem for almost a decade now. Previous tactics for catching such pests have centered on bait and traps, but this has proven so ineffective that the University has adopted new policies, focusing on preventative measures like quick repairs to block up breeding grounds and dorm openings. For now, the mousy horde persists in McBain and elsewhere—and that’s not even to speak of the bedbugs.
The bedbug threat at Columbia is prodigious if not above the normal rate. Considering one recorded and one anecdotal story, it seems that Columbia has often avoided direct confrontation with bedbugs, favoring prolonged detection—as extermination requires the removal of all materials from a student’s room, temporary relocation for residents, and a substantial amount of time, energy, and money. By the time exterminators arrive, bedbugs have often already had the time to travel via carpets, furniture, clothes, or any of many other mediums, to rooms up and down the hallway. And, as the University has repeatedly denied hallway fumigation in the past, the pest problem persists. By way of personal anecdote, a friend grew so frustrated with the process last year that she gave up, and just began sleeping with socks on her hands to avoid bites.
So, we find ourselves in a vital breeding ground for local creepy crawlies. In part it is due to geographic destiny, in part to our own mess and ignorance, but in part to the University’s failure to respond quickly and decisively or to assist in educating students about pest control. I recognize that large changes like total building overhauls or fumigations are too horrid a logistical nightmare to fathom. I also recognize, however, that students often go far too long before recognizing that their itch is a bug bite, or that the movement in the corner of their eye a mouse. Friends and administrators, one cannot imagine the ingenuity, but also the chaos and ineptitude, when unfamiliar and undeserving victims try to take a rodent problem into their own hands. It would work wonders, I believe, if orientation could just include a short lesson on preventing and handling infestations. But I also know that no college wants “Pest Control 101” on record. Perhaps for now, it is best just to learn to cohabit with these critters.
I have named my mouse Mortimer.
Mark Hay is a Columbia College sophomore. Unusual, Unseemly, or Unnoticed runs alternate Tuesdays.