NEW YORK — 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.
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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, after just a few outings of hunting vermin.
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 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, which, in an effort to form the acronym RATS, he semiseriously calls the Ryders Alley Trencher-fed Society (Ryders Alley was once a rat-infested lane downtown, and trencher-fed refers to the keeping of hounds to hunt).
The group, which includes some members who travel 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 in 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: using their dogs to find, catch and kill rats.
“You guys can do that?” asked Chloe’s owner, Andrew Luan, 42. “I mean, you won’t get tickets? The city’s OK with that?”
In fact, it would appear that 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 Luan 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 Queens.
In the alley, Ernie’s owner said she was a veterinarian from Manhattan on her third hunt. 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, including leptospirosis, a bacterial disease that often affects animals, but the veterinarian said it was not the season for it.
Reynolds said there had been a few lacerations 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.
In Theater Alley, he said, he had a homeless tipster who repaired old computers discarded by a nearby electronics store and used the store’s Wi-Fi to go online.
“I used to bring him a turkey sandwich and a six-pack and he’d email me reports on the rats here,” Reynolds said.
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.”
“They don’t choose to go into the alley — they are sent in,” he said of the dogs, and added, “This is not an effective means of pest control because they are not getting any significant number of rats.”
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 to 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 in Queens.
“I got no prejudices, but hunting is hunting,” he said.