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‘I can’t believe this is actually a thing,’ says man offering rat tours of New York City

Kenny Bollwerk has built up a substantial following in recent years livestreaming some of the city's most rat-infested areas on TikTok. But he says he never intended to offer tours of New York City's rats.

Host of popular 'RatTok' livestream brings tourists along to see the critters — and he's not alone

A man in a safety vest crosses his arms in front of his chest. He's wearing a ballcap that says 'Rat Daddy.'

Kenny Bollwerk says he never meant to become the guy who leads rat tours of New York City.

Bollwerk — or, as he's sometimes called, "the rat guy" — has built up a substantial following in recent years livestreaming some of the city's most rat-infested areas on TikTok.

But for some curious "RatTok" fans, the videos aren't enough. So he's started taking tourists and locals along with him as he documents the critters, offering what are essentially free walking tours of New York's rat hotspots.

"I can't believe this is actually a thing," Bollwerk told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

"I think it's because of the excitement. Like, there's so many things that they've come and they've done already. They've seen the Empire State Building already. They've seen Central Park already. They want to see something different."

WATCH | Kenny Bollwerk shares videos of NYC rats on TikTok:

And he's not the only one. Luke Miller, owner of Real New York Tours, says several years ago he added a stop to his tours in Columbus Park for tourists who are curious about the resident rodents.

"There seems to be a strange fascination with rats these days," Miller told CBC in an email.

"On my tours over the years, people have always been intrigued and asked questions about the rats in NYC, but it was after a video of a rat dragging a slice of pizza down the subway stairs that went viral that I began getting more questions about where to see rats."

A man in a safety vest sports a T-shirt that with a rat silhouette in a yellow diamond that reads "RatTok." He's standing outside a food truck, posing with a man, a woman and a young girl.

He says people have been long been fascinated by — and eager to monetize — New York City's rats.

"During the mid-19th century, you had people like Kit Burns and his famous rat pit where hundreds of people gathered to gamble on how many rats a single terrier dog could kill in an allotted amount of time," Miller said.

"There are some pretty gruesome tales of humans and rats throughout NYC history."

One stop has generally been enough to sate the rat enthusiasts on his tours, he said. But since he was quoted in a New York Post article about rat tourism last week, he says rat-related requests are skyrocketing.

"I never had a specific rat tour, but since the Post article came … I'm seriously considering starting one," he said.

Rat-filled trash bags look like pumping hearts

Bollwerk says that when he moved to New York from Missouri in 2019, he was taken aback by its robust rat population. Sometimes, he says, he'll see upwards of 100 in a single spot.

"I didn't think it could be as bad as people are saying but I've gone through a couple infested spots around the city, and they're just running from underneath construction sites, going to the sidewalk where there's just trash bags laying on the sidewalk," he said.

"The bags are moving. And it's not the wind blowing the bags, it's the rats inside. It looks like a heart pumping from your chest."

About a dozen rats emerge from a construction side and cross the sidewalk in a line towards a pile of garbage bags.

He says he started filming them to draw attention to what he believes is a real problem.

"The ultimate goal when I started shooting the videos was to make sure people knew what was going on at first, and how to report the issue," he said.

Upwards of 2,000 people tune into his RatTok streams, he says. And of those, several hundred will call the city to report the rat infestation he's filming.

"The city takes that stuff more seriously when it's like 200 [complaints], but also when there's video recording of it," he said.

War on rats

The city, meanwhile, says it's making progress in its war on rats since it appointed a director of citywide rodent mitigation — a.k.a. the "rat czar" — in April.

City officials did not comment on the rat tourism phenomenon. But when asked for a statement, they directed CBC to a July press release that says New York had seen a 20 per cent decrease of calls about rat activity in the previous two months compared to last year.

A bald man in a suit and sunglasses stands at a podium outside next to a woman, also in a suit and sunglasses. Several people stand behind them.

It's a feat New York City Mayor Eric Adams — a self-proclaimed rat hater — credits to new rat-curbing measures that limit when and how long garbage can be placed outside, and mandate the use of covered bins.

"Every food scrap that we keep out of the trash and every black bag that we keep off the street is a meal that we're taking out of a hungry rodent's stomach," Adams said in the release.

Some people have accused Bollwerk of feeding the rats to lure them for his videos, like a boat tour operator chumming the waters for sharks. He denies this.

Trash bin initiatives or not, he says there's plenty for the animals to snack on without his help. Plus, he doesn't like to get too close.

He can't say the same for the folks who join him, though.

"One guy actually grabbed a tail from behind," Bollwerk said.

"Yeah, put his hand down and grabbed the tail."

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