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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Courtney Kueppers | WBEZ

Hey, New York, Chicago already has had a rat czar for years. Her name is Josie Cruz.

Josie Cruz, who heads the city of Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation’s Bureau of Rodent Control. (Photo illustration / Mendy Kong. Photos: Pat Nabong / Sun-Times, Courtney Kueppers / WBEZ, provided)

In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams made a splash by announcing he’d appointed a “rat czar” — former teacher Kathleen Corradi, the city’s first director of rodent mitigation. Well, New York, Chicago was way ahead, with Josie Cruz heading the city’s war on vermin for years.

Since she started with City Hall’s Department of Streets and Sanitation in 1998, Cruz has risen to head the Bureau of Rodent Control, in charge of the crews that respond to tens of thousands of rat-related calls every year.

The number of rodent calls to 311 mostly has remained steady since 2019, with a rise in 2021. As of April 30, Chicagoans have sent in about 11,700 rat reports this year, but the busy season is just underway.

When a call comes, teams go out, ideally within five days, contact the person who reported the problem, then look for signs of rats, like the burrows they live in. If they find evidence, they bait the area.

Responding to rat sightings is a big part of the job. But Cruz, 63, says she’s more interested in what attracted the rats.

“The rats are not there just because they want to be there,” Cruz says. “There’s a food source. And it’s important that we cut that food source out.”

That could be garbage, which can be more accessible to the creatures if garbage bins are cracked or damaged. Pet waste, bird-feeder extras, weeds and unharvested vegetables also can make an appetizing rat buffet.

If there’s one thing Cruz, who is a licensed exterminator, has learned on the job: Educating the public is a key part of prevention. Take, for example, those “don’t feed the rats” posters in alleys that proclaim, “If rats can’t feed, rats can’t breed.” Cruz’s crews also pass out brochures and knock on doors on blocks with rat problems.

Cruz says talking with people is “crucial” and that the same will be true in New York, where she was glad to see Corradi selected as rat czar.

“I’m so happy that they picked a woman,” Cruz says. “You don’t have to be a man to be out there killing rats.”

Cruz says perhaps Corradi’s appointment will inspire other women to pursue a career like hers. In a male-dominated field, Cruz has been a trailblazer. After being hired initially as a coordinator of special projects, she was promoted to general superintendent at Streets and San in 2000, the first woman to hold that title. She also was the first woman to be named deputy commissioner for sanitation, a job she had from 2013 to 2016, before getting her current role, in which she oversees about 70 employees.

Cruz says that, even after decades in the field, she still enjoys the work and brags about having great crews.

Of tackling the perennial problem of eliminating rats, Cruz says the city’s response to the problem is “on the right track.”

“I just feel like we’re moving forward,” she says, pointing to preventive measures like community outreach.

Unlike Chicago, New York doesn’t have an extensive network of alleys. That leaves people to put their trash on the sidewalks, often not in covered bins.

Cruz’s advice to Corradi? Get out and talk with people, helping them learn to do their part to “send the rats packing.”

Contributing: Amy Qin

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