NEW YORK -- Life in the big city is a rat race, and it looks as if the rats are winning.
City health officials believe there are several times as many rats in New York City as people -- and the human population of the Big Apple is slightly more than 7 million, according to the 1990 U.S. Census.
"There's no official rat census," said Pamela Miller, a deputy health commissioner. "The estimates are anywhere from one rat per person to 10 rats per person. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle."
That would make New York's rat problem considerably worse than that in most other large cities, which generally operate under the assumption that they have one rat for each human, health officials said.
Many denizens of the nation's most congested city complain that, whatever their numbers, the rodents seem to be getting bolder. Rats have been spotted pushing their way past people on sidewalks, enjoying a warm day in Central Park, even going through subway turnstiles (without purchasing a $1.15 token).
To judge by their hangouts, some may have become yuppies.
"I was sitting in the Ziegfeld Theater, one of the finest in the city, when I saw a rat," said Floydetta McAfee, president of New Angle Communications, a public relations firm. "I was sitting there eating my popcorn and I saw this rat run up the stairs. I had to watch the rest of the movie with my feet up."
Ms. Miller predicted that the health department will receive 13,000 telephone complaints of all types this year, up from about 10,000 last year. Assuming that the pattern of the past three decades holds true, she said, 25 percent to 30 percent of the complaints will be about rats.
"People are saying that they have actually seen more rats," she said.
Nevertheless, complaints of rat bites are running about the same as last year, when 259 cases were reported. Rats are unsanitary and often are carriers of diseases.
Estimates of the number of rats living in New York are mainly speculative. The figures are derived by examining buildings to see whether there are enough garbage cans to serve its tenants, looking at the number of open spaces in a building, observing the visible signs that rats have been around and looking at the amount of garbage left exposed. Generally, the more garbage left out, the more rats. The homeless rifle through trash, leaving it scattered.
Budget problems have hindered the war on rats. Garbage collection has been reduced, and the Pest Control Division's budget has been cut to $5.7 million, about $3 million less than last year.
There is also the problem of what inspectors call "air mail" garbage.
"That means those who live on the upper floors in a walk-up throw their garbage bags out of the window into back alleyways," said E. Randy Dupree, an assistant health commissioner and former director of the city's pest control program. "They either don't feel like taking it down to the basement or sidewalk, or they are afraid of crime."
Mr. Dupree said rats in New York have adapted well to life in the big city. "We have what we call domestic rats. They have learned to live side by side with man. They have learned to eat the same food man eats, they have learned to live in the same house, and they've adjusted to the behavior and habits of man. It's difficult to get rid of them."
The most common rat in New York is what is called the Norway rat, which weighs about a pound and is 16 to 18 inches long.
"You're talking about a formidable enemy," said Mr. Dupree, who teaches private exterminators how to combat rodents. "People take him for granted, but he is a survivor. He's giving most programs throughout the country a fit, in terms of being able to control him."
Mr. Dupree said he questions, but is not surprised by, recent news reports that some New York rats have grown to be as large as cats.
"People, when they see rats, always tend to exaggerate," he said. "That's understandable because most people are afraid of them."
Officials at the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta said New York has one of the best rat control programs in the nation. Other cities frequently turn to officials here for advice.
"I remember going to Chicago to help them with their rat problem," Mr. Dupree said. "They had one of the worst rat problems in terms of what we call the 'super rats' -- those able to eat the poison and still survive.
"I remember having to go around with the workers and having to use gas to kill off resistant rats."
To avoid rats' building up resistance to certain chemicals designed to kill them, Mr. Dupree said, health officials should rotate pesticides.
But even the best pesticides apparently haven't reduced the rat population in New York.
Especially in the subways. "The rats we're talking about use the subway tunnels and sewer system to get from one place to another," Mr. Dupree said. "That's their highway."