Tag-Team Battle: Rats and Bureaucrats vs. Cats and Entrepreneurs

Tens of millions of Americans have cats in their homes, notwithstanding the possibility that some cat hair may get in their food. Bureaucrats in New York City, however, want to save consumers from this horrifying possiblity, so they fine store owners who keep cats on their premises. But the Grinches at the Health Department fail to realize that the cats are the most effective way of controlling rodents. This creates a no-win situation for entrepreneurs. They can keep a cat in the store and risk getting fined, or they can go without a cat and get fined for rodent infestation. The New York Times reports:

Amid the goods found in the stores, there is one thing that many owners and employees say they cannot do without: their cats. And it goes beyond cuddly companionship. These cats are workers, tireless and enthusiastic hunters of unwanted vermin, and they typically do a far better job than exterminators and poisons. When a bodega cat is on the prowl, workers say, rats and mice vanish. … But as efficient as the cats may be, their presence in stores can lead to legal trouble. The city’s health code and state law forbid animals in places where food or beverages are sold for human consumption. Fines range from $300 for a first offense to $2,000 or higher for subsequent offenses. … Still, many store owners keep cats despite the law, mainly because other options have failed and the fine for rodent feces is also $300. “It’s hard for bodega owners because they’re not supposed to have a cat, but they’re also not supposed to have rats,” said José Fernández, the president of the Bodega Association of the United States.

To understand what this really means, the article tells the story of Mr. Martinez, who is trying to earn a living while dealing with the mindless bureaucracy:

…last winter, a friend brought Mr. Martinez a marmalade kitten in need of a home. Mr. Martinez, who was skeptical of how one slinky kitten could fend off an army of hungry rats, set up a litter box in the back of the store, put down an old fleece jacket and named the kitten Junior. Within two weeks, Mr. Martinez said, “a miracle.” “Before you’d see giant rats running in off the streets into the store, but since Junior, no more,” he said. Junior sometimes brings Mr. Martinez mouse carcasses as gifts, which he said bothers him less than the smell that permeates his store when the exterminator’s victims die and rot under a freezer. In October, a health inspector fined Mr. Martinez $300 and warned him that if Junior was still there by the time of the next inspection he would be fined $2,000. “He wants me to get rid of the cat, but the rats will take over if I do,” Mr. Martinez said. “I need the cat, and the cat needs a home.” Because stores do not get advance notification of an inspection, Mr. Martinez is trying to keep Junior in his office as much as possible. Many bodega owners reason that a cat is less of a health threat than an army of nibbling rats. “If cats live in homes and apartments where people have food, a cat shouldn’t be a threat in a store if it’s well maintained,” Mr. Fernández said.

I don’t have much opportunity to patronize New York City bodegas, but I prefer cats over rats. Too bad the city’s bureaucracy doesn’t let the market decide which animal should take precedence.