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Josie Cruz heads the bureau of rodent control at Chicago's Department of Streets and Sanitation.

Josie Cruz heads the bureau of rodent control at Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation.

Note to NYC: Chicago already has a rat czar, and her name is Josie Cruz

In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams recently made headlines with his announcement that he had appointed a “rat czar” — former school teacher Kathleen Corradi is the city’s first-ever director of rodent mitigation. But here in Chicago, one woman has been heading the city’s war on vermin for years.

Meet Josie Cruz. Since she arrived at the Department of Streets and Sanitation in 1998, she has risen in the ranks to her current role as head of the bureau of rodent control. That means she is in charge of the teams who respond to tens of thousands of rat-related calls annually. Publicly available data shows the number of rodent calls to 311 have mostly been steady since 2019, with a spike in calls in 2021. As of April 30, Chicagoans have sent in about 11,700 rat reports so far this year, but the busy season is just getting underway.

When a call comes in, the teams go out, ideally within five days, make contact with the resident who reported the issue, then look for signs of rats, like the burrows they live in. If they find evidence of a problem, they’ll bait the area. Responding to rat sightings is a big part of the job, but Cruz is more interested in the root causes.

“The rats are not there just because they want to be there. There’s a food source and it’s important that we cut that food source out,” said Cruz, 63.

Those food sources include garbage, of course, which is made more accessible by cracked or damaged cans. But pet waste, bird feeder extras, weeds and unharvested vegetables all make an appetizing spread at a rat buffet.

New York Mayor Eric Adams, left, introduces Kathleen Corradi, center, as the city's first-ever citywide director of rodent mitigation, also known as the 'rat czar,' in New York, Wednesday, April 12.

New York Mayor Eric Adams, left, introduces Kathleen Corradi, center, as the city’s first-ever citywide director of rodent mitigation, also known as the ‘rat czar,’ in New York, Wednesday, April 12.

Bobby Caina Calvan

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

Cruz said talking to residents is “crucial,” which she thinks will also help her new counterpart in New York. She was glad to see Corradi selected for the role.

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



Signs telling residents ‘don’t feed the rats!’ are found in alleys across Chicago.

Signs telling residents ‘don’t feed the rats!’ are found in alleys across Chicago. Josie Cruz says educating the public is a major part of her job.

Courtney Kueppers

Cruz said the representation matters — and will perhaps inspire other women to pursue a career like hers. In a male-dominated sector of government, Cruz has been a trailblazer. After being hired as a coordinator of special projects, Cruz was promoted to general superintendent at DSS in 2000, which made her the first woman to hold that title. She was also the first woman to be the deputy commissioner for sanitation, a job she had from 2013-2016, before she landed in her current gig, where she oversees about 70 employees.

Decades in, Cruz says she still enjoys the work and is quick to brag about having great crews. Those crews have their work cut out for them.

Orkin, a pest control company based in Atlanta, has named Chicago the “rattiest” city in the country eight years running in an annual list based on the number of service calls it receives. A report from Orkin also notes that outdoor dining during the pandemic exacerbated rat problems nationwide. And rats are not the only critters Cruz’s bureau is responsible for. The team also gets calls to haul away dead animals reported throughout the city — everything from squirrels to deer — and remove wasp and hornet nests. But the rats lurking in alleys and backyards are likely the most visible part of the work.



A rat digs into a planter in Chicago.

A rat digs into a planter in Chicago.

Katherine Nagasawa

When it comes to tackling what feels like a perennial problem, Cruz says the city’s response to rats is “on the right track.”

“I just feel like we’re moving forward,” Cruz said, citing preventive measures her teams are taking, like community outreach. “As long as we’re continuing with our preventatives and continue doing our education and contacting people.”



Josie Cruz, pictured in 2003, has been with the Department of Streets and Sanitation for 25 years.

Josie Cruz, pictured in 2003, has been with the Department of Streets and Sanitation for 25 years.

Rich Hein

But rats are persistent. Maureen Murray, a wildlife disease ecologist at Lincoln Park Zoo, told WBEZ in 2020 that, “most cities on Earth have had rats for hundreds of years and continue to still have issues with rats.”

“I think this is a really difficult issue to solve because rats are so adaptable that they can use a lot of different types of habitats,” Murray said at the time.

In New York, Corradi faces her own unique challenges. Unlike Chicago, New York doesn’t have an extensive alley map — leaving residents to put their trash on the sidewalks and often not in covered bins. As Corradi takes the reins, Cruz’s advice to her is: Hit the streets. Show up. Talk to people and teach them how to do their part to “send the rats packing.”

WBEZ’s Amy Qin contributed. Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ.

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