Rats

April 15, 1996

     Rats have a public relations problem.

     Our dislike is evident even in our language.  Jimmy Cagney snarls, ³You dirty rat,² and Charlie Brown mutters, ³Rats.²  We smell a rat or rat on someone or tell someone he looks like a drowned rat and his files are a ratıs nest.  Even their name, Rattus norvegicus or Norway rat, blames them on foreigners.  (In fact they came originally from China and colonized North America by way of British naval vessels during the Revolutionary War.)

     Of course there are real reasons for our aversion.  Rats have been indicted for the spread of plague, salmonella food poisoning, leptospirosis, trichinosis, murine typhus, and haemorrhagic fevers.  Worldwide they contaminate or consume enough food to nourish 150 million people and in this country their depredations cost us a billion dollars a year.  They even attack us, 14,000 annually in the United States, and a few attacks are even fatal.

     Worldwide there are about as many rats as people.  A Maryland study found 25 to 150 rats per city block and — lest country folks feel comfortable with that — 75 to 300 on farms.  On the Niagara Frontier also, rats are a problem in suburbs and rural areas as well as in cities.

     I have a grudging admiration for these much maligned beasts who have been chased with brooms and shot at with guns, set upon by dogs, cats, and ferrets, poisoned and trapped, all with little long term effect.  Iım also impressed by their physical prowess.  They can crawl through holes 1/2 inch square, climb inside or outside vertical pipes, jump 3 feet, swim across a half mile river and under water 30 seconds.  They have even been known to swim up through toilet traps.

     But, like you, I donıt want them around my house.

     Rats are intelligent and extremely prolific.  They learn quickly to avoid traps and poisoned baits.  Females mature at less than 3 months, produce 4 to 9 litters per year, and wean well over 100 young during their 2 to 3 year lifetimes.  Thus, once they get a start in your neighborhood, they are tough to control.

     Rats are a foot to a foot and a half long, a third of which is their hairless tail.  Their fur is grayish brown, peppered with black hairs and grading to pale gray on the belly.  If you see one of these rodents, realize that there are probably at least a half dozen more nearby.

     You can usually kill several rats with snap traps baited with peanut butter, bacon, or apple slices before others avoid learn to them.  Place them along trails in areas inaccessible to household pets and children.  Anchor your trap so that a dying rat wonıt drag it into a wall space to create an odor problem.  Use poisons with even greater care.  Tamper-proof bait boxes should be considered.

     But the real answer to rat control is environmental.  If you trap or poison a rat but fail to get rid of what is attracting it, another will take over that territory.  So eliminate or seal off food sources.

     Some specific recommendations: Clean up dog and cat feces — prime food for rats.  Keep garbage in cans, not in plastic bags that are easily chewed through by rats — or pecked through by crows.  Donıt accumulate trash piles.  Check your house for possible entries and completely caulk or wire screen holes.  Be vigilant and encourage your neighbors to be equally concerned.

     I salute Councilman Kevin Helfer and his assistant Debora Maccagnano for their campaign against rats in the University District.  Others would do well to emulate them.