Rats!

 

Chicago's Department of Streets and Sanitation says that requests for rat control services are down 15 percent this year. One reason, they say, is that city crews have done 30 percent more rodent control inspection and baiting jobs than in this period last year. That got me wondering about the people who do those inspection and baiting jobs. So, recently, I spent a morning with a crew from rat control.

Terrence Link spends his days roaming Chicago alleys -- looking for rats. Actually, he'd rather not run into a rat, he says. What he's looking for are their homes, so he can fill them with poison. Terrence and his bosses at Streets and Sanitation agreed to let me tag along.

“I'm looking for rodent droppings. That gives us a sign that there is rodent activity there. I'm also looking for rodent burrows,” Terrence said as we walked down an alley. “All along here, it’s sealed, the concrete, so there is no activity going underneath here. But then, as I'm approaching here, I do see rat burrows here.”

To me, it just looks like holes in the concrete.

“Right here, you can see where the grease marks from their bodies as they're running in and out of the burrow,” he said.

I'm going to have to take his word for the grease marks, but it does look like a place where a rat could hide out. So -- poison time.

“Alright, I'm taking a spoon of rodenticide to bait the burrows,” said Terrence.

Now, if you were expecting some kind of elaborate extermination system, forget it. The tools of Terrence Link's trade are pretty simple: a spoon on the end of a stick and a Yellow Pages phone book.

“Every burrow that I bait, I'll cover with paper, and that's even if another crew comes here, they see the paper. If the paper's kicked out, they know to go ahead and bait that burrow,” he said.

It also keeps the poison covered and less likely to fall into the hands, or mouths, of other animals. I asked how likely we were to actually see a rat that day.

“Hopefully, we won't run into any,” said Terrence.

Now, I hate wild alley rats as much as the next guy, but I admit I was kind of hoping to get to see one. So, I turned to Joel Brown at UIC. He's an urban rodent expert, though he admits to a particular fondness for the rat's more popular cousin - the squirrel.

“They're cute, face it. They're out during the day. They're fluffy, bushy tails, big eyes, they kind of face forward. They get up late. They go to bed early. They keep sensible hours,” said Joel.

And we feel very differently about them than rats.

“We really do. Rats create a huge amount of social discomfort,” he said.

Joel agreed to introduce me to a retired UIC lab rat.

“So, this is the Norway rat, scientifically known as Rattus Norvegicus,” he said. “This is the domesticated cousin of our city rats.”

While Joel Brown admits that rats cause problems in cities and he supports efforts to reduce their numbers and impact, he likes and admires rats and says part of the way we feel about them may be in our genes.

“We may actually in our genes have a biophobia; somewhat like people being afraid of spiders and snakes,” said Joel. “We may actually have a template that when we see something like a rat with a long nose, those beady eyes, that scaly tail; that we associate that with fear, disease, lack of cleanliness.”

And while we have been learning to hate and fear rats, they have been studying us.

“Rats have essentially had, like dogs, several thousand years to evolve; to avoid us, to understand us, to live with us,” said Joel. “And it turns out, their ability to navigate an apartment building. Their ability to learn when you and I go to bed and when we get up in the morning. Their ability to learn our habits actually means that they're marvels in terms of their knowledge, their cognition.”

That also makes them tough rivals in a sense if we're trying to get rid of them, and they're that smart and have adapted to us that well. That's tough competition.

“That's right, so perhaps I'm falling into the Stockholm syndrome in admiring the enemy, but in fact, that's right. We can hold a certain amount of admiration for this animal then that is exceedingly hard to control. Why? Because it's exceedingly well-adapted to us,” said Joel.

And that brings us back to Terrence Link. Terrence is perfectly willing to poison rats on our behalf, but he says we need to do our part too.

“Pick up any garbage in the yard, around the garbage cans. Make sure you put it in the garbage can with the lids closed,” he said. “If you have a dog, pick up the waste. Put it inside the garbage can as well, so the rats can't feed off of it.”

Terrence says during the daytime, the rats are inside the burrow, so his hope is that they eat the rodenticide and die inside the burrow.

As I neared the end of my visit with Terrence, I couldn't help but wonder if that spoon he uses is actually a kitchen spoon.

“Well no, you wouldn't use this in your kitchen,” he said. “These bait spoons were supplied to us, and they did not go out to Linens-n-Things to pick them up.”

If you see evidence of rats, the city wants you to call 311 as soon as possible to help them stay ahead of the problem. And in addition to working the alleys, we're told they will come onto your property if invited. 

Read about a "green" approach to rat control in Chicago in Web Extra: Cats at Work Project.