Planners from hell – Urban Jungle Portrait of the rat

Amy Buskirk
The Next City
December 21, 1997


FOR MOST OF THE YEAR, city rats dine out in garbage cans and composters, washing down their repasts with sips from swimming pools and puddles. But in winter, rats often seek warmth and food in homes. While rats sneak into houses through cracks and holes in walls, an estimated 25 per cent come through toilets and drains from city sewers. In the rainy autumn season, rats especially like homes near lakes or streams where a high water table lets them easily swim through the pipes.

One winter night five years ago, while cooking dinner in his basement apartment, communications consultant Charles Savage, then a student at Queen’s University, heard a splash in his bathroom. In checking that he hadn’t left his sink running, he heard another splash coming from the toilet where a “big, fat, greasy rat” was swimming contentedly in the water. Savage screamed, slammed the bathroom door shut, and telephoned his landlord who told him to call in a professional. Half an hour after tracking down an exterminator willing to come to the after-hour rescue, he opened the front door to find not the uniformed professional he had expected, but a jean-jacketed man who looked a little greasy himself. Savage’s confidence fell further after the exterminator opened and then quickly slammed the bathroom door shut, saying, “Oh Jesus, there is a big rat in there!” He asked for a hockey stick, justifying this improvisation to his being “more an insect guy” than a rat killer. After a five-minute battle during which the rat leaped from the toilet and up the bathroom walls, the exterminator emerged victorious, the rat wrapped in sticky paper. Savage was left with a rat-free bathroom and a lasting phobia about basement toilets.

Most Canadian pest controllers have more sophisticated methods. Eileen King, president of Toronto’s Atlanta Pest Control, advises her clients to fit their toilets with a back-flow valve. Don McCarthy of Halifax’s Braemar Pest Control advises “integrated pest management” — housekeeping measures like cleaning up messy bird feeders, lining composters, covering garbage cans, and ripping out back yard ivy. When sanitation and landscaping techniques fail, McCarthy recommends mechanical traps and, as a very last resort, poison. If these also fail, mayhem may result: In six months, one pair of rats will eat about 27 pounds of food, void about 25,000 droppings and a quart of urine, and shed about one million hairs. A pair of Norway rats, Canada’s most common species, have up to seven litters per year, each of 8 to 12 young, or a potential 15,000 new rats annually.

Pest controllers disagree about how many rats live in Canadian cities. McCarthy disputes the much quoted one-to-one ratio of rats and humans, “Maybe that was the case in the 1700s and 1800s, when wooden cargo ships brought new rats to port every day, but those numbers are just an urban myth now.” John Van of Vancouver’s B.C. Pest Control estimates that 10 to 15 per cent of Vancouver — the tony parts — do have as many rats as humans. “There’s not enough food for rats in the poorer parts of Vancouver; they much prefer the affluent areas where people throw away large amounts of food, compost improperly, and keep horses.”

Only Albertans can rest easy. Starting in 1952, a modern-day Pied Piper, Napoleon Louis Poulin, rid the province of rats for $150,000 by methodically checking every farm, elevator, and building along the border and blowing an arsenic powder he called Rat Doom into the rat holes and burrows he found. Fifteen months later, the province became the world’s largest populated rat-free zone. Today, a rat patrol protects the province’s crops and people by inspecting premises in an area 600 kilometres long and 29 kilometres wide along the province’s Saskatchewan border. Sparsely populated prairie land protects the southern border, and the Rockies protect the west. Rat intruders get the poison treatment — an anticoagulant mixed in rolled oats that kills the rat through internal, and sometimes external, bleeding. The head of the rat patrol admits that he “can’t prevent every single rat from entering the province, but once they’re here, their days are usually numbered.”

Responses to Portrait of the rat

Don Cayo, Halifax, responds: January 17, 1998

I enjoyed your piece on rats, but there’s one thing about them you may not know. As with some superficially unattractive people, when you get to know them as individuals they can be nice.

We have a pet rat, Nickie. (He was named by my son who, I think, likes the euphonious way it pairs with the name of my daughter, Vickie.) Nickie’s loyal, always glad to see me when I get home after time away. He’s fairly clean; at worst scattering shavings from his cage onto the carpet or fighting like a cornered rat during his periodic baths. He eats modestly, mostly dog food and (oh, the irony) cat food, with the occasional nut or berry or piece of cheese. He’s not greedy — unlike our dog or cat, who abandon cuddles or playtime at any prospect of a treat, he spurns cheese or other goodies when he’s being petted. He’s affectionate, lavishing the tenderest little kisses on my thumbs when I rub his back with my fingers. He’s industrious, laboriously dragging bits of paper or fabric or shiny trinkets into his cage when he’s allowed out to roam on the coffee table. And he’s low maintenance — our only pet (we also have a dog and a cat, and we’ve had others) who hasn’t cost hundreds of dollars in vet bills.

His only vice — one that, I confess, I share — is a penchant for brandy. If I proffer a fingertip after dipping it into a snifter of good cognac, he may actually bite in his eagerness to savor it all. (I don’t know if he’d do the same for cheap rotgut — we never, thank heaven, have it in the house.)

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