A wonderful day in the neighborhood

At long last: I have rats. No, not pets, and not the research animals I got to know so well lo these thirty years past. I’m talking vermin, the critters everyone thinks of when they say “I saw a rat” and shudder.

I say “long last” because for twelve years, I taught a course I designed called “Rat’s Eye View, Chicago” for a section of a required first-year program. The mandate was to use the city as a teaching lab, encouraging lots of field trips and an interdisciplinary perspective that drew upon the city’s physical and social history. You could basically teach whatever topic you wanted that fulfilled the mandate, and I modestly state that my course was widely considered a showpiece of the program. They got to see some serious research, some pest control sites, and pet stores, and we didn’t stint on the details.

No course of mine lacks content and many students bemoaned that they actually had to learn something, especially something scientific, but I was up to something all humanity-like too. The course’s point, at that level, was to acquaint the students with the concepts of projection and cognitive dissonance. Toward that end I stressed that one single species, Rattus norvegicus (which is misleading if you think scientific names have to “mean something;” they don’t), was considered vermin, an incredibly valuable resource, and a beloved pet – but only one per individual and professional/social location – within a few square blocks including the one we were sitting in.

I was particularly unhappy when construction removed the cafeteria building, visible from the classroom I was often assigned, as I could no longer dramatically point to the rat holes studding the side of the little hill it sat on, and enjoy the students jumping and twitching in surprise as they realized what they were walking nonchalantly past each day.

Well, I can be happy again because there are two such holes dug beneath the garden beds in my back yard (remember those from the video last fall?) and more of them in the neighbor’s yard going under their garage. Plus the neighbor turned up a nest when he started working on his yard a couple days ago. Plus the telltale black bait boxes favored by urban management along the base of the alley fence that backs the local Starbucks and Subway.

Here’s how the box works: you can see that it provides a tunnel for the rat to explore, with a treat at the end that contains slow-acting poison. The trap itself does not kill the rat or catch it – the idea is that it becomes a familiar stop along the rats’ habitual patrol run; the tunnel design inside is actually very comfy for them and they prefer to find stuff in such spots rather than out in the open or, contrary to our counter-productive tactic, in their home-holes.

But that’s not at all the full story about how it works, which is to say, how it contributes to rat population control, or the proper technical term, abatement. That’s a very different issue and is why I’m spending some time on the phone tomorrow with the city, and need to have a chat with neighbors.

I’ll start with how the rats got here: in food delivery. That’s how they get everywhere; it has nothing to do with them creeping along sewer lines or “invading neighborhoods” or any of that other nonsense. Boxes of food get delivered, a certain percent have rats in them, they look around bewildered, and some few of them happen upon a habitat they can dig into. Obviously given the circumstances, there’s a better than likely chance that the food service’s disposal site is handy too. But even better if it’s a place with big nice back yards, with gardens, bushes, landscaping … and remember, it’s not that they need big stinking piles of garbage. Rats don’t eat much – what they need is safe access to the food from their burrows.

If your area doesn’t have rats, it’s not because you and the neighbors “keep a good clean neighborhood,” it’s because the rats haven’t been delivered enough or because the exact details of the local situation don’t allow for digging in and safe patrolling for food, i.e., the rats who are delivered die instead of setting up generational shop.

Rats whose holes aren’t immediately visible and who can get to their food quickly and consistently, are the ones who breed. They’re called alphas, meaning, not socially dominant, but merely in the situation in which they breed regularly.

When enough rats are around to exceed the available alpha-level habitations, the others are called betas – they either have riskier nest sites like junk-filled garages or visible burrows, or they have to traverse riskier and longer routes to food. Betas don’t breed much. When even more rats are around, the ones that are basically homeless and without consistent routes to food are called omegas. If you see a rat hole or find droppings; it’s probably a beta; if you see an actual rat, it’s probably an omega. Omegas don’t live long and are effectively irrelevant as far as breeding goes. (remember, these are circumstances of habitation, not qualities of the individual rats, and not social status in the sense we experience)

The first human fallacy about rat abatement is to confound their presence with some failed degree of human social status and hygiene. Or related, to think they carry dozens of foul diseases just waiting to creepy-crawl onto you, or are malevolently intent upon biting you or outright stripping the flesh from your bones. Yes, the history with plague is a big deal, and yes, their dropping are a significant health hazard in food storage just like mice droppings are. So rat abatement is indeed a policy concern. But you’re not in dire danger from their presence – at least, considerably less so than from the squirrels or pigeons.

The second fallacy is thinking that rat abatement is about communicating property rights and racking up a body count. Rats don’t “learn a lesson” when you kill a bunch of them, nor do they “sense the poison” when you put something big and unfamiliar in the entrance their sleeping quarters. Standard exterminator techniques impress clients and make money for the exterminator, but they don’t do shit about the rats. They don’t care about your property lines and will never learn that you want them out of your yard.

My current situation illustrates all the human-policy problems perfectly.

  1. The alley runs past a bunch of back yards on either side and ends at a corner with the food-serving emporia on it. The alley is city property, the yards are private home-owner properties, and the corner is some mixture of city (parking lot) and commercial properties. That’s like twenty policy-makers in one micro-environment, which the rats see as one place – they live and breed in the back yards, they traverse the alley, and they forage (in addition to the gardens) at the restaurants’ dumpster sites.
  2. The rats that freak people out, because they see them, are almost all omegas; this goes double for the unfortunate animal who finds himself or herself in or very near a house, which they do totally by accident (rats do not live “in the walls”). Killing them does zip, zero, zilch to the actual breeding population.
  3. Interfering with a nest or home burrow only means the rats pack up and go somewhere nearby, or more likely, just dig a new entrance that you don’t know about. Think about it; what do you think kicking in the entrance hole really does? Humans do this almost reflexively, because they think it’s a social thing – they’re telling the rats “get out, you’re not welcome,” and the rat, oblivious to the primate nuances of my place not yours, thinks, “crap, my entry caved in, better dig a new one over here.”

The way actually to do it, and it works like a charm, is to bait the patrol routes specifically from the alpha burrows, and only them. The rats in that burrow die. Betas move in, becoming the new alphas. They die. Rinse, repeat. The breeding rate drops sharply for the whole area, and the omegas vanish, which solves pretty much the whole “OMG rats” problem because now they’re not visible. If you combine this tactic with good garbage management, which doesn’t remove the food source but at least minimizes it, and bait those sites as well, then you can knock down the visible rats at the same time as well. But no method that fails to include the steady, non-intrusive, non-corpse-happy abatement via the alpha burrows will succeed.

You see the problem, right? People don’t want to do that. The home-owners want to blame the city or the restaurants, the restaurant guys blame the home-owners, the home-owners blame each other, and everyone hires a different exterminator who probably accomplishes nothing. Everyone wants to see dead rats and feel like they “taught them a lesson.” Basically, they act like a bunch of freaking primates, obsessed with their owned items and their social status, and who think everyone else thinks like them. The last thing they want is to consider themselves animals who live in an ecosystem and, if they want to change some aspect of it, need to act upon it (i) in one way which (ii) may not be the most confirmatory of their views of themselves.

Yup, going to be some fun phone calls tomorrow.

Next: Bootstrap




6 thoughts on “A wonderful day in the neighborhood

  1. Hmm … how about cats? I used to see those black boxes in my (somewhat lushly landscaped, for suburbia) complex all the time. But since the neighbors started sometimes-feeding the local more-or-less feral cats, the traps seem less common. Now, this is almost certainly a trap/neuter/release cat population, so maybe not a long term solution, but perhaps an interesting angle to consider in the context of the blog.

    (Compared to the coddled kitties that live inside, the neighborhood ferals seem fit but BIG, so I assume they’re hunting something beyond the pittance of kibble occasionally left out for them. But maybe they’re just picking off omegas – and birds, of course.)


    • Funny you should mention that; there’s an initiative currently being floated in Chicago about feral cats as a rodent control measure. I’m going to win zero friends with the following …

      Feral cats are a nasty, dangerous problem – a health hazard via droppings, bites, and disease a quantum level above what the rats pose, and as you mention, they’re hell on the local wildlife. Kiss your migratory birds (the pretty, musical ones) goodbye.

      They were particularly bad in Florida posing real, demonstrable health and species-endangerment threats, and yet, any call to manage the population – which yes, I know, means “kill” – raised cries of shocked horror. Kill kitties? Barbarity!

      I know of no credible study showing that feral cats can (i) be managed in a safe ongoing way relative to the people present and (ii) bring down a rat population. Just as you mentioned, they’ll be picking off omegas which has no impact on population numbers.

      If such a program did begin, I’d be watching from the sidelines to see when someone’s kid contracts distemper from a cat bite, the someone puts a .22 round between the scabby beast’s eyes, and someone else does a shaming campaign on Youtube or similar.


    • A quick bit of searching seems to indicate that the problem TNR (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trap-neuter-return) folks point to with trap-and-kill (population replacement by often-meaner/more diseased cats from somewhere else) is real, but TNR ain’t a clear, scientifically proven answer either. Maybe TVHR, but that’s only computer modeled (that my search could find). Or maybe it’s a matter of scale and widespread regional buy-in to a strategy.

      But that’s really just about managing cats, not rats. I found only no-science “of course cats kill rats” claims on that subject.

      So perhaps some hope for managing feral cats in a safe(-r, or maybe -ish) ongoing way, but no reason to think that even if (IF) we get that, we’d get good rat-control. Too bad.

      Note: I’ve 3 amazing – in their individual ways – cats living in my home, and have picked up and delivered to the clinic feral-traps a few times when a dedicated-volunteer friend was out of town. Cats are wonderful! Doesn’t keep some of ’em from being dangerous, disease-carryin’ psycho-killers as well …


  2. I’m just here to say that’s the most adorable little hooded rat ever at the top of the page.

    Missing my rats, brought down by tumors as is usually the case, RIP the both of them.


    • Plenty of students were known to acquire pet rats after taking the course. They felt strongly about caring for them as rats rather than pretend little primates, and said people ought to learn about research standards for their care before being allowed to own rats.

      They make great pets, especially compared to all the neurotic dogs and cats I see careening around, with the only downside being their short life-span.

      Liked by 1 person

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