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Published: Thursday, 7/29/2004

The disconcerting days of Brother Rat

BY EILEEN FOLEY

WHEN three rat tales cross my Toledo path in a month's time, I suspect there's an epidemic, even though Toledo-Lucas County's chief rat killer, Konni Sutfield, suggests I chill. It's summer, he said. People are out more. Ditto rats.

A neighbor baited one of the furry critters, with its skinny, scaly tail and pointy claws, and it had the bad grace to crawl through a quarter-inch space to die under his back porch. It was Maggotsville by the time it began to stink.

A colleague had an especially pushy rat brush against her leg as she left a downtown thrift shop. She's still in recovery.

The second rat my neighbor saw he chased next door where a neighbor keeps a dog outside 24/7. I'm told he's not perspicacious about scooping poop. For rats it's a confection.

Most disconcerting about the proximity of Brother Rat is the knowledge that rats, unless they've run out of food, stay within 50 to 150 feet of home. And I thought mine was a "nice" neighborhood!

New construction or demolition that rattle their burrows sends them scurrying. The new noise barricades along I-475, built on hillsides they called home, ran them six to eight blocks away. In my neck of the woods, roving rats are blamed on Jeep plant deconstruction.

Are we talking invasion here? Do we need a Pied Piper to tootle them out of town? Are they rabid? Will they get us?

Mr. Sutfield scoffs. Seeing more rodents doesn't mean there are more of them. But, he allows, there are some. We've lived with them for eons, and they do most of the accommodating. See a rat in your backyard or garage, put out bait, scare the squirrels, and keep pets inside until it disappears. See one in alleys, streets, and public rights of way and Rodent Control at the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department takes care of things.

Our rat pros, without benefit of census, think the number of furry pests is pretty constant.

Eradication is nigh impossible. Control is key.

There are multiple reasons that rats are such lovely lab animals. One is that it's easy to track them through multiple generations in a relatively short time. They mate year round and females produce up to six litters a year, each with six or seven babies.

Just imagining their beady, red-rimmed eyes staring out at one from hidden places is to be amid some Stephen King-concocted horror story, to shiver at the accommodation of the geeky Willard Stiles of movie fame. Who can forget that rats are smart? They learn to get through mazes. Can they train us similarly? Here come the willies!

Reality check:

While Rodent Control gets thousands of rat complaints each year, and while rat numbers may or may not exceed its expectations, there is no word of people or pets having been bitten in a longer time than precisely comes to mind. Cats and dogs are more frequent biters. Rats run. Desert sinking ships. Save themselves where they can.

There are ways to rodent-proof property. Keep garbage in bags, secure inside inaccessible bins, ideally off the ground. Keep bird feeders inaccessible and bird food securely stored. Feed and water pets inside. Rats love leftovers.

Also keep grass and weeds cut, and dispose of burned firewood so they'll have no easy sites to burrow into.

Cognizant of how rats run when the buildings or land they call home are taken down, laws require concomitant baiting. The dumpsters one sees around restaurants take rat avoidance to higher levels.

I suppose making friends is also an option, but one with hazards of its own. Rent Willard for the list, or its successor, Ben.


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