When I opened the door, there was the rat. I don’t remember why I was going to the mudroom at that moment, but there I was and there it was. For the avoidance of doubt, that rat was dead. I assumed my “little fit” position, tiptoe on one foot with the other drawn up in an awkward sort of crane position, arms drawn to my chest, like the Karate Kid’s cowardly cousin. There may have been vocalizations. Had the rat shown the least sign of animation, the picture would have looked entirely different. Naturally, I fled and my boyfriend stepped in to deal with it. Thankfully, there were no obvious signs of trauma, gore, or struggle.

The cats in our house are hunters, with Lucy Kittens responsible for the bulk of the carnage, but that’s usually attached to feathers. The rat was a mystery.

I was torn between revulsion and compassion. Rats are feared as bringers of pestilence and plague. They chew walls and insulation; contaminate stored food; spread disease with their little claw feet, excrement, and bites; and they carry ticks and fleas that host a whole realm of infectious disease.

Yet pop culture loves to deliver rats that are sympathetic characters. Don’t we all root for that sweet guy in Ratatouille? What about Ben, the rat that was so nice he made Michael Jackson sing? Mythology also gives us rats that are to be admired. The Snuneymuxw share a story of a rat that rescued a woman who was about to be murdered by her husband. Medical science has also made countless advances thanks to the selfless sacrifices of rats.

The American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association would have had a name for our rat’s colour: amber, which is, in fact, light golden fawn. It’s an unusual colour for a feral rat, so our dearly departed guest, clean-of-coat and visibly mange-free, was probably the kind of rat that hadn’t done much time on the streets.

In its section on invasive species, the Electronic Atlas of Wildlife of BC looks at the two most common types of rats. The Norway Rat (Rattus norvegicus), stocky, grey, and prone to burrowing, probably arrived on Vancouver Island with the first sailing ships from Europe. The Black Rat (Rattus rattus) arrived here later and is a lighter-weight climber who favours trees and attics over basements.

But what about Nanaimo? Are rats a problem here or was I just lucky?

Seiriol Llewlyn Williamshile, a former resident of Nanaimo, published A Sanitary Survey of Nanaimo in 1931 while he was a student in preventative medicine at Harvard Medical School. He found that the fish processing plant, cesspools, and privies were obvious areas for nuisance rats. Our lack of a local slaughterhouse or open markets for meat, fruit, and vegetables helped though. He found large grey rats around the dumps, Chinatown, and occasionally near the waterfront. The situation improved with the introduction of galvanized iron garbage cans and, after the city’s purchase of a second garbage truck in 1929, weekly garbage pickup.

As a port city surrounded by agriculture, it stands to reason that Nanaimo should still have rats aplenty. Turns out we don’t.

Gary Franson, former Manager of Sanitation and Recycling for the City of Nanaimo, reported that he didn’t consider them a big issue. “There are rats in Nanaimo. We know the problem exists but rarely get calls on it.” Before he retired he noted a drop off in sightings, possibly a result of the reduction in open land and unmaintained property, both of which attract dumping of household garbage and rats in search of supper. Charlotte Davis, current Manager for the Sanitation department, confirmed that their annual budget for rodent control is only $800. Less than half of that has been spent to date.

In the City of Nanaimo’s Public Works department, Trevor Cooke, Sewer Foreman, says there was a more proactive approach when he started the job 19 years ago. In the absence of clear benefits from that approach, he cut services and didn’t see any negative consequences. Raccoons are as big a problem as rats, he says.

Dean Robinson of Nanaimo’s City Wastewater department says that a rat’s needs are simple: food, water, and shelter. Rodent control is also simple: “Take the environment away and you take them away.” Similar to controlling mosquitos by getting rid of standing water where they breed, remove food sources and warm shelter, and rats will look elsewhere.

As colder temperatures arrive, so do rats seeking shelter, says Blair Dooley of Old Island Pest Control. “The roof rat lives in trees, shrubs, and they’ll live in ivy vines. They love to go in voids of that nature. They get in some unique situations in homes.” Cutting trees and vines back away from structures, as well as patching holes—even holes as small as a quarter—is one way to keep rats out. Tree limbs that overhang a house can also provide a bridge to the roof where they will find a way into the attic, bringing with them havoc and sleepless nights.

While the mere mention of rats usually prompts a squeamish response from people, there can also be a sort of morbid fascination with the creatures. Robert Sullivan explores this in Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, a New York Times bestseller and mandatory read for anyone interested in the topic.

I accidently triggered an unsuspecting archivist’s phobia by asking for help with my research. When I uttered the word “rat” it happened in slow motion: her face crumpled into a grimace, she visibly shuddered from head to toe, and reflexively shrank into a seated version of the fetal position. She was very open about the nature of her phobia and recognized that it was beyond a simple fear. Intellectually, she understood that if she saw a rat cross a laneway there was no reason to avoid driving down that particular lane a year later. That didn’t mean she could tolerate driving down that lane. She kindly led me to what information she could find and excused herself.

Today, a Google search for “rat Nanaimo” lands multiple hits on the so-called Rat-Lady of Nanaimo. This was a local news story in 2010 about a woman battling a rat infestation, without the help of the landlord, in her heritage home. She took the story to the print and TV media where it happened to catch the eye of a producer from Animal Planet network’s Extreme Infestations. When their crew filmed here the story gained some national press attention in the Globe & Mail, and Orkin Pest Control stepped up to take care of the problem free of charge.

I also live in a heritage home—quaint, wooden, turn of the century (last century)—that sits on an unfinished crawlspace, a place I avoid at all costs. In the last eight years I’ve had four rat encounters. That’s an average of less than one a year, which I can live with. Two of those were dried up and dead in the crawlspace. Since they didn’t even smell I probably could have just left them and erased their memory with a Xanax and a glass of wine. But I didn’t: as single-at-the-time-woman-homeowner, I bravely grabbed a stick, donned some gloves, and maneuvered the remains into a plastic bag for disposal in the garbage as per HealthLink BC (File #37) recommendations. Unfortunately, City of Nanaimo Collection Services prohibits dead animals in curbside garbage collection. I’m ashamed to admit that I came down on the wrong side of the law that day and deposited the bodies in the garbage anyway (triple-bagged, of course).

Before the Dead Rats came the Rogue Rat. During the summer I caught the cats skulking around the stove, and on examination of the drawer under the oven, I found large droppings (¾ inch long rather than the ¼ inch size HealthLink BC attributes to mice). There was no sign of their furry depositor. The next day I saw Lucy Kittens in some sort of scuffle, so I armed myself with a wooden spoon and poked the handle into a space behind the shelf. Something was taking cover there. It squeaked. Loudly. And with anger. Then it grabbed the spoon handle and fought me for it. The cat and I were so disturbed by this display that we just left the room. I propped open the back door in hopes that the as-yet unseen rat would take the opportunity to exit as well.

I like to think that particular rat got in by mistake. The bubble burst when I spoke to Karyn Rathlou at The Pest Doctor. She said that you never have just the rat you see. Rats breed at an impressive rate. They can produce up to 12 litters a year, with an average of six—but up to 20—offspring in each.

In our house, 2014 has been a bad year. In November alone we added another four—count ‘em, four—rat encounters to the list (one consumed, two nonviolent deaths, and one that remains at large). The cats require a stern talking to about their role in the household and the speed at which they conduct their duties.

The Pest Doctor has about 30 residential jobs at any given time and each requires follow-up over several months. Rathlou said she answers all types of callers. Some people will be desensitized, maybe from growing up in a farming community where rats were common. Others will be in more of a state of panic; they’re the ones that call (presumably from atop a chair) and request (demand) immediate assistance. Rathlou said that problem areas can often be tied to socioeconomic factors: poor families with absent landlords are more likely to be overrun than a wealthy homeowner who is able to buy solid garbage cans and pay an exterminator. Like others, she didn’t give the impression that there’s a major infestation of rats in Nanaimo.

So what’s responsible for our unexpectedly low rat count? Our residents’ general garbage handling habits must be sound. Perhaps domestic pets, our cats notwithstanding, are particularly effective at keeping the rats at bay. Avian predators like eagles, osprey, hawks, and owls also help to control rodent populations in urban environments.

In the absence of media-worthy infestations, why do rats still make so many of us squirm? While fear of pestilence makes sense, that’s mitigated by medical advancements that make it easier to fight disease. Rats decimate crops, which is a big problem in developing countries, but not so much for Western agriculture, which has ways of coping.

Rats can also be heroes. Gabriola Island’s Sheila Morrison accidently fell asleep with a pot on the stove, but one of her pet rats harassed her awake before fire could take hold of the home. Rats were also used in coalmines, instead of canaries, as an early warning system detecting poisonous gasses. Again, selfless sacrifices.

Rats are highly social creatures and any owner of a pet rat will tell you about its unique personality. Science Magazine published an experiment in 2012 that was designed to test empathy and pro-social behaviour in rats. It found “strong evidence for biological roots of empathically motivated helping behaviour.” Rats care about each other. This makes me wonder whether more humans should care about them too.

In the end I couldn’t help but feel bad for that rat in the mudroom. I didn’t get the impression that he was in my home to spread disease or contaminate my food. Perhaps he was an escaped pet. He’d just taken a wrong turn. In the absence of a measurable rat problem in Nanaimo, it certainly doesn’t seem like he was on an invasion course. Or was he…?

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