In Alberta, Citizens Smell a Rat After Long-Banned Rodents Appear

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Feb 20, 2013 in Rat News | Subscribe

After an infestation scare, officials in Alberta, Canada have ramped up their war on rats, employing “The Rat Patrol” and distributing a video PSA on how to combat rodents. WSJ’s Alistair MacDonald has highlights of that video.

CALGARY, Alberta—Veteran law-enforcement officer Todd Kabeya recently took a call that he said made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

Acting on a tip, one of his officers had found a body at a busy intersection in this city of over one million. The description matched that of a suspect Officer Kabeya had been chasing for years.

The thickness of the tail, color of fur, claw size: “I thought, yep, this is a rat,” he said.

Officer Kabeya leads Calgary’s team of four rat inspectors, a crucial line of defense here that enforces laws dedicated to keeping the province of Alberta free of the rodents—a status the province has fiercely guarded since largely eradicating rats about half a century ago.

[image]Sean Myers

Attention Albertans: Officer Kabeya displays a rat tracked down in Calgary.

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In August, an infestation of rats in a landfill near the town of Medicine Hat, in southern Alberta, threatened that claim to fame. The outbreak in “Medicine Rat,” as some local media quickly dubbed it, triggered a full-scale offensive. Alberta Premier Alison Redford said officials would be “unrelenting.” A team known as the rat patrol was sent in, and the landfill was ringed with poisoned bait in a military-style maneuver called Operation Haystack. Bull snakes were deployed.

After around 111 dead rats, the body count is no longer going up at Medicine Hat, where infrared cameras are in place across the landfill to pick up nocturnal movements. But in this 226,000-square-mile province, where many residents have never seen a live rat, the incident has sparked a mini hysteria and spawned a rash of sightings—real or imagined—in cities from Calgary to Edmonton.

Alberta’s battle with rodents began around 1950, when Norway rats, the most common breed, began migrating into the province in large numbers. Determining that these rats, which live closely with people, were a threat to health and crop yields, Alberta declared war, and after a decadelong fight, won. Protected by uninhabited forests to the north, the Rockies in the west and arid country in the south, authorities set up a 323-mile long, 18-mile wide buffer zone along the other place rats might enter, Alberta’s eastern border with Saskatchewan.

Officials in the 1950s created a so-called rat patrol of exterminators ready to parachute in and stamp out migrating vermin. The government set up hot lines for reporting them, and early in the campaign handed out “Rat on a Rat” bumper stickers. Now, in online information, authorities warn locals to stay alert, pointing to the U.S., which has, by their estimate, two to four rats for every person.

In Alberta, the discovery of a rat is headline news. A few days after the Medicine Hat infestation, Ken Van Cleave, a teacher in Lethbridge, 100 miles to the west, read about the incident in the Calgary Herald.

“I thought ‘holy man, those things will make their way down here,’ ” he said.

Mr. Van Cleave—rare among Albertans—said he once saw a rat in a New York Dumpster and never wants to see another. “It was like a mouse, but a lot larger…It’s something you don’t forget, like seeing a bear for the first time,” he said.

Even many pest-control experts haven’t seen live rats. Chris Gratton, an employee of Poulin’s Pest Control in Edmonton, says officers stopped by the shop with a dead rat two years ago to demonstrate what to look for.

“I’d seen them on TV and in the movies, but it is different to see it in person,” Mr. Gratton said.

Since Medicine Hat, Mr. Gratton, who specializes in bedbugs, has been fielding calls from residents in Edmonton who claim to have seen live rats. Some people have come into the shop seeking reassurance. “Since the news has got a hold, it’s kind of got a little crazy,” he said.

Don Evanson, a retired restaurant owner, was walking in the Calgary suburb of Auburn Bay in August when his dog Beastly turned up what Mr. Evanson thought was a gopher with a “funny tail.”

Later that week, as he watched a news report about Medicine Hat, Mr. Evanson smelled a rat. He called Calgary’s rat line to make a report.

That is when Officer Kabeya took up the case. Rushing to the scene, he identified the dead animal as a rat and started what he called a “secondary investigation” to ascertain whether Beastly’s find was a one-off.

Single rats can travel on trucks or trains, and pet rats—though illegal in Alberta—sometimes escape or their owners set them free. The danger is, rats breed fast. The Alberta government estimates the offspring of a single pair of Norway rats can multiply to 15,000 in one year.

Officer Kabeya searched backyards and clambered over a construction site looking for other rats. “We were looking for droppings, markings, gnawing,” he said. His verdict: single rat.

That afternoon, Greg Steinraths, who oversees Calgary’s rat-fighting efforts as acting head of Animal Bylaw Services, called a news conference. More than 20 reporters showed up to witness Officer Kabeya holding up the bagged rat.

Enlarge Image


Norway rat

The rodent now lies in a large plastic container labeled “Rats under Investigation” stored in a freezer at the City of Calgary’s Animal Services Centre. It will be available for educating people on what to be on guard against.

Mr. Steinraths, who keeps a stuffed Norway rat in a glass case on his desk, says his team has recently logged around 250 sightings in Calgary—more than an entire year would typically garner. The city gets about 200 reports of rat sightings annually—about four to six of which turn out to be the real thing.

Most of the sightings triggered by the media coverage of Medicine Hat have turned out to be false alarms. Aside from Beastly’s find, “we have had squirrels, we have had muskrats, we have had big fat mice, but no rats,” Mr. Steinraths said.

Rats have few defenders in Alberta. An online petition to legalize them as pets here has attracted only 372 signatures out of a target of 10,000 since May, most of them from outside Canada. “This speciesism is absurd,” one signer commented.

Officials say all the vigilance is worth it. Alberta claims it has saved one billion Canadian dollars (US$1.02 billion) over the past 50 years, in property damage, livestock losses, “human suffering” and health care.

Recently, Officer Kabeya investigated another reported rat sighting, this time in a barn.

Calling the complainant back, Officer Kabeya took a description of the suspect and once again felt the hair on the back of his neck rise. “Sometimes everything seems to fit in,” he said.

But at the scene, Officer Kabeya found a muskrat.

A version of this article appeared September 20, 2012, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: In Alberta, Citizens Smell a Rat After Long-Banned Rodents Appear.

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