Story & photos by Jeff Lilly
Illustration by Gary Bedard.
We hear a lot about humanity’s effect on the natural environment and the creatures that inhabit it. Usually, the story is about how humans alter the landscape to make it more suitable for our needs, destroying habitat in the process. However, there are several species of animals that not only can coexist with humans, but thrive in the habitats we alter and create. Not all of these species make for good roommates, though.
Meet the rat. Rats have been with humanity since the beginning, when we first started to live together in bands and communities. Where there are humans, there is waste, and thus a food source. Where humans take shelter and build structures, rats can live, too. When humans moved about, by ship and stage and rail, rats hitched a ride with us. These days, they’ve learned to use our roads, railroad tracks, and sewer lines as highways of their own, making travel easier and helping them to spread. They also reproduce quickly; a mature rat can bear a new litter of pups every three to four weeks.
Ferndale has a rat problem. You might have heard about an infestation under a neighbor’s garage. You may have seen them running along the streets at night. Maybe you have some yourself, nesting under that doghouse or in that woodpile.
“We get a lot of calls in the spring,” says Joseph Gacioch, Chief Innovation Officer and Assistant City Manager for the City of Ferndale. Rodent activity can be more noticeable then, with melting snow both providing convenient sources of water for rats, as well as uncovering food sources hidden by snow. But rats are around all year long.
Besides basic health issues — rats have been known since antiquity as harborers and carriers of disease — they can also do quite a bit of damage to home and property. Rats can chew through practically anything; wood, drywall, insulation board, even concrete block, brick, and lead pipes. Rats can gnaw the insulation off of electrical wires, causing shorts and fires. They can tunnel under slabs and foundations. They can chew the bottoms out of plastic garbage cans to get at what’s inside. They’re also hard to keep out; a rat can squeeze itself through a hole the diameter of a half-dollar.
“We’ve seen a large increase in calls about rats,” Says Dale Stepaniak, co-owner of Pest Masters, an exterminator located in Livonia that contracts with the City of Ferndale. “We used to get rat calls once a month. Now, we get them once per day.” Stepaniak also notes that, “We have an issue with rats in most of Metro Detroit.” He’s gotten calls from Redford, Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, Royal Oak, Livonia, and other local cities, all of which have seen a “significant increase” in rat activity in the last few years. But why? Both Stepaniak and Gacioch point to the last recession as a possible piece in the puzzle. “We had all of these vacant homes, all of these people walking away from their houses.” Stepaniak says. The relatively large number of vacant properties in Detroit, right across 8 Mile Road, also contributes to the problem.
So what can we do about it? One of the biggest things is to eliminate neighborhood food sources. This means cleaning up dog droppings (rats love them) and not throwing out bread or seeds for the squirrels. Make sure you don’t leave pet food outside in bowls overnight, and if you store it outdoors, make sure it’s in a covered night before pick-up, and use metal bins with tight-fitting lids if you can. Unharvested vegetables, left to winter over in garden beds or boxes, can also be an invitation to rats.
But the number one source, Stepaniak says, though it pains many nature-lovers’ hearts to hear it, is bird feeders. “At least half of the jobs we do, we find a bird feeder on the property, or at a property next door.” He explains. This isn’t to say you can’t ever feed the birds, but “If your neighborhood is fighting rats, and you’re (feeding birds,) then you’re a culprit.” The thing to remember is that even if you don’t have a food source, they may still pick your yard to settle in. Stepaniak talks of a recent job where “They were living under a gentleman’s deck.
You could watch the rats go from under his deck, across the back yard next door, down the side of the house to a house across the street. No fault of this guy…they were feeding across the street, but living under his deck.” Another thing we can do is eliminate cover and shelter for rats. This means elevating your woodpile (at least 12 inches above the ground,) clearing away debris from the back of your garage, and eliminating clutter and hiding places, including unused vehicles and old tires. Keep your shrubs and grass trimmed, as well. “We have codes. We have property maintenance guidelines.” Gacioch explains. “If you follow them, you help eliminate the opportunity for rats to move in.”
Meanwhile, the city is doing its part.
“The Building Department now requires an inspection prior to demolition of a property,” Gacioch says. A pest expert now has to sign off on a property, saying there are no rats. If there are, they have to be exterminated and the property re-inspected before demolition can commence. Otherwise, the rats will scatter and move to new locations. New construction now must have rat walls, foundations that extend into the ground to discourage burrowing. Ferndale is also sharing resources and coordinating with neighboring cities on strategies to combat rat infestations. They’re also using modern technology to combat the ancient enemy, including utilizing geo-tracking to keep tabs on infestation sites and their spread.
Ferndale is curently working with Pest Masters on an extermination program along Troy Street. It’s a big challenge, Stepaniak says, because the businesses along 9 Mile, which include grocery stores and restaurants, have a large number of dumpsters in the nearby alley. While the businesses will get tips and suggestions, eliminating the food source entirely may be impossible. On the other hand, Stepaniak cites a successful recent program along the rail line. CN worked with the City to cut brush and eliminate clutter along the wall, and a series of traps has greatly reduced infestation there.
How do you know if you have rats? Besides seeing them in action, look for holes in the ground, under foundations and sheds. Entrances to rat warrens will typically be about the size of a soda can. While a rat or two might be handled by snap-traps or a bit of poison, larger infestations should be handled by an expert. Stepaniak shows me a brochure with an array of modern, scientifically-designed rat poison feeding stations, like the kind used along the rail line. They’re securely locked and inaccessible to pets and children, rain-proof so the poison doesn’t get spread around in the environment, and, most importantly, attractive to rats. Pest Masters will inspect and re-fill the traps on a schedule until the problem is eliminated.
The war against rats will never end. After all, they’re survivors, and have thrived despite thousands of years of efforts to stop them. But using our biggest advantage — our brains — and a bit of care and cunning, we can turn back the current tide.
For more information on how to fight rats, Ferndale has a page up on the city website. Go to www.ferndalemi.gov/Services/Code_Enforcement/Pest_Control
Pest Masters: www.pestmastersmi.com or call 1-800-934-4770.
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