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Austin Chronicle Real Life Rat Tales

One of Them for Every One of Us

By Carol Brorson

JANUARY 24, 2000:  No one can take an accurate rat census, but experts often estimate there is one rat for every person living in the United States. That's one of them for every one of us.Our furry shadow companions seem to like Austin for some of the same reasons humans do: There are lots of old, sprawling pecan trees, creeks, parks, and ecologically minded folks who like to plant gardens, keep compost piles, and feed birds.

Ron Dotson, who leads the Rodent and Vector Control Office for the city of Austin, has tracked and trapped rats here for 23 years. He is undaunted. "You can go out to the cleanest city in the world, but will still have a population [of rats] that have ventured in," Dotson says.

And in Austin? Oh, yes. In fact, Dotson continues, "Between the food source and their multiplication rate, they can become a problem even in nice neighborhoods."Last year the city of Austin and Travis County devoted five full-time employees and approximately $136,000 to help control the rats in Austin. Rats here are mostly roof rats (rattus rattus), also called black rats. According to the book, More Cunning Than Man: A Social History of Rats and Men, by Robert Hendrickson, the roof rat is believed to be the same breed of rat that carried the fleas that carried the bubonic plague bacillus that killed 75 million people worldwide from the 1300s to the 18th century. Each year, rats destroy approximately 20% of all the agricultural products in the world. They carry more than 30 diseases harmful to humans, such as typhus, the plague, rat-bite fever, Weil's disease, Chagas' disease, rickettsial pox, tuleremia, Lassa fever, lymphocytic choriomeningitis, and rabies. No other mammal surpasses the rat except man himself in the level of death, destruction, and economic devastation that he causes, Hendrickson writes.

Part of what makes rats so awful and yet amazing is their tremendous survival instincts and physical abilities. Consider these chilling facts:

  • Rats can swim one-half mile in open water -- that's like swimming the length of Barton Springs Pool two and a half times -- and can tread water for up to three days.

  • Rats can travel through sewer pipes and dive through water plumbing traps -- more on this later.

  • Rats can climb brick walls, trees, and telephone poles, and walk across telephone lines. "They get around as good as squirrels, maybe even better," Dotson said.

  • Rats can fall from a height of 50 feet without getting hurt.

  • Rats can jump three feet in the air from a flat surface and leap four feet horizontally.

  • Rats can scamper through openings as small as a quarter: If a rat can get her head through, she's in.

  • Rats can detect poison mixed with food in as little as two parts per million.

  • Rats can chew through lead, cinder block, and aluminum sheeting -- rats' teeth grow about four inches a year, and they have to gnaw on things to keep their teeth from pushing through their skulls.

Mama rats can have as many as 60 offspring in one year, and each of those baby rats hits puberty at three months of age. For the most part, rats will continue to multiply as long as there is enough food and water and shelter for them all.

"If you have a dog [outside] or feed birds or have a pecan or fig tree, you're set to go for a population infestation," Dotson said.

Don Freeman, a master gardener in Austin, said he's seen rats during the day on his bird feeder in past years. "I've run into a lot of friends who did feed birds, but stopped because of the rats." He's careful these days to keep the bird feed and pecans picked up off the ground and to feed his cat inside.

Because rats are nocturnal, seeing rats during the day could mean the rat population is out of control in the area or the food sources are getting low or that those rats are the weaker, less popular ones, forced to go out for dinner when the more dominant rats won't bother them.

The average roof rat in Austin lives for about a year, eats an ounce of food a day (that's about one-third of a cup of Purina Cat Chow), weighs around five to 10 ounces, and stretches 13 to 17 inches long from its nose to the tip of its tail.

Rats in Austin mostly eat things such as pecans, figs, seeds, and dog food, but rats will eat almost anything that humans eat and then some. Hendrickson writes in his book that, "Rats hunt and eat virtually every kind of seafood, including fish, lobsters, and crabs. They have been known to cut into the bellies of pigs and calves and to dine on the oil-rich toenails of sleeping elephants, crippling them."

Rats also bite people. Thousands -- often the elderly and infants -- are bitten by rats every year. In Austin, last year, rats bit at least nine people. According to Seton spokeswoman Stephanie Elsea, nine cases of rat bite were reported at Brackenridge from January to November of 1999. In 1998, 11 people were treated for rat bite, and nine cases were reported for 1997. In all cases the men, women, and children who were bitten were treated and released, Elsea said. David Grand, owner of Applied Pest Control in Austin, started trapping varmints as a kid in Long Island. He and his buddies played in the bogs near their neighborhood. "One day I saw a trap in the water with a dead muskrat. I took the trap and kept it and reset it and just kept using it over and over," Grand said, "Now I do the same thing and get paid. It's not work. It's what I do. It's my entertainment."

Grand traps rats, squirrels, racoons, and various other vermin and then secures the house so they can't get back in. He answers his phone himself 24 hours a day and has put 43,000 miles on his work truck in the past six months. He and his business partner, Roy Rodriquez, a carpenter by trade, keep a bottle of ginseng in the glove compartment. Roy picks up the bottle of the liquid energy with a stringy, floating root inside and explains, "Sometimes we work until 10 at night and then someone will call at 4am."

They often take turns taking naps as they drive from job to job. The night before, someone had called at 1am because a rat was flopping around in a trap making noise. Later Grand swigs the last shot from the bottle of ginseng. That day, it wasn't enough. He fell asleep during the end of the interview as Roy drove the truck north on MoPac.

Grand's Applied Pest Control is one of more than 125 pest control companies listed in the Austin Yellow Pages. Many of them tackle bugs and rats, but a few, like Grand, specialize in critter control. One group says it is dedicated to "resolving the human and animal conflict."

Grand uses live cage traps and ultra-smelly petroleum-based bait for the larger animals -- raccoons, opossums, and whatnot. He catches rats with professional versions of the standard 3"x7" rat trap available at most local hardware and grocery stores.

There is some debate between local rat trappers about the best bait -- peanut butter or pecans. Grand said pecans: "Gets them every time." And with pecans you "can use them over and over unless there's a lot of blood."

He usually catches three to five rats when he's called to a house, he said. The most he remembers is 10 to 15 -- "That's a tremendous amount of rats to have in one house." He double bags the dead rats in zip-tight bags and tosses them in his commercial dumpster.

Jeff Hill, an entomologist with Bug Master, said the company started receiving more calls about rats in December, which is typical, but "sometimes the rats never let up. It often depends on the pecan tree crop."

Grand has also noticed that if you want to find rats in Austin, follow the pecans: "Northwest Hills is hot for rats. Enfield/Tarrytown is excellent. Zilker has lots -- wherever there are a lot of pecan trees."

Hill said that in addition to pecans he's found that Austin rats also like dry vanilla pudding mix and that when rats break into restaurants they tend to go for the bread. "They love loaf bread."

Robert Dole, a 15-year Austinite, and his cat know about such things. A few summers ago, rats climbed into his house several times to help themselves to the bread he kept on top of the refrigerator. "This was Branola, Health-Nut kind of bread, it wasn't cheap," Dole said. "One night I was just hanging out with my cat in the bedroom and I heard this "ekk ekk,' a series of high-pitched squeaks. There was more than one rat in there. They were fighting over the food, and my cat was just sitting there looking at me like, "I'm not going in there.'

"I just pretended like it didn't happen."

In the steamy summer of 1998, Dole was living in a new place when he saw three rats climbing in the hackberry trees outside his second-story Zilker apartment. "I was keeping the windows open, but after I saw those suckers, I said forget it."

Sometimes rats do come right in and make themselves at home. Hill once trapped rats for a woman who had one that "was actually chewing on her toenails as she slept.

"Another woman had rats that came into her house at night. One of the rats would jump up on the sofa and watch TV with her," Hill said.The urban legend that sewer-dwelling rats can climb up through the commode and into your house is not a legend. "It's a little creepy, but it happens. It happens a lot," Dotson said.

Sometimes they crawl in through ventilation pipes on the roof, other times they swim in from the sewers and sneak in from cracks in the line. Most toilets trap enough water in the connecting pipe to discourage the rats from coming on in. However, in unused guest bathrooms and abandoned houses, for example, that water can evaporate. "You take any house in the city of Austin and let the water in the toilet dry up and you will have rats in the house," Grand said.

Rats took over a Lakeway house while the owners were gone for six months, he said. About a half dozen rats climbed in through the plumbing system and enjoyed a brief dream vacation of their own. They sampled all the food in the house, chewed on the Persian rugs, and destroyed thousands of dollars of furniture. "When I walked in, the house had a strong rat urine smell," Grand said. "Six or seven rats in your house is mayhem."

Hill was once called out to a newly built hospital with a rat problem. "They were going straight up through four stories of piping and getting in."

Louis Gonzales supervises video inspection of Austin's sewer lines and said he sees "big ol' gray, ugly-looking rats" several times a week when he sends video cameras on remote-controlled tractors into the sewers to look for breaks and leaks. "You can almost find them anywhere," he says, "but the majority are in the oldest parts [of the city sewer lines.]"

The kind of rat that lives in Austin is not naturally a sewer dweller; it would much prefer a woodpile to call home. But once they're down there, they like to chomp on kitchen scraps from garbage disposals. And when they get a little too rambunctious, the city rat control team puts poisoned floating paraffin blocks in the main lines.

One of the calls the city responded to last year came from a North Austin woman who didn't want to be identified in this article because she said, "I just don't want to be remembered for this incident."

Last January at about 4:30am, she said, she heard noises and assumed one of her children was in their bathroom. "I thought I heard sort of a splashing sound, so finally I got up to investigate. No one in their bathroom, both children tucked into their beds.

"Well, now I needed to use the bathroom since I was up. So I went into our bathroom, closed the door, flicked on the light. Lifted the toilet lid, saw there was a little matter in the bottom of the toilet -- no big deal."

So she flushed to start with a clean slate. "Boy was I ever glad." Because that's when she saw "a long, dark, hairy tail drooping down from under the toilet rim, going with the flow of the flushing water down the sides of the toilet." The tail was attached to a rat clinging beneath the toilet seat.

"I freaked.

"I pride myself on not being some wimpy Barbie-doll creature that needs to be pampered all the time. But this just tore it."

She shrieked for her husband. He drowned the rat with a coat hanger and bleach and then "held me for a lonnggg time," she said.

"We have never told the children about this, and are extremely grateful that it didn't happen in their toilet to one of them. We'd probably still be paying therapy bills."

City employees came out and checked her pipes the next day and, though they didn't find any breaks or droppings, put poison in the main line. "I've heard that when they are digging up streets in one area, the rats from that area will tend to move out and go invade the area next door," she says. "For what it's worth, there was some street work being done a couple of blocks away from our house that week."

Out at the Sunshine Community garden plot near 45th & Lamar, rats recently tunneled under the chain link fence around the chicken co-operative and got into the chicken feed. So now the chicken co-opers have a new evening chore: blasting the rat tunnels with a water hose, said Elaine Dill, a member of the co-op.

Dill said she's also noticed something -- that she suspects are rats -- munching on her broccoli and cauliflower this season.

"This is really the first year I've noticed a problem with the crops," Dill said. Then again, it's also the first fall and winter in several years without garden cat Molly, who died last spring. Dill said most of the gardeners at the organic community plot aren't concerned about the rats -- "there's plenty for everyone" -- and poisoning them is not an option they would even consider.

With the 12-foot-high compost pile at the community gardens, "the rats are probably always going to be there from the wild," she said.

Dole, the guy with the cat who shared his good bread with rats several years ago, has a somewhat similar attitude, even though he hears rats in his current apartment ceiling several times a week. "They are just doing what they need to do to survive. They are just exploiting a niche we've created. I realize I have a part in co-creating my reality," Dole said.

As he spoke of the rats in his apartment, he also spoke of Gandhi, deep ecology, honoring the good and the bad of the world, and living and working with the rats.

"We live in an interdependent world, and we can't eradicate them. And what does that say about us if we can?" he wondered.

"But then again, I don't like to think about them running across my feet or chewing on my toenails."

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