October 16, 2018
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Rats are taking over Maine

Salwan Georges | AP
Salwan Georges | AP
Brown rats are taking over midcoast Maine.

In June 2017, Pete Zuck of Belfast began noticing that something was chewing the seeds and winter squash he was storing in a little-used back room at his home.

Mice, he told himself.

But then he saw one, and he realized the alarming truth: He didn’t have mice. He had rats.

For Zuck, who hopes he is finally on the other side of a long war against the four-legged intruders, it didn’t take long for his desire to get rid of the rats to become something of an obsession.

“They’re crafty. You get into psychological games with rats,” he said. “It just consumes your life.”

His house was under siege by Norway rats, an omnivorous, wily rodent that can grow to be up to a foot and a half long and weigh as much as a pound. They can gain entrance to any building through any opening larger than half an inch across, and can gnaw through wood, drywall, electric cables, pipes, plastic and even metal. Norway rats, also known as brown or sewer rats, are believed to have originated in China (not Norway), and are now found on every continent except Antarctica. It is the dominant rat in Europe and throughout most of North America, and in Maine during the past few years, it seems as if their numbers have exploded.

The increased numbers of rats have not gone unnoticed. Last week, Belfast City Manager Joe Slocum announced during the regular city council meeting that he had received several phone calls about rat issues from people living in different parts of the community. Slocum wanted to let other residents know about the rat concerns in Belfast. However, one pest control expert said the problem isn’t Belfast-, Waldo County- or even Maine-specific.

Courtesy of Chance Strandell
Courtesy of Chance Strandell
An exterminator from Maine Pest Solutions snapped a photo of one of his rat kills.

“Rats really are everywhere. People think it’s a city issue, but it’s not. These are wild animals, but they thrive on human activity,” Chance Strandell, residential service manager of Brewer-based Maine Pest Solutions, said this week. “It’s a problem in the entire state as well as everywhere in the nation, to my understanding. It’s a national issue. And no one really has concrete proof of what is causing the rodent population to explode.”

Mild winters & hobby farms

Strandell has heard that some folks think that the rats might be affected by the same factors that are causing the squirrel population to explode — namely, two banner years for natural food in a row. But the amount of acorns and the numbers of rats are not directly correlated, he said, adding that he believes that the mild winters of recent years are one factor helping to cause the population boom. With more warm weather, the rats can have an extra litter before winter comes, and those additional rats have added up. But he also thinks that the popularity of hobby farms and backyard chickens has added to the rat problem. Rats like to eat the food that people throw out for their chickens and other farm animals, along with food left out for wild birds.

“I wouldn’t dream of putting a bird feeder in my yard,” he said. “You’re asking for issues.”

In fact, one of his most notable recent calls came from a couple living in Greater Bangor who had been putting birdseed out — about 40 pounds of it a week — to feed wildlife. It worked, but not the way they had wanted.

“They had about 1,000 rats on one acre of land,” he said. “In broad daylight they were running around the bird feeder, like they were squirrels.”

It took some time and quite a lot of rodenticide to get the rats at the property under control, but Strandell finally got there. And the incident reminded him that you just never know what you’re going to find in his line of work.

“Rats are a big issue that people want to learn about. They want to learn how to prevent it,” he said. “But often they kind of ignore it and hope it goes away. People don’t even want to say the word rats. It’s viewed that rats are associated with poor sanitation. That can be the case. But I’ve had clients with million-dollar homes who have rats, too.”

Courtesy of Chance Strandell
Courtesy of Chance Strandell
Rats caught in a Maine home by Chance Strandell of Maine Pest Solutions.

War against rats

In Swanville this summer, Sheila Costello was faced with an infestation of rats that she believes originally came from down the road. An old grange hall had been kept in a poor condition by inhabitants, and when it was purchased by a new owner, he hauled away a “mountain of garbage” that had accumulated there.

“When he did, hundreds of rats went running all over,” she said. “It was really horrible.”

The rats ate insulation from a nearby trailer, and the wiring from a neighbor’s car. Costello first noticed them in her bird feeder.

“I went on high patrol,” she said, adding that her friends and family consider her to be a peace-loving person. “But I wanted to kill those rats.”

Over a two-week staycation in August, she went on the warpath. She used a Havahart live animal trap to catch them and then dumped the rats into a big garbage pail full of water. Her husband was tasked with disposing of their bodies. When she caught one, she would send her adult children text messages using the rat emoji on her phone.

“It was very satisfying to kill them,” she said. “I felt a little like, ‘Oh my God, I shouldn’t feel quite so happy to be killing things.’ But I was.”

In Belfast, Zuck believes the rats may initially have come from an old chicken barn not too far from his home. After he realized they were eating the vegetables and seeds stored in his back room, he researched solutions for the problem and decided to hunt them with mechanical means because he didn’t want to use poison. He set snap traps, then learned that it was hard to catch more than one rat every few days because they are smart and wary.

Over time, Zuck overhauled his environment, including plugging up holes in the basement, stopping composting and cleaning up the brush pile in the yard. There were no silver bullets to fix the problem (although he did try to shoot them with a pellet gun he bought for that express purpose). He encouraged neighborhood cats to come into his yard to hunt them, and as winter approached, he got a cat of his own, scattering her litter box material around the woods in a rat deterrent effort.

“It was a race against time, because when you’re not killing them they’re making more and more rats,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of trapping them. It’s this whole multifaceted approach. Changing the environment, inviting predators and destroying their homes.”

Courtesy of Pete Zuck
Courtesy of Pete Zuck
The remnants of the rat tunnels made in the snow last winter outside Pete Zuck's home in Belfast, where he waged war against the rodents for more than 6 months. One pest management expert said that the rat population seems to have exploded over the past few years in Maine and around the nation.

After the snow fell, he found an elaborate network of rat tunnels through the snow that led all around his property and up to his house. On a night that was just above freezing, he hooked up the garden hose and saturated the den and tunnels with water. After it froze solid, the rats seemed to have gone away. Altogether, he had more than 30 confirmed kills and spent more than six months fighting against the rats, but by midwinter, it felt like the war was over.

Maybe.

“I’m ever-vigilant,” Zuck said. “The thing is, there were probably five or six times when I thought it was over, and they would come back. It’s like the old ‘80s slasher films, when a hand pops out of the water at the end of the movie. I’m never going to be convinced that they’re gone.”

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