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.
“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.”