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Rats: Milwaukee’s War of Attrition with a Symptom of Societal Problems

May. 23, 2023 at 4:51PM

According to the Chinese Zodiac, I was born in the year of the rat. Who wants to be associated with a rat? Nobody. I'd take the year of the snake or pig over the rat. In truth, there are probably few creatures more loathed than the rat. Words to describe them include filthy, disease-ridden, dirty, infested, and drown, all said with noses scrunched up in disgust. In the mob world, if you are found out to be a "rat," you'll likely soon be sleeping with the fishes because the only good rat is a dead rat.

My neighbors and I live in a nice Milwaukee area, but we have an on-again, off-again rat problem. We've seen them. We've "removed" them. Before long, they're baaa-aack. Our way of saying, "Hi, how ya doing?" to each other is something more akin to, "Seen any rats lately?"

Any municipal inspector, public health official, or exterminator will be engaged in an ongoing battle to "control" the population of rats living in or near city streets, sewers, garbage piles, parks, rental properties, industrial areas, and residential neighborhoods. Milwaukee is no exception. In a 2022 list compiled by Orkin based on the number of rat abatement service calls, Milwaukee ranked twenty-first for rat service calls. Chicago placed first as the rattiest city in America. Unlike Super Bowl or World Series champs, we're happy to let Chicago own that title.

One of the most legit reasons for this rodent battle is because rats are harbingers of disease. Bad ones that, even with today's medical advances, can and do still kill people. Hantavirus. Hemorrhagic fever. Bubonic plague. Monkeypox. Rat-bite fever. While most people in Milwaukee will never contract any of these, if the rat population was allowed to go on unabated, the chances of human contraction would increase exponentially. So, like the Nutcracker King who battles an army of rodents in Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann's gothic horror, we hire our own armies of rodent warriors to remove these scurrying critters from our cities.

Residential Code Enforcement Manager for the City of Milwaukee, Don Schaewe, told me that the city is vigilant in its approach to controlling rats. "The City of Milwaukee investigates complaints of rats and either orders property owners to conduct abatement or does baiting where appropriate and feasible," Schaewe said. City officials also try to educate property owners on how to keep rats from taking up residency in the first place. That includes removing bird and squirrel feeders and not feeding pets outside. I was told by another city inspector that rats and mice may be attracted to dog feces as a food source. There is some back and forth on the veracity of that claim, but just pick up your dog poop to be safe. That's what New York City has instructed its citizens to do.

Schaewe also told me that rats will thrive pretty much anywhere that they can find the most basic of resources. To survive, rats merely require elements at the lowest level of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: food, shelter, and water. Cities everywhere, including Milwaukee, provide an abundance of these elements. Throw in a few bird feeders, perhaps a smattering of dog poop, some decks, and sewers to burrow into, and you've got a Ratutopia. There seems to be no way to really fight or control them, let alone completely eradicate them, right?

70 Years Rat-Free

Not so fast, say our neighbors to the north. I'm not talking about Green Bay. I'm talking about Alberta, Canada. The province has been "rat-free" for over 70 years. Say, what? A Canadian province busting with grain, water, and shelter has virtually no rats, although it does get rat-ass cold there in January. But it hasn't been easy, and it takes diligence to maintain their "No Rats Allowed" status.

It started in the summer of 1950 when a Norwegian rat, a species not native to Canada (or the U.S., for that matter), was found near the western Saskatchewan city of Alsask, right on the border with Alberta. The government, led by the Alberta Department of Agriculture, stormed in and began an all-out war to eradicate any rat whose whiskers dare cross the Alberta border. The rats were moving west, so Alberta created a 372-mile-long by 18-mile wide swath in Alberta known as the "rat control zone," a beautiful, virtual wall to keep out rats gone rogue. It still exists today.

Photo attributed to Provincial Archives of Alberta, A17202b
Photo attributed to Provincial Archives of Alberta, A17202b

The Department of Agriculture used a multifaceted approach, some preventative such as educating citizens about ways to discourage rats from setting up house. Other methods were blatantly lethal, such as poison, and the Department of Agriculture even encouraged citizens to give any rats a taste of buckshot if they dared encroach on Alberta soil. Their methods of controlling rats have not changed much since the 1960s. Most confirmed rat sightings are rare, mainly in larger cities such as Edmonton and Calgary. Karen Wickerson, a rat and pest program specialist with Alberta's Department of Agriculture and Irrigation, told me that beyond larger urban areas, "Most rats found in Alberta are still in the rat control zone along the Alberta/Saskatchewan border.  Rats found in urban areas are single rats that have hitched rides on vehicles."

When rats are reported  in more rural areas it's often some other rodent mistaken for a rat by hawk-eyed, anti-rat diehards. "Most Albertans have never seen an actual rat and misidentify other rodents as rats. Muskrats, which are a larger rodent and native to Alberta, are 50% of the reported rat sightings we receive," said Wickerson. "Rat sightings in Alberta are mainly received from the public, and we encourage people to report any critter they may think is a rat."

Today, rat sightings are swiftly addressed by pest control services armed with a concoction of poisons and deadly contraptions. Even owning a pet rat in Alberta comes with fines of $5000 (Canadian) per rat ($3700+ U.S.).  Keeping Alberta rat-free is a vigilant endeavor, but surprisingly it's not all that costly. "The program costs approximately $350,000 (Canadian) per year," Wickerson said, which is less than $275,000 in U.S. dollars. "The return on investment is in the millions as costs associated with damage to infrastructure and agriculture are saved.  There is also no strain on the public health system due to disease transmission."

Who ya gonna call? Ratbusters?

What does one do if, like me, you know or suspect you have a rat problem and you don't live in Alberta, Canada? One option is to call in local professionals. Here in Milwaukee, a franchise that helps home and business owners with rat and other wildlife abatement takes a gentler yet serious approach to encourage rats to Skedaddle. Skedaddle is, coincidentally, a Canadian company and positions itself as using "Humane methods that minimize injury and stress to the animals." But their services, whether it's bats in your belfry or squirrels in your attic, obviously come at a price. If you really want those nasty rodents gone and have the funds to pay for it, professionals are the way to go. In the case of Skedaddle, they will do the hard work to remove the rats, dig out their burrows, and put in screening and other barriers to prevent them from returning. But—and with rats, there always seems to be a but—there is no guarantee that if all the other factors that rats need to survive are present, they won't return and just burrow in somewhere else.

Marcus Mueller, the owner of the first U.S.-based Skedaddle office in Milwaukee, told me, "There are the random cases where rats will tunnel 4-5 feet away from a structure and get past the screen (barriers). The majority of the time, it goes off without an issue, but there's always the possibility of them tunneling." Great. Tunneling rats.

We briefly discussed the Alberta, Canada rat eradication and whether Mueller thought that is something that could happen in cities like Milwaukee, Chicago, or New York where a healthy rat population is already solidly established. He was skeptical of our chances for success.

"If there is a way, it would be very resource intensive, and it would require a lot of people going all in on the program. I think that the biggest challenge that most cities have is that there's not an unlimited pot of money to dip into as far as resources for making sure there's never any trash on the street or in the dumpsters. Or that all dumpsters are rat-proof. Or any available food is off the streets. That easy shelter opportunities are taken away," Mueller said. "I think it all comes down to that habitat element, looking at food, shelter, water. But just on a much bigger scale. It's probably looking at local municipal government. That's probably who would have to oversee it."

Wickerson agreed with Mueller's assessment explaining, "Alberta does have an advantage to starting the program before rats established in the province. Our geography and weather have helped keep them from establishing as it is too cold in the north of the province for them to live over winter, plus they cannot travel over mountains, and Montana has very few rats.  The Saskatchewan border has been the biggest threat of rats traveling overland. It is very challenging to eradicate rats in urban environments due to the unlimited supply of food and shelter these environments present."

Take New York City, the second rattiest city in the U.S., with 80-90% of the city afflicted with rats. They are going all-in on rat eradication. Earlier this year, New York put out a job search for a "Rat Czar." They found one in a newly hired, former elementary school teacher, who will be paid a $155,000 annual salary to lead rat mitigation efforts. New York has also invested $3.5 million (13 times more than Alberta spends in a year on rat abatement) in a rat mitigation zone in Harlem to try to get rid of as many rats as possible on the north end of Manhattan. We'll see if throwing resources and elementary school teachers at the issue will solve its rat problem.

Tools in the war on rats
Tools in the war on rats

Like Rats from a Sinking Ship

What we are engaged in on this front seems to be a war of attrition. Had we started this fight 70 or 100 years ago in an all-out battle with rats, as Alberta did and proudly continues to do today, there is a slim chance that Milwaukee would be as "rat-free" as Alberta. Just the occasional muskrat or beaver sighting by a misinformed but well-meaning citizen. But a war of attrition of any sort can be thought of as a situation where even the winners are losers. Loss of time, resources, money, patience, and the will to keep fighting.

In truth, New York didn't really hire a Rat Czar because of the rats, even if the city leaders don't come right out and say so. The rats are a symptom of greater societal problems that infest any populated city, state, province, or society. Rats emerge because of the greater systemic failings that are supposed to ensure that people thrive, not just survive. Hopefully, New York's Rat Czar has a clear understanding of those problems, or she will fail in her mission.

Rats ultimately appear where there is housing inequality. Social and economic injustice. Lack of accessibility to basic healthcare. Poor education. When rats emerge, they are often preceded by the degradation of society itself, and in the process, conveniently find bird feeders and dumpsters to scavenge from. They burrow and make their nests within and under the foundations of any city or community that are philosophically and politically, figuratively, and actually just beyond man-made rat exclusion or control zones. They remain there lurking, just below the surface, waiting for conditions to become more habitable for the rats themselves than they sometimes are for humans.

My cat Baby playing her part
My cat Baby playing her part

About the author

Joette Rockow

Joette is a Senior Lecturer at UW-Milwaukee where she teaches advertising, public relations, and common sense. She is a writer, musician, Taoist, animal lover, and enjoys a good hike, a cold beer, and a belly laugh with friends.