Not the Black Plague, but the Rats are Back

It was the year 1340, and things were looking up for humanity. Then, the rats came. In a feat of ingenious organization, the rodent legion systematically spread a virulent plague that ultimately killed over a third of the human population. The good news is that humans eventually won the larger war and maintained dominion over the Earth. The bad news? The rats may be returning.

As humans migrate back to large urban centers, rat populations, too, surge. Chances are, if you’ve lived on Capitol Hill for more than a week, you’ve probably seen some one of the large, hairy ne’er-do-wells scurrying across a sidewalk or around the peripheries of the quad.

The sudden boom in construction around the city however, as well as the massive project to replace the viaduct downtown with an underground tunnel has led some to believe that Seattle could soon be in the midst of a rat invasion, the likes of which may not have been seen since the days of Joan of Arc.

It should be noted here that the “Black Death” spread in the Late Middle Ages is not nearly as active as it once was, though in recent years cases have been reported in both Oregon and Colorado, according to The Boston Globe. Rats, however, are capable of carrying a plethora of different diseases.

Back in August, KOMO News wrote an article about pest control companies in the area who reportedly were catching twice as many rats around Pioneer Square. They interviewed A.J. Treleven from Sprague Pest Solutions, who told reporters that the vibrations created by “Big Bertha,” the huge drill currently working to build the tunnel downtown, was pushing an unprecedented number of rats up from underground and into the city streets.

In response, his company started handing out pamphlets advising city residents to prepare for the ensuing “ratpocalypse.”

The article also notes, however, that local business owners hadn’t reported any increased rat activities. None of the students spoken to on the Seattle University campus had noticed any more rats than usual, either.

Rats are more than just unsightly. They are tenacious as well, taking residence under piles of rubble in construction sites and the insulation of buildings. Their teeth grow an average rate of five inches per year, which means they have to constantly gnaw on objects to file them down, or they’ll risk having them grow into their lower jaws. Unfortunately, the materials often most readily available for chewing happen to be the wiring inside of buildings.

Emily Perales, a recent Seattle U alumni who now works full time for the grounds department, is on constant vigilance for rats around campus. She’s worked for grounds for four years now. According to her, gardeners trim foliage away from buildings to ensure rats don’t have a place to hide, and there are at least six rat traps around every building on campus.

Perales says she isn’t sure if the number of rats on campus has increased, but she has certainly seen more individual rats than in years past.

“Visually, I’ve seen more rats, but I’m also looking for them,” said Perales. “As far an increase in number, I can’t say one way or another.”

She also pointed out that most people don’t report rat activity on campus, so it’s hard to keep track of how many rats are present at any time. She hasn’t however, had to seal any rat holes this year.

The threat of growing numbers of rats in Seattle is exemplary of a growing issue for the nation.

Shannon Britton, the grounds and landscaping manager at Seattle U, said that she hadn’t seen any marked increase in rat activity on campus. She does agree, however, that increased construction around the area seems to increase rat activity.

“We do notice a lot of extra construction in the area. Both Madison and Broadway are under siege right now by construction, and that will cause fluctuations in populations of rats and where they move,” she said. “But all of that is really common. We see it on a regular basis.”

Britton said that grounds uses a number of landscaping techniques to try and ensure that rats don’t gain a foothold on campus. Their primary work involves sealing up rat holes with soil and gravel to ensure that the creatures can’t create a base.

Grounds only deals with rats outside, however, and not inside of the buildings. In either case, faculty contact Paratex, a Seattle pest control company, in the event of an infestation.

The Seattle City Council has also recently launched a “Find it, Fix it” app, that allows users to mark different spots around Seattle to alert the city of things like graffiti and potholes. Among these, users can also report rat activity. The download is available from both the Apple store and the Google Play Store.

According to ABC news, a “rat summit” was recently held in New York to deal with the surge of rat sightings plaguing the city and a number of other urban centers are struggling to keep them in check. The article notes that sightings in Chicago have shot up by 10,000 and cities like Atlanta are seeing more of the pests due to high foreclosure rates and increasing poverty.

According to the article, health experts blame changes in federal funding for diminishing cities’ ability to confront rodent populations. A decrease in federal funding for pest control, they say, has forced cities to shift their approach from an active role to a passive one. Rather than seeking out and trying to control rat populations, cities instead opt for a “complaint-oriented” system that doesn’t address root causes.

The summit in New York recommended better trash compactors and improved education for business owners about how to secure and dispose of trash.