Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Money Down A Rathole

originally published in the Hartford Advocate August 30, 2007

Money Down A Rathole
West Hartford's rodent crackdown penalizes victims and perpetrators alike

By Jennifer Abel

Before discussing the very serious rodent problem plaguing West Hartford, let's get the obvious joke out of the way: "I always knew it was full of rats but figured they had offices in Town Hall, heh heh heh." (Actually, where the current controversy's concerned, it's the West Hartford/Bloomfield Health District most likely to be discussed in rat-like metaphors, but we'll get to that later.)

Jokes aside, there really is a rat-infestation problem in the Elmwood section of town, though of the four-legged rather than political variety. The problem's been ongoing for at least a year, residents say.

"You get up in the morning, walk your dog, you see rats all over," said Rick Dean. "Rats in the road, rats in people's yards, rats on the sidewalk ... especially on garbage day, that's when they all come out to eat."

Dean's neighbor James Cyr concurs. "On the street, around the houses, underneath the porches, they're all over the place."

The species infesting Elmwood is the Norway rat, which has been called "the most destructive animal in North America." It's also one of the fastest-breeding mammals on Earth.

"They can have a litter of young every 21 days," says Steve Huleatt, director of the West Hartford/Bloomfield Health District. "Up to 16 in a litter for this particular species." Statistically, around half of each litter will be female, and newborn females reach reproductive maturity in four months. Also, rats have no mating season, but breed year-round. Do the math: it won't take long for a small rat problem to spawn a big one.

About the only good thing to say regarding the Norway rat is that it wasn't the species that helped spread the Black Death through medieval Europe. That dubious honor goes to the black rat. Still, a plague of Norway rats is nothing to get complacent about. Not that anyone is. Plenty of people in Elmwood have hired the services of exterminators, but the problem's too big for any one property owner to handle.

"One homeowner makes his yard rat-unfriendly, so they just move next door," Huleatt said on Aug. 21, at a public meeting the health department held at the Elmwood Community Center. Since piecemeal exterminations won't solve the problem, the department plans to arrange a single-night mass rat-killing sometime in the near but indeterminate future. At the meeting, Huleatt and West Hartford's mayor Scott Slifka announced that they would put out a Request For Proposals in search of a contractor capable of handling such a huge task.

So far, so good. It's the health department's plans in the interim that have homeowners irate. The department sent letters to 88 people in Elmwood, ordering them all to clean up their rat-infested properties and hire an exterminator.

James Cyr got one of the letters. It says he "was found to be in violation" of local codes because "rat burrows, rodent tracks, and/or other signs of rodent activity were observed on the property."

That's true. The burrows are in a narrow strip of space between Cyr's small garden shed and the high fence separating Cyr's yard from the one behind it. The Advocate came by a few hours after Cyr had buried most of the burrows under fresh dirt, but the rats had already re-dug one of their exit holes.

"I cover one hole, they dig a new hole," Cyr says. He'd had an exterminator come by just that afternoon (at a cost of $75), but "he said there's not much he can do. He can drop the [poison] bait here, but you've got to go to the source to solve the problem."

The source is the yard behind Cyr's. The Advocate peeked over the fence into the yard of a shabby multi-family home and saw a veritable ratopia: piles of rotting garbage, old plant matter half-decayed into compost, and at least a half-dozen enormous rat-burrow entrances near a row of loosely covered garbage cans.

The letter from the health department says "whenever infestation is caused by failure of the owner to maintain a dwelling in a reasonably pest- insect- or ratproof condition, extermination shall be the responsibility of the owner."

But Cyr's infestation isn't caused by any failures on his part: his garbage is kept in a locked shed surrounded by enormous bricks buried deep in the ground. "I did that so the rats can't burrow their way into my garbage shed," he said. His yard is immaculate; the Advocate couldn't find so much as a stray grass clipping, let alone enormous rat-friendly compost piles like the kind behind his neighbor's house.

There's two ways you can wind up with rats on your property: make it a rat-friendly zone, or live close to someone who has.

When the Advocate called Huleatt to ask why people like Cyr received copies of the letter, Huleatt said it's because "for whatever reason, they've either allowed or permitted those rats to get into their yard."

"I'm not 'permitting' the rats to come into my yard," Cyr said with obvious disgust. "I'm doing everything I can to keep them out. How am I supposed to keep them from burrowing into my yard? Should I cover it all in concrete?"

No. That would probably violate town zoning codes. Until the mass kill hopefully wipes out the Elmwood rat problem, homeowners like Cyr have to grin, bear it and literally pour money down the ratholes in their yard, by hiring exterminators who freely admit they can't solve the problem unless they can go to its source.

Will Cyr at least be reimbursed for his exterminator fees? Steve Huleatt said, "I don't know."