On almost any summer night, the streets of downtown Asheville brim with people. Combat boots, flip-flops and high heels stroll across uneven walkways as tourists and locals alike pour into the city’s diverse collection of restaurants, art galleries and bars.
No one notices the small, dark creature as it scurries along the crowded sidewalk. No one notices its long, scaly tail and sharp, gnarled teeth. No one, except for Critter Thomas.
“It was funny to me that these people seemed so oblivious that this really large rat had just run past them,” Thomas says, laughing.
For Thomas, who has called Asheville home for the past 20 years, spotting a rat on the charming streets of downtown was surprising but not unthinkable. As an experienced traveler and native of Atlanta, Thomas has seen his fair share of rats.
But as Thomas peered down an alleyway tucked between Broadway and Market Street one recent night, he saw another. And then another.
“Looking down the alley, you could see 15 or 20 rats just sitting there, openly running around. They didn’t seem to be too fazed by anything,” Thomas says. “It was just a rat circus back there.”
Urban rats have been around as long as cities themselves. New York City infamously has both uptown and downtown rats, while Chicago was recently named the rat capital of America by apartment search website RentHop. Although Asheville remains a far cry from those rat havens, a small but cunning force appears to be infiltrating the cracks and crevices of downtown, and some residents are taking notice.
Thomas says he’s observed rats all over downtown but most frequently on Lexington Avenue, at Pritchard Park and in the alleyways behind Wall Street. Asheville resident Luann Treadaway Nelson says she’s also spotted rats near the edges of downtown.
“The place that I have seen them on about three different occasions is around Cherry and Flint Street, where the [Interstate] 240 overpass is,” Treadaway Nelson says.
According to Ryan Hall, CEO of Animal Pros, a Nashville-based wildlife removal service that serves Asheville and Buncombe County, the sightings are not all that surprising. Over his 14 years in the business, Hall says his company has seen a steady increase in service calls across the Southeast.
“It’s something that’s plaguing multiple cities,” Hall says. “We have noticed over the past few years an influx of rat activity around the mountainous areas, extending into Asheville and even into Tennessee and the Knoxville area.”
While rats have lived in these urban areas for decades, Hall suggests that growing rat and mouse populations likely result from continuous human expansion into natural environments.
“Anytime you destroy any habitat, you are going to have different wildlife impacted, and as a consequence, you will have different human-wildlife conflicts arise,” Hall says.
The perfect storm
Michael Waldvogel, an extension associate professor at N.C. State University who specializes in urban and industrial pests, says Asheville’s booming restaurant scene and ongoing construction create the right conditions for a spike in rodent activity.
“I grew up in New York, which has an abundance of rodents, but it’s the same thing anywhere when you do construction, and especially when you are tearing up roads and disrupting the sewer system,” Waldvogel says. “The rats are leading a peaceful life in the sewers, and all of a sudden things get disrupted, and they move someplace else, so you may see them become concentrated in some areas.”
In addition to near-constant development in Asheville’s downtown district, Waldvogel says waste from downtown restaurants and bars contributes to the problem. These leftovers make easy meals for rodents, especially during the evening and early morning hours.
“What drives rodent problems is access to food and water. If there’s food available, they’re finding it,” Waldvogel says. “So when you put those into the equation, controlling rodents on a citywide level can be difficult.”
Keep it clean
“I just always assumed that we didn’t have a rat problem until I started seeing them dart across the alleyways myself,” says downtown resident Rachel Roberts Bliss. “It’s really a scary idea that, if you have to go out at night, you might step on a rat or they might scamper over your feet. I still get quivers up my spine when I see one.”
Few animals strike as much fear into the hearts of people as rats, possibly because they are practically synonymous with disease. According to the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention, rats and other rodents are capable of transmitting up to 30 different diseases through either direct or indirect human contact.
Despite this potential, the risk of rodent-borne infections seems to be low in Buncombe County. Jan Shepard, public health director for the Buncombe County Department of Health and Human Services, says her office received only 28 rodent complaints across the entire county for fiscal year 2017-18. And complaints are down this year, with only two reported from July through September compared with nine for the same period last year.
No existing communicable disease report filed with HHS, Shepard says, has specifically linked an illness to rodent exposure in Asheville or Buncombe County.
Regardless, Shepard recommends that residents and business owners regularly clean trash receptacles and remove waste and debris from outdoor areas to reduce their chances of exposure to illness. If contamination is suspected, Shepard says the first step is contacting her department.
“Environmental health specialists are available to work with anyone or any business who is experiencing a rodent concern,” Shepard says.
Cat and mouse
Asheville city officials are also at the ready for handling the problem. City spokesperson Polly McDaniel says that city staff receives occasional rodent complaints from residents and business owners and is tackling the issue with a multidepartmental approach.
“This challenge is something that many downtown and urban environments share, especially those with a concentration of restaurants, such as ours,” McDaniel says.
Given that trash and waste are likely the largest contributors to rodent populations, McDaniel says, Asheville’s Sanitation Division works to collect trash from downtown streets and parks six or seven days a week, depending on volume. A special team in the Streets Division also focuses specifically on cleaning downtown parks and public areas. Both groups collaborate with members of the city’s Development Services Department and Buncombe County Environmental Health to work with property owners regarding guidelines for cleanliness and to address any violations.
And these efforts may be starting to pay off. McDaniel notes that some areas, including Prichard Park, have experienced a drop in reported rat sightings.
“In areas where staff have worked with downtown businesses and residents to clean up alleys, we have received reports of reduced rat populations,” McDaniel says.
McDaniel also says some city departments are prepared to do more, if necessary. The Sanitation Division plans to review downtown waste storage and collection procedures in the coming year to determine possible improvements for both efficiency and public health.
Still, Waldvogel with N.C. State says it’s important to be realistic in terms of controlling an urban rat population. Part of city life, he says, is learning to make peace with a certain density of rodents.
“There’s probably always going to be rats. It’s like with insects,” Waldvogel says. “We try all these different ways to get rid of insects, and we come out with new and improved things or whatever. But insects have been here a gazillion years, and they’re not exactly ready to roll over and die. It’s the same thing with rats.”