Ratsville, North Carolina

Rats: The mere word gives most of us the willies. What is it about this ubiquitous rodent that evokes an almost medieval sense of revulsion? Is it the beast’s wily nature? That long, hairless tail? Rats’ significant role in that most fearsome of plagues, the Black Death?

This summer, there seems to have been no shortage of rat sightings in Asheville, sparking rumors of imminent rat invasion. Most of those critters seem to have been spotted around trash bags and garbage cans adorning the city’s sidewalks, nooks and crannies. (There are more nooks and crannies than you’d think, hereabouts — consider, for instance, the hidden passageway known as Rat Alley, which scampers through the dark, downtown heart of our metropolis.)

And so, our ear-to-the-street curiosity piqued, this intrepid reporter set off on a citywide search for that vilest of vile rodents: the Norway rat, Rattus norvegicus (a.k.a. the common brown rat).

The Norway rat probably originated in eastern Asia. The first recorded appearance in Europe was in 1553, and the animal is now found throughout the United States, supplanting the smaller, less-aggressive black rat. A Norway rat can tread water for days and even swim underwater; it can fit through an opening the size of a quarter and leap three feet into the air.

But these marvels of evolution and ingenuity have a major image problem, primarily because they can carry the infamous bubonic plague, a contagious disease caused by the bacillus Yersinia pestis. In fact, it’s not the rats whose bite transmits the plague, but various parasitic insects — most notably, the rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) — who find the rats a nice place to call home. That’s bad news for humans, in whom bubonic plague is characterized by the appearance of chicken-egg-sized buboes (enlarged, inflamed lymph nodes) in the groin, armpit or neck.

So much for the science lesson. But are these crafty critters really infesting our pristine and happy little Land of the Sky?

Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick says she’s “gotten about a half-dozen complaints [about rats] in the nine months I’ve been in office.” Most of those, she says, had to do with trash being left out on the sidewalk, especially trash from restaurants. “At our recent litter roundtable,” continues Sitnick, “we talked about requiring people to put garbage in a container with a lid, or maybe a dumpster. That’s being worked on by staff, but nothing is concrete yet.

“Of course, rats are a public-health problem, and we want to be proactive rather than reactive, so it’s something we’re definitely looking at.”

That’s the word from the top about the city’s rat problem. For a more hands-on perspective, though, we consulted Ron Thomas, the environmental health director of the Buncombe County Health Center; his answer was a qualified “not really.” Rat conditions in Asheville, though not optimal, have yet to escalate to the point of becoming a real danger, he explained in a recent telephone interview. “The situation has been more or less tolerated,” he said. “There is no real rat problem here in Asheville.”

There are no rat ordinances in Asheville, either, he explains, only health regulations spelling out what to do when rats are present. The Health Department, he reports, ” … is simply an enforcement agency. If we inspect an establishment and find it to have a rat population, we can give the place demerits and refer them to a private exterminator. We can consult and advise, but we are not a rodent-control program.”

The Health Department’s Inspection Program conducts regular inspections of all restaurants, lodgings and other food-handling facilities in the county, following specific guidelines for such things as rat infestation. “If a rodent problem exists,” Thomas says, “we can count off as many as five points. If there is an outside and an inside problem, the demerits get worse, and an establishment can see a demerit loss of about 10 or 15 points.”

That’s about half way to the 30 points needed to shut an establishment down, he notes.

But the penalties vary, depending on the type of establishment in question. With lodgings, for example, if a rodent or other pest problem is bad enough, an inspector can deduct a total of seven points. For restaurants or other food-handling establishments, a five-point deduction is possible. For hospitals, nursing homes, rest homes, sanitariums, sanitoriums or similar institutions, the maximum deduction is six points.

While Asheville and Buncombe keep their anti-rat efforts low-key, some North Carolina counties have taken a harder stance in the fight against these greasy rodents. Mecklenburg County, for instance, has had a rat-control ordinance on the books since 1985.

“Here in Mecklenburg,” says Dennis Salmen, program chief of vector control in the county’s Environmental Health Department, “if somebody has a rodent problem, you can either contact us, file a complaint about somebody else, or initiate a service request. For service requests, there are three things we can do: First, we can advise you on your problem — tell you whether or not you do in fact have a rodent problem, or educate you on what type of rats you have. We will provide baiting for the rodent, but only if it is an exterior problem; we don’t help people with mice in their woodsheds.”

Indoor rodent problems fall under another jurisdiction, he explained, adding, “we don’t take care of just any rodent; we are a public-health-management division, not pest control.”

Like the Buncombe County program, Salmen stresses that his is primarily an enforcement agency. If Environmental Health can’t convince a business owner to clean up his or her act, the agency can require an on-site inspection, which can lead to the business being shut down. “We don’t fine folks,” he notes, “but we can initiate criminal proceedings. A judge will determine whether [the result of] that proceeding turns out to be a jail term or a fine.”

Peaceful coexistence with rats, it seems, can be costly. But how come Mecklenburg has a rat ordinance and Buncombe doesn’t?

“There are two factors that determine whether or not rats are a problem,” Salmen replies. “One is climate. Asheville is generally at a cooler temperature, and the more stress you put on any type of pest, whether it be mosquitos or rodents, the less pests you will have. The other factor is size of the city. There is nowhere near the amount of restaurants in Asheville that there are in Charlotte. That alone is a major determiner.”

And while Salmen believes that his county’s public-health pest-management program is necessary, the statewide trend, he said, is toward letting the private sector handle the actual rat control. Forsyth County, for instance, used to have a program, as did New Hanover County, but their citizens voted them down. “Everyone is going private now,” Salmen observes.

Private companies, of course, will be happy to get rid of your rats for you, for a fee. A telephone call to one of the more prominent pest-control operations in town yielded a revealing glimpse into their attitudes and methods.

“There are two kinds of rats,” explains “Ray,” a rodent-control technician who asked that his (and his company’s) names not be used: “What we call roof rats, and wharf rats. Wharf rats are the most common around here; they’re the ones that live in a hole in the ground.” Not having a rat problem myself (at least, not the last time I sniffed), I had to ask how you know when there are wharf (a.k.a Norway) rats in the neighborhood. One of the best ways, counsels Ray, is to look for “rat holes,” cavities 3 to 4.5 inches in diameter. An active rat hole will have “rubs” — greasy spots where the rat’s fur rubs as the creature comes and goes. Each rat hole will usually have two openings: the “mail” hole (for normal use) and the escape route or “bolt” hole (used only in emergencies, and frequently filled with debris). And rats, adds Ray, “leave tell-tale signs: droppings, messy food areas, missing food, stuff like that.”

How do exterminators get rid of rats? “We use glue boards, and we use baits,” Ray explains. “We used to mix D-Con-type products with ground beef, but that’s not around anymore.” Increased concern about safety has also led to the use of bait stations — sturdy, locked boxes permanently concreted to the ground, so that no one (particularly children) can get to the poisoned bait. “The bait has stuff in it that attacks the rat from the inside, thins out the blood so the capillaries can’t stop it.”

That “stuff,” I learned, is usually an anti-coagulant that destroys the vitamin K in the rat’s body, causing it to bleed to death internally. This cleverly circumvents the rats’ propensity for developing “bait shyness.” When they see a comrade eat something, then writhe in agony before expiring, that “something” is then avoided like, well, the plague. With an anti-coagulant, though, the rats don’t die for about four days — long enough to let the entire rat colony start eating the bait. A sizable rat population can be wiped out in about 8 days. (The antidote for accidental ingestion, Vitamin K1, is readily available, though there is a limited window of opportunity for it to work.)

Score one for technology. But rats are incredibly smart, resilient, persistent creatures, and they’re unlikely to claim a place on the endangered-species list any time soon. “Even if people are handling their garbage properly,” warns Salmen, “there will always be rats around. How many rats around is debatable, but there will always be some. If you have more people, you have more rats.”

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