Be warned: the subject of this post is not suitable for all audiences. I don’t know about you, but I have an instinctive aversion to rats. Not the cute little white rats you find in labs and pet stores, but the enormous brown rats you find everywhere you don’t want them, especially near or (shudder) in your house. When we lived on the farm, we didn’t have any evidence of rats at first. Then, once we had chicks in residence the regional rat communication system went into gear and before long rat sightings occurred. I have already reported on the sad saga of rats dispatching several of our young chicks in quick succession. But when we started growing our own oats and over-wintering them for our cows and horses, the rat population surged. I asked how so many rats could come from nowhere. How do they even find us when we’re in the middle of 100 acres of field and trees? The answer I was given was that there are always a few rats around and as soon as the food supply increases, the rats start multiplying at a rapid rate. Ugh.
Given this experience, and knowing that rats have been a challenge in New York City for the past few centuries – and having seen one scurrying around the garbage outside a high-end townhouse in the tony Toronto enclave of Yorkville (sorry, Toronto folks) – I had come to the reluctant conclusion that rats are everywhere. Until this past week, when I read this headline in the online Globe and Mail: “Alberta’s rat-free status in jeopardy: more than a dozen found in landfill”. Alberta has no rats?? How could this be? It is a big province, bordered by Montana, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and the Northwest Territories. How can there be rats in the bordering jurisdictions and not in Alberta? What’s their secret?
I did some research. According to a Saskatchewan Department of Agriculture’s report on rat control, “rats are recognized as the most destructive vertebrates in the world, both in terms of economic losses and in the transmission of disease.” So my instincts regarding rats were correct and then some. They define the word vermin! The Saskatchewan report documents that rats consume or contaminate fully 1/5 of all the world field crops planted each year, including 4% of stored grain. And that doesn’t include the garbage and discarded food they love so much in urban areas, where they also have the luxury of warm accommodations thanks to their fellow urban dwellers, aka people!
It turns out that Alberta is one of the few places in the entire world that has managed to keep rats out. They have a few geographical advantages. They are not near any seaport where rats come off ships, their primary method of entry to both North America in the 1700s and Europe a few centuries earlier. Rats need warmer weather than Canadian winters offer, so human habitats that provides warm places to nest in winter are required; nests in the ground won’t do in that climate. There are LONG stretches of prairie in Alberta with no houses or barns for shivering rats, and “those winds can sure blow cold way out there”*. And the Rocky Mountains on the western border aren’t particularly rat friendly. So Alberta really did stand a chance at rat eradication when they started – and vigorously maintained – a strict program of control in the 1950s. Still, I stand in awe.
Rats and Alberta: a haiku
~ This rat chose Alberta;
~~~ those rats sure don’t grow old
~~~~~ way out there.
*With apologies to Ian Tyson and Four Strong Winds.