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Explosion of rats in Eugene linked to chickens, compost

By Christian Hill Register-Guard

EUGENE, Ore. – In late 2016, Eugene resident Jim Kocher and his wife, Sally, began hearing strange knocking and pitter-patter sounds in the ceiling and walls of their home.

An exterminator quickly identified the culprits as rats and, over the course of six months, trapped about 10 of them. But after a year of lost sleep and increased anxiety, rodents still are running free somewhere inside their Friendly-area neighborhood home.

Kocher, who has owned his house for 30 years, said he’d never seen a rat inside his home before last year.

“We’re traumatized,” said Kocher, who estimated the couple have spent well more than a $1,000 on pest control. “If we hear a sound in the middle of the night now, it’s just a horrible feeling.”

The Kochers are hardly alone.

About 100 people in the neighborhood in south-central Eugene have reported seeing or hearing rats in their homes or around the neighborhood within the past few months.

In response, the neighborhood association has formed a group, known as the Rodent Action Team, or RAT, to coordinate efforts to best the pests.

“Rats have been present all along,” said Jason Blazar, a landscape ecologist who lives in the neighborhood and leads the group. “We hit this tipping point, and it’s kind of added up.”

Blazar and other neighbors say the problem is bigger than they can handle and are seeking help from City Hall. Eugene city councilors, at the request of Councilor Emily Semple, who represents the neighborhood, have agreed to have a discussion Monday night.

Residents “have been doing a good job with responding, but it’s too big,” Semple said.

The Friendly area isn’t unique. There are reports all over the city of an increased rat population, including along River Road, downtown and the northern and western neighborhoods of the city.

Rodents are well-known as carriers of infectious diseases.

Dr. Patrick Luedtke, Lane County’s health officer, said there has been no increase in reports of infectious diseases that can be traced to rats. They include bubonic plague, hantavirus, leptosporosis and rat-bite fever. Humans can get these diseases if they are bitten by an infected rat or inhale or ingest microorganisms in the rat’s feces or urine.

“We’re not seeing that, which is good,” Luedtke said.

He added the risk of bubonic plague spreading in the community is theoretical.

“It certainly would be possible here, but it would be unlikely to happen.”

Lane County Public Health does not have a rodent eradication program.

Representatives of four local pest control companies told The -Register-Guard last week that they’ve seen a marked increase in calls about rats over at least the past year. City officials also have noted a similar increase in public complaints about rodents.

“We’re seeing an explosion in the rat population,” said Ed Byerly, the owner of Oregon Pest Control.

The pest control representatives said that typically there is a spike in calls about rats with the onset of cold weather as rodents seek warm shelter. But Byerly said he received two calls a week about rats last summer, compared with one a month in a normal year.

Grant Williams, who owns Ultimate Pest Control, said he’s receiving three times more calls about rats than normal, and his supply ordering is barely keeping pace.

The representatives all identity as a primary culprit the prevalence of chicken coops, compost piles and backyard gardens around Eugene. They noted that weather and increased development also can be factors.

In 2013, city councilors relaxed regulations for urban farming. The change increased the number of chickens that a resident within city limits can have from two to six. In addition, a resident now can have up to six chicks.

Robin Morrison, branch manager for Bug Zapper Pest Control, said the chicken coops, compost piles and fallen, rotting fruit are a magnet for rodents.

“That’s like a free buffet for rats,” he said.

Kocher, who has an enclosed compost bin, said there are open compost piles near his home.

Rats are prolific breeders, and they will spread out as the competition for food among a burgeoning rodent population grows. They also are adept at finding “chinks in the armor” of nearby houses, including a crack in the foundation or a hole in a crawl space vent, Williams said.

Byerly noted that a rat can fit through an opening the size of a quarter.

And once inside, rodents can create havoc, chewing on walls and wiring and urinating and defecating widely.

Steve Barron, who lives in the Gilham neighborhood in north Eugene, said he spotted his first rat in his garage in October. He has owned the house for 14 years, and the encounter was his first there.

He trapped one but kept seeing and hearing more of them, including one rodent that he observed scaling down the bicycle he hung from his ceiling like it was a jungle gym.

“I’m lying in bed, and I could hear them chewing” at 3 a.m., he said.

He said the rats likely were attracted to the dog food he kept in the garage, the door of which he regularly cracked open for ventilation. He now keeps the door shut.

The rats are now gone. Barron said he trapped six of them. But they might have damaged the home’s heat ducts. A contractor will come out Monday to evaluate.

“It’s been a bit of a headache,” he said. “The big concern is, what kind of damage are they doing?”

The formation of the Friendly RAT group began with Blazar commiserating with his neighbors about the rodents in early 2017.

Blazar and his neighbors all have chicken coops, so they discussed taking steps to keep rats out of them. Rats are attracted to chicken feed and also are known to steal the eggs for a later meal.

Not wanting to simply drive the rodents elsewhere, Blazar approached the neighborhood association’s board last summer to get their go-ahead on examining the breath of the issue. Two other neighbors soon joined to form the team.

At the neighborhood’s summer picnic, about 100 people told Blazar they’d seen or heard rats in their homes or around the neighborhood in the last few months. About 40 people placed dots on an aerial map of Friendly identifying where they’d seen rats, showing the wide sweep of the problem.

The RAT group mulled applying for a city neighborhood grant to buy enclosed compost bins as a first step to address the rat problem.

But more than that needed to be done, the team soon realized.

The group arrived for a Nov. 8 RAT meeting it had advertised in the neighborhood newsletter.

Blazar expected a few neighbors to show up for the meeting, in the upstairs dining area of the Market of Choice grocery store on Willamette Street. Nearly 30 people attended.

There, according to an email Kocher later sent to Eugene councilors, neighbors who had lived in Friendly a decade or longer said they’d never had rat problems until the past year.

One man said he’d seen a rat in his child’s bedroom. Another speaker claimed to have caught 100 rats. Other speakers were nearly in tears relating their stories, Kocher said.

Blazar said the meeting was cathartic in that it brought into the open the seriousness of the problem.

Blazar said people may have been reluctant to talk about rats because of shame and embarrassment.

“It’s a sign you’re living in turmoil or some sort of conditions that aren’t healthy,” he said, referring to common perception about rat-infested homes and properties.

Blazar said his team is pressing ahead with an informational website, a brochure and a data-gathering app that allows residents to report details about their encounters with rodents. The group has shared information with the River Road Community Organization, whose residents also have noted an uptick in rats.

What can Eugene officials do about rats?

The city generally leaves it up to individual property owners to deal with rats – with some exceptions.

City code specifically prohibits conditions that attract rats. It requires “rodent-proof” chicken coops and other outbuildings where food is present. It prohibits owners from storing garbage and other items. It also gives city employees the authority to make inspections and issue notices of violation.

Rachelle Nicholas, the city’s code compliance supervisor, said the number of rat-related complaints have increased in recent years with a spike last summer. The exact number of complaints wasn’t available last week.

Inspectors who respond to these complaints seek to identify the source of the problem and then educate homeowners, she said.

The city also baits its sanitary sewer lines with rat poison if a resident makes a request and an employee finds evidence of rats. The city does not bait its stormwater pipes.

Rats can get into homes through cracks and holes in aging sewer lines.

The number of baiting requests by residents has exploded in the past two years. Brian Richardson, spokesman for the city’s public works department said there were 15 requests in 2015, 24 in 2016 and 84 so far this year.

Blazar said the city could take some steps to improve the situation.

First, it could make its pilot food waste collection program in certain neighborhoods permanent and citywide, giving residents the option of throwing food waste that can draw rats into a covered bin rather than onto an open compost pile.

Second, it could organize workshops to teach residents about how to keep chicken coops and compost piles rodent-free.

“Education is key here,” he said.

Third, it could prioritize the replacement of older sewer lines that rats can get into through cracks and holes.

He said the city needs to be to be cautious about the use of code enforcement as it could lead to disputes between neighbors.

“I hope that’s a last resort where we have to go to code enforcement,” he said.

Kocher said the city could subsidize the cost of enclosed compost bins. But he also offered more far-reaching ideas, including banning chicken coops and outdoor compost piles and even declaring a public health emergency due to the potential for rats to spread infectious disease.

Semple said the city could require enclosed bins for compost but noted that tightening regulations for chickens would be controversial.

“But if that’s where the rats are, that’s something we have to look at,” she said. “We can’t have a rat infestation.”

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