Cartoon by Natalie Wainwright

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Rats may not be at the bottom of the food chain, but in Evanston that is where they can find a meal: They gnaw through the bottom of the garbage carts, crawl in and feast.

Evanston, like its neighbors, has rats, but Carl Caneva of the City’s health department is cautious about saying the City has a rat problem. “Rats follow human activity,” Mr. Caneva told the RoundTable. “We, like our neighbors, Chicago and Skokie, have rats as [does] any populated area.”

Calls requesting help with rats have increased this year over the past two years, Mr. Caneva said: “Within the first two months of 311’s being established we have received 37 ‘Request for Service’ calls regarding rodents.

The calls came from all areas of Evanston, he said, adding that there is “no one [area of] concentration.” Rats live where they find food, water and shelter – typically in alleys, Mr. Caneva said.

There is no “season” for rats, Mr. Caneva said, but snow and diminished sunlight in winter generally result in fewer sightings at that time of year. So while the warmer weather and longer daylight may seem to bring out rats, they in fact just bring them into greater visibility.

For some, “rats” conjures up the shrewd Templeton of “Charlotte’s Web” or lab rats in a maze. Others think of grim images of rodents tight-roping off a ship or scurrying around plague-ridden Europe. Rats do pose health problems. Their bites can transfer disease or infection, but a more common problem is the sanitation issue resulting from their urination. “Rats travel [find their way] by scent, typically urinating as they move from place to place to leave a trail,” said Mr. Caneva.

When the City receives a call about a rat, the health department assigns an inspector to work with the resident. The inspector will make a house call within a week, said Mr. Caneva. “If burrows are found, the City will treat those on public ways, and with the written consent of the resident will treat private property as well,” he said.

The City does its part to control the rat population. The Property Standards division ensures that alleys are maintained and do not have structures that support rats. If the problem is greater than a residence or two, the City will distribute a newsletter to the neighborhood, informing residents about the issue and offering directions about how to keep rats away. Among the suggestions for all residents, said Mr. Caneva, are the following: Garbage should be stored in closed containers; food waste should be kept out of recycling bins – containers should be washed before they are put into the bins; dog food and water should be kept inside the house; pet waste should be cleared away; and buildings, including garages and sheds, should be well maintained.

Residents who see a live rat should call 311, Mr. Caneva said.

 “And if anyone sees a dead rat?” asked a reporter.

“Call 311.

Rats Have a Bad Name

This spring, we observed one or two  rats in our back parking area and small garden, and so we started a log in mid-April. We made a call to 311, but although the person was helpful, and we received an email that the problem was solved, nothing had been done to our knowledge.

We made an appointment with City Inspector Phillip M. King, who was very informative. He came to our house, observed our area and noticed, as we had, that there was burrowing under a neighbor’s wood pile. All the entries on our log indicated that the rat went to and from this wood pile, usually in the evening. Since Mr. King said rats do not stay in an area unless there is food, we looked for a nearby source of food. The garbage containers are rarely full and never overflowing. There is little food trash in the alley. There are, however, several neighbors with dogs. Since rats eat dog feces, this is possibly their food source. Since dogs only digest about 75 percent of their food, their feces contain dog food and will be attractive to rats.

Mr. King explained that rats burrow and are secretive, not curious like mice. Rats do not usually climb up into garbage cans. Rather, they chew through the bottom of the container. Rats feed on our garbage, and, being at the bottom of the food chain, are prey for many other animals, especially birds like hawks and owls. So they do not easily climb up on things. They would rather keep low and unseen.

The inspector left a monitor trap baited with peanut butter and placed it along the wall near the burrow. When he came back later in the week to check the trap, he was generous with his valuable time and answered the many questions of residents, almost as in a community meeting. The trap bait had been taken but no animal caught.

According to the website www.ratbehavior.org, rats differ from mice in several ways. Rats have short stubby heads, large wide muzzles, ears small relative to their heads and thick tails. Mice have small triangular heads, narrow muzzles, ears large relative to their heads, and thin tails.

Concerned about the possibility of rat bites, I did some research at www.ratbehavior.org.

This was written by an Evanston resident known to the RoundTable but who prefers anonymity