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[whitespace] The return of the roof rats

Willow Glen--Unlike some of his neighbors, Willow Glen resident Dave Levya isn't embarrassed about his rat travails. He sees the agile roof rat as simply an occasional part of his unique Ardis Drive home, like the shrubbery and lush trees that adorn his yard. Because of his seasoned experience, Levya doesn't even call the pest-control trucks anymore. He simply deals with the critter himself.

Levya explains that his most recent battle with the rodents, just three weeks ago, could probably be blamed on his neighbor's overgrown trees.

"The people next door knocked down this Italian Cypress, one of those skinny numbers, and I think they were nesting in there," he says. "That's when we got the rat infestation."

When the footprints and droppings showed up, Levya set out the traps.

"I tried to trap them," he says "but it was mission impossible."

Within a few days Levya turned to poison and the gruesome carcasses began to emerge. He double wrapped the first body in plastic and threw it in the trash, but the stench remained. The next body that showed up received a proper burial in Levya's backyard, as did the others that followed.

"I got rid of them, thank God," Levya says. "We had quite a problem for a while."

Levya's rat problem however, hardly compares to others seen by Front Line Pest Control owner Tony Ruocchio. Although Ruocchio services many homes in Willow Glen, the worst case he's ever seen occurred in Almaden.

"I pulled out 80 rats over a four month period," Ruocchio said. "They had eaten into the couch, and built nests. A lot of it had to do with living conditions, [the home-owner] was living in poor conditions--overgrown bushes and pet food that was left out."

Others in the community have called The Resident to report less severe rat problems. One woman reported that her neighbor to the north had caught 10 and her neighbor to the south lost Christmas presents to the rats, who chewed the gifts into unpresentable pieces.

"A mouse you can kind of ignore," the woman said. "But when those suckers come in they're scary."

Tails of history

The appearance of rats in Willow Glen is not a new phenomenon. The quiet, tree-lined community hosted Santa Clara County's first significant rat outbreak in 1962, when more than 100 calls from the area around about Hamilton and Meridian avenues poured into county animal control offices. Callers complained of rat carcasses on doormats and activity behind bedroom walls.

Up until that time, the telephone at the Santa Clara County vector control office hadn't gotten much use--it rang on average between 25-50 times a year.

The rats shacked up in pricey, well-kept homes with mowed lawns and trimmed landscaping. Trash wandered across streets and pile up in people's yards.

In the entire 800-home area, only six houses were declared as blighted. Nonetheless, 138 households reported rats, and vector control officers suspected hundreds more would have if all the homeowners been contacted.

By 1963, rat controllers walked door-to-door in the infected Hamilton-Meridian areas, offering advice on how to evict the rats. When they checked back a few months later, residents reported that the techniques had worked--many of the critters had deceased or moved on.

Thirty-six years later, vector control officials are still teaching the art of rat-catching, and pest-control offices are swamped.

Tony Ruocchio attributes the volume of rat calls this year to the profuse El-Nino rains last winter. In addition to demolishing the rodent's natural dwellings in bushes and along creeks, the rains increased the food supply, causing populations of the species to swell.

"In the summer, when you hardly get any calls for rats, I probably got four or five hundred," Ruocchio said. "And since the rain started, it's gotten out of control. As a matter of fact, I just scheduled two new jobs today. I'm probably scheduling five to ten calls a week."

Kriss Costa with the county Vector Control District agrees that people may be seeing more rats because of increased vegetation and recent rains.

"If their holes start getting wet and they start getting cold, they'll look for drier place to go," Costa said. "It's not that there's more rats it's just that they got displaced to places they hadn't been."

Costa says her office has not received more calls this year than at the same time last year.

How to become a terminator

Unfortunately for the homeowner, rats will eat just about anything that isn't nailed down. Therefore the best way to exclude the rodent is to eliminate all sources of food. Ruocchio and Costa recommend trimming bushes, trees and other vegetation and clearing up garbage piles and other odds and ends. Cat and dog food should be kept in sealed containers and openings into basements and attics should be boarded up.

All of these techniques will help keep rats away, and prevent them from returning. But to get rid of them, they must be caught and killed. Ruocchio recommends traps over poison, since the animals can eat the poison and die in the walls or attic where they can't be retrieved.

"If they get trapped in the walls then they can smell really bad," Ruocchio said. "I also wouldn't recommend glue traps because they're so inhumane. A good healthy rat can live two or three days on those traps. The Structural Pest Control Board still recommends snap traps because they're quick and instant."

For more information contact the County of Santa Clara Department of Environmental Health, Vector Control District at (408) 299-2050.
Cecily Barnes

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Web extra to the January 28-February 3, 1999 issue of Metro.

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