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Rat Here, Rat Now

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Sound and the Furry: The first sign of rats for most residents, is the lat night sound of gnawing in an attic or a wall. The animals have been known to chew through lead, adobe and even concrete.

Like living here? So do the rats. The valley is a veritable Shangri-la for both the roof and sewer variety. And no neighborhood is too good.

By Cecily Barnes

LezLi and George Logan can talk calmly about the invasion now. With it four years behind them, LezLi can even laugh, provide sound effects and share sometimes gory details in the company of her 2-year-old, who twirls in circles across the living room floor of their new home.

The Logans had been married two years when they first heard the scratching sounds in the attic at night. They lived in what they now call "typical suburbia," in a middle-class neighborhood on Vincent Court off Santa Teresa in South San Jose. They had done the logical thing--placed a few traps and carried gruesome cargo to the trash. But the noises did not stop.

"One night, we hear this sound in the kitchen," LezLi Logan says, tapping her manicured fingernails on the coffee table to simulate the sound of little feet. "My husband walks into the kitchen, and I hear him make this sound--this guttural sound from the depths of his soul."

George does not deny this. He remembers the scene well. "I'm in my underwear, and I open the cupboard," he says, "and there's three of them in there, eating potatoes."

By this time, LezLi had jumped out of bed and was on her way down to the kitchen. George, who admits he is totally freaked out by rats, grabbed the closest object.

"I grabbed my golf club, opened the cupboard and took a crack at them," he says. "One of them lunged out at me and landed on the kitchen floor."

While LezLi stood watching in horror, George scrambled around the kitchen after the rat, madly wielding his golf club everywhere it ran.

"I put a few holes in the linoleum floor and some dents in the stove," he recalls.

The rat dodged George's swings and shimmied its way inside LezLi's sewing machine. This was the last straw--and not for the rat.

"The rat ran inside the sewing machine, and George was rattling the golf club around inside of it," LezLi says. "I told him, 'You've lost your mind, and you have to stop before you ruin everything in this house.' "

George put down the club and admitted defeat. That night, the couple shoved towels under the door of their bedroom while the victorious rat had free run of the house.

"About a week later a funk kind of took over the living room, and we found it dead behind the speaker," George says.

The couple finally called an exterminator. George also cut down the almond tree that the rats had climbed to get into their home, and they bought a cat. A few years later, they moved.

Rat Catchers

GERALD JEWELL, supervisor at Higden Termite Pest Control, wears navy blue pants to work every day, and a white shirt with his name embroidered on the breast. The square shape of a cigarette box protrudes from his shirt pocket, which by the end of the day is usually splotched with unidentifiable stains--depending on which type of pest he's been catching. Jewell says he's been catching a lot of rats lately, nearly 300 percent more this year than in the previous two years. It's gone from about 50 to nearly 170 calls per year, he says. He travels to the finest neighborhoods in the valley--Monte Sereno, Los Gatos and Palo Alto. While rats evoke a universal shudder, they are, in a valley where the living is easy, everywhere.

The Santa Clara County Vector Control Department reports high numbers, too--1,467 rat complaints in 1997. While this number is not significantly higher than the previous four years', it's nearly 10 times greater than the figures of 30 years ago, when the vector offices had only a couple hundred calls. Curiously, the valley's population increased nearly 50 percent in that same period, from 1,057,032 in 1970 to 1,653,100 in 1997.

"I think they grow right along with the population, and because our urban areas are growing, we're noticing them more," says Kriss Costa, community education coordinator for the Santa Clara County Vector Control District. "But they've always been a problem. What we're looking for is an acceptable level, because we'll always have rats."

Historic Tales

THE QUIET, TREE-LINED streets of Willow Glen hosted Santa Clara County's first significant rat outbreak. While the area might have had rats before, it wasn't until 1962 that more than 100 calls from the area around Hamilton and Meridian avenues poured into rat-control offices, reporting rat carcasses on doormats and activity behind bedroom walls. Until that time, the telephone at the vector control office hadn't had much use. It rang an average of 25 to 50 times a year. But in 1962, the receiver was dusted off to field the influx of new calls.

The rats shacked up in well-kept homes with mowed lawns and trimmed landscaping, where trash did not float across the streets or pile up in people's yards. In the entire 800-home area, only six houses were what could be considered blighted. Nonetheless, 138 households reported rats, and vector control officers suspected hundreds more would have, had all the homeowners been contacted.

By 1963, rat controllers were walking door to door in the affected neighborhoods, offering advice on how to evict the rats. When they checked back a few months later, residents reported the techniques had worked--many of the critters had died or moved on. A later study showed that most rat infestations had occurred at homes with a woodpile, a thick accumulation of plants or a walnut tree.

Vector Evictors

THE VECTOR CONTROL office on Lenzen Avenue in San Jose looks like any other county workplace--linoleum floors, endless stacks of papers and worn office equipment. But to the people who work here, rats are much more than a pest to be eliminated. Supervising technician Lee Campbell and community education coordinator Costa talk about the rats with respect. In the office they have stuffed versions of each of the two local species, which Costa tucks comfortably under her arms. These creatures, they say, have always lived with humans and will always live with them. They're survivors.

The term vector applies to rats because they can literally inject infectious diseases into human populations. Vector control technicians won't respond to infestations of mice, because mice don't pose a hazard to humans. Vector technicians pursue their calling, checking on restaurants and public institutions, not because they are afraid of rats biting people or terrorizing them, but because if rat feces somehow get into food, people can be affected. If a rat has bubonic plague, people will die. (Bubonic plague occurred during the 14th century, when three major epidemics swept across Europe. Caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, the plague is fatal to rats as well.) Today it's more likely that people will become ill from the salmonella carried by most rats. Vector control authorities can't say how often this happens, because people rarely report what they perceive to be a stomach bug.

"They don't even attribute it to that," Costa says. "Salmonella is like the 24-hour flu, with stomach cramps, vomiting, fever."

In her 10 years with vector control, Costa says she can't remember a single time someone has been bitten by a wild rat. Much more common, she says, is people calling in because they've been nipped by their pet rat.

So far, no rat-related illness has been reported in Santa Clara County, says Costa. From 1970 to 1991, a total of 296 cases of bubonic plague was reported in the United States, an average of only 13 each year. This number is very low compared to India's, where 500 people died from plague in 1995 alone. Still, vector control in Santa Clara County spends nearly $2.2 million in property-assessment taxes each year. This money comes from $4.34 paid annually by every county resident.

"We don't just do rat control; we monitor mosquitoes, squirrels, cockroaches and other animals," Costa says. "And we'd like to keep the number of vector-related diseases low, like they are."

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Diary of a Rat Killer.

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Fat Rat

IN THE SANTA Clara Valley, there are above-ground and below-ground species, and they do not mingle. Sewer rats, also known as Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus), are the larger and plumper of the two, weighing between 10 and 17 ounces and ranging in length from 12 to 18 inches.

The roof rat, a.k.a. the tree rat, Rattus rattus, can grow as long but is often more slender, with a more pointed nose. It sports larger, hairless ears and a long, scaly tail.

In a confrontation, the scrappier sewer rat prevails.

Roof rats climb, and Norway rats swim. The climbers nest in trees, woodpiles and, when necessary, attics and hollow ceiling space, while the swimmers make homes in sewers, storm drains and basements. The Norways grow bigger than the roofs--pest controllers have told stories of rats the size of small- to medium-sized dogs. However, Norway rats are also the breed sold in pet stores, except that this variety has been domesticated for over 100 years.

Roof rats will munch fruit right off trees, sucking the pulpy middle clear out, while their cousins prefer leftover steak, fish and whatever else the garbage has to offer.

Rats don't limit their gnawing to edible matter; cable wires, electrical lines, furniture and Sheetrock will do nicely as well. Rats must chew or die. Their teeth grow 5 inches a year and, if not regularly filed down, will grow into an arc eventually puncturing the roof of the animal's mouth and the area under its tongue.

Because of the design of its jaw, a rat can chew with its front teeth and close its lips behind them, which enables them to chew indigestible material without taking it into their mouths. They can chew through lead, concrete and adobe brick. In New York, rats have gnawed their way through concrete. In keeping their teeth filed down, rats have often unknowingly started fires, set off smoke detectors and disconnected power cables.

"When cable TV was becoming very popular, they would drill a huge hole for a tiny wire," Costa says, gesturing the difference in size with her hands. "The rats would go into the holes and gnaw on the cables. It got so the cable company had to make a policy that they would only come out and replace the wires once."

Both breeds reproduce at amazing rates and in tremendous quantities--up to 12 litters a year, three to nine pups per litter. Female rats are ready to breed approximately 48 hours after they've delivered a litter. Sexually mature at nine to 13 weeks, they waste no time in procreating, perhaps because their lifespan is less than one year.

Rats can swim underwater for half a minute and tread water for three days. They can fall more than 50 feet and live.

Human Nature

RATS LIKE WARM climates, the taste of fat and sweet foods. Within their colonies, they engage (like birds and monkeys) in mutual grooming rituals that strengthen the bonds within a group. Younger rats will frequently groom older rats, and in the wild, female rats frequently share with other females the responsibility of raising the young.

And while rats are considered polygamous, female rats tend to prefer mating with males they have mated with before (the reverse does not appear to be true for males).

Contrary to human beliefs, rats are by nature clean animals, washing themselves from head to toe up to six times a day. Rats are much less likely to bite than hamsters or mice, instead emitting a shrill shriek as a defense, too high-pitched for the human ear.

Forty percent of all mammals are rodents, a word derived from the Latin rodere, "to gnaw." Rats fall within the same group of "mouselike" rodents as mice, hamsters and even lemmings. (Squirrels managed to get into a different subgroup from rats, an older one made up of rodents that roamed the earth some 60 million years ago, such as woodchucks, beavers, marmots and gophers.)

Rats are thought to have originated in the Southeast Asian islands, India, Asia and China before the Ice Age. When the shipping trade began, rats started their intercontinental adventures. The roof rat reached Europe in about the 12th century, followed by the larger and more aggressive sewer rat in the early 18th century. In the 16th century, roof rats stowed away to American shores, and by the 19th century, the sewer rat was here, too.

Rats have received little respect over the years.

Before science discovered their potential in the laboratory, rats were collected by common people in the 1800s for a gambling game known as "rat-baiting," in which the rodents were placed in a pit with an aggressive terrier. People placed bets on how long it would take the dogs to kill every last rat, usually by biting into it and tearing out its innards.

rats

The Rat Stuff

RATS FOLLOW HUMANS wherever they go, but sometimes it is the other way around, as in space, where rats preceded humans by 11 years. In 1950 the first rodents launched into space ate potatoes. NASA scientists love to tell the story of how a high school student came up with this diet, sensibly realizing that the potato would provide both water and nutrients. Today, however, rats receive more sophisticated accommodations. Since that first flight into space, NASA has commissioned biologists to design the coziest possible habitats for rats embarking on space shuttle missions. Dr. Daniel Holley, a biology professor at San Jose State University, helps build these first-class travel lounges.

"If they're going to be in space, I want them to be in a comfortable, healthy environment with adequate lighting, water and feeding systems," Holley says, from behind the desk in his cramped SJSU office. "Rats are sentient beings--they feel. If you squeeze its paw, it will withdraw."

For nine years, Holley has worked with other NASA scientists on what he casually refers to as "the cage project." For some time, he conducted research on the SJSU campus, with the help of several students and under the watchful eye of a NASA quality-assurance technician. Together they measured how much the rats ate, drank, slept and defecated. Using these data, Holley helped determine the optimum traveling conditions for the rodents.

The cages currently being used are stainless steel wire-mesh, with solid food bars glued to the side and a special water-sipper system. Bedding material, Holley points out, is unnecessary, since the rats are weightless and floating. However, new cages with bedding are being constructed to accommodate mother rats and their babies, in order to study how babies develop in space.

"The point is to see what happens to their development," Holley says. "You wouldn't want baby humans in orbit if you didn't know what was going to happen to them."

Holley also helped develop a space toilets for rats.

"We had to design elaborate ventilation systems so that the smell couldn't get out and disturb the crew, who might be allergic to the rats," Holley says with gravity. This was a serious problem for which a solution was needed; in this case a laminar airflow across them so it sucks all their feces and urine into an exhaust system.

NASA's chief veterinary officer, Joe Bielitzki, emphasizes the importance of this system to the astronauts.

"They really don't want to sit there and smell rodent poop all day," he says.

According to Bielitzki, rats are superb space travelers because of their amazing ability to adapt.

"During the launch, they just kind of hunker down and don't have a lot of movement. It only takes about eight minutes to get into orbit," Bielitzki says. "My guess is there's probably a little apprehension. It's not like we can say, 'OK, guys, here's what's going to happen.' But they know they're moving. And for about two hours after they get into microgravity, they're somewhere they've never been before, and they usually act like they're reaching for something. But after two to three hours in space, they float around their cage and use their tail to steer."

Rats in space have helped scientists determine how to prevent a host of ailments experienced by human astronauts in flight, including calcium deficiency, cardiovascular deconditioning and nausea.

"Rats have probably been the single most important research animal that we have flown to date," Bielitzki says. "We have flown probably 700 of them."

Eating Out

LEST ANYONE THINK the country's space administration has only a love affair with the rat, consider the following. In August 1992, rats invaded NASA's Washington, D.C., headquarters, polishing off uneaten lunches and terrifying employees. They were promptly eradicated.

A little more than a year later, in October 1993, a pack of nearly 165 rats decided it was their turn to run the country and moved into the White House. White House aides going home after dark reportedly had to bang on their briefcases and bags to scare them away. Numerous traps were set, and the problem subsided.

Rats are not a sign of dumpy conditions, the vector people say again and again. They just go where the living is easy.

Two years ago, a clan of rats moved into the food court at Cupertino's upscale Vallco Mall. During the day, they slept, but at night they showed themselves to the restaurateurs and maintenance crew. They snacked on garbage and stored food; they slept in cracks and holes, and they defecated everywhere.

"I saw rodent droppings in several different areas where they keep rice and bulk food," said Chuck Fuller, environmental health specialist for the Santa Clara County Department of Public Health. "It took the inspector several months to get that under control." Inspectors on a rodent-seeking mission use a black light, under which rat urine glows.

The Faultline Brewing Company's general manager, James Boyd, unabashedly admits that his Mountain View restaurant has struggled with rats ever since it opened. The rear seating area and outdoor patio look out over a lake and garden, which were home to rats long before the brewery opened three years ago. Occasionally customers spot rodents prowling at night beneath empty tables for dropped food. But Boyd says it doesn't happen much, thanks to the large black traps hidden beneath the bushes.

"If you sit out by the lake, sometimes you can see them down by the water," Boyd says matter-of-factly. "And sometimes they show up by the dumpster."

According to Boyd, no one has ever flipped out about seeing the rats. Mostly, he says, they just laugh.

Cruelty Free

IN BARBARA HODGSON'S coffeetable book The Rat: A Perverse Miscellany, Doris Shadbolt shares a story of her travels in India. Shadbolt visits the Karniji (Red) temple at Deshnoke, a small desert village. When she arrives at twilight, she and her companion notice chipmunks scuttling across the ground--no, rats!

"Inside the compound, inner sanctuary, everywhere, thousands of rats. They flow in a continuous stream over piles of grain put out to feed them along perimeter 'arcade.' I have bare feet--rats run over them--droppings thick on the ground." Inside the temple, Shadbolt watches drums being beaten, torches being waved, priests smearing vermilion on people's foreheads. Her guide over the past few days discards his leather coat, sandals and belt and bows down to touch the floor with his head. In parts of India, rats are considered sacred.

Buddhists, however, believe those who have done evil in their lives will spend the next as a rat, or some similarly low animal. And in American culture, rat is a bad word. Dirty people live in rat holes. A rat is a person who finks on his or her friends. A dirty rat tries to put one over on people. Then there's the rat race, which, in the words of Lily Tomlin, "you can win, but you're still a rat." But not everyone disdains the rat.

On the seventh floor of the biology building at San Jose State University, Jesse Martinez unlocks the door to the animal-holding area, where the lab rats are kept. Despite elaborate ventilation systems and sliding steel and glass containers, the smell of rat wafts throughout the enclosed space, which has low ceilings and a cement floor. The entire room is empty except for steel cases protruding from the walls. Martinez slides up the wall of one of the cases as if it were a garage door and lifts a brown and white rat from a cage the size of a large dictionary. The rat climbs up his arm and around the back of his neck.

Jesse Martinez is the sole caretaker of all of SJSU's laboratory animals. A stout 38-year-old man with thick black hair and an honest face, Martinez agreed to be interviewed because Dr. Holley gave him the OK. Apparently, animal rights activists have paid them visits before. But Martinez shyly tells how he comes in to check on the animals over the weekend and how he always takes them out of their cages once a day to pet and hold them.

"The way I see it, I'm their only care provider," Martinez says. "And if you want to do a good job taking care of them, you have to have compassion."

Before Martinez was married, when he lived alone in Boulder Creek, he kept four rats and two cats.

"They grew up together," he says. "I kept the cages open so they could all interact together. One of them was really smart--George. He knew his name. You could call him, and he would come."

Martinez strokes the rat a few more times before putting him back in his cage. In this situation, he doesn't grow too attached, he says. It's not sad because the rat won't be wasted. Before it dies, he points out, it will help further the cause of biomedical research. And while they're at San Jose State, safely locked in their cages, Martinez will make sure they're doing OK.

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From the February 19-25, 1998 issue of Metro.

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