09/16/2014 12:41 EDT | Updated 11/15/2014 05:59 EST

Rat problem grows at East Vancouver community garden

Rats continue to invade a Vancouver community garden and nearby playground, with dozens of rodents appearing regularly at dusk to feed on scattered bird seed and vegetables.

The community garden at Commercial Drive and 12th Avenue, near the Broadway SkyTrain Station, has become so overrun that some residents have now dubbed the greenspace 'Rat Park.'

Area resident Bruce Causier, who shoots video of urban wildlife, said he saw nearly 20 of them come out around sunset one recent day.

"As the sun went down, all the rats started pouring out of the boxes," he said. "All over they started coming out... It was a little freaky, I've got to admit."

Causier said the sight of all the rats were particularly alarming because of the nearby playground where the rats also go.

"The kids are there, there's lots of rats going through the playground there, which is sad because of the health problems and everything that could be passed on to the kids."

Residents blame rogue bird feeder

Residents in the neighbourhood say the garden's rat population is exploding and many are blaming an elderly woman who has been scattering bird seed around the neighbourhood.

Tracy Blackstone, who lives near the rat-infested garden, says the woman refuses to stop.

"She runs along stealth-style and she throws the bird seed out, but she makes sure that nobody's looking. [But] a number of us have caught her and we tell her, 'you can't do this, you're feeding the rats."

Since May, residents say they've spotted the woman walking the streets and in the garden, leaving up to five pounds of bird seed.

Chris Reid, executive director of the non-profit Shifting Growth, which operates the temporary public garden, says the woman has been approached many times to stop but she persists in leaving out seeds that attract both birds and rats.

- MORE | Mystery bird feeder sows seeds of rat rampage

Reid says signs have been put up telling people not to leave seeds out and volunteers scoop up seeds that are left out to help deter the rats. The next step is hiring guards, he said.

"We will be hiring essentially watch guards to try and communicate with this woman in her own language that what she's doing isn't very positive for the community."

Reid says the city is well-aware of the problem, which stretches far beyond the garden's edge. Many nearby alleyways are also infested, but the free food being doled out at the garden doesn't help.

"When you dump bird seed it really makes the whole project snowball a little bit," he said.

A 'pathogen sponge'

Veterinarian Chelsea Himsworth, head of the Vancouver Rat Project, says the rat infestation in many different parts of Vancouver is a public health concern, as the rodents have been found to carry viruses and bacteria that can be transmitted to humans.


"They're also this amazing pathogen sponge, and they can actually soak up bacteria in their environment," she told CBC News host Andrew Chang. "We found, for example, that rats can carry the same strains of MRSA, the antibiotic-resistance superbug, that causes disease in people. They also carry clostridium difficile, E. coli and salmonella."

But transmission is only likely if someone has repeated, close contact with rat urine, feces or with their fleas. And, since the bacteria and viruses rats were found to carry can also come from many places, it is difficult to pinpoint the source when someone becomes ill.

"So far, we don't have any documented cases that we can say for sure 'you caught a disease from a rat,'" she said.

Himsworth says that right now Vancouver has an "ambulance approach" to rodent infestations, but as urban growth increases, the city and its residents could really benefit from long-term research and planning to manage the rat problem.

For now, as summer turns to fall the drop in temperature will bring some relief to the community garden. Some rats will leave it as they seek out warmer shelters—which they will most likely find in neighbouring homes.