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Rat infestations in Vancouver lead to call for political action

11/03/2014 08:57 EST | Updated 01/03/2015 05:59 EST
Rats have been a municipal election issue going back to the year 1284, when politicians in the German town of Hamelin turned to a piper to take care of that city's rodent infestation. We all know how that turned out.

Nearly eight centuries later, veterinarian Chelsea Himsworth wants to see rats on Vancouver's municipal election agenda. The head of the Vancouver Rat Project plans to deliver the results of a year-long study to the city on Tuesday.

She's also calling for a proactive rat strategy, similar to the one that New York City has adopted.

"They track where rat infestations are and how great [the numbers] are year after year. They have amazing public education campaigns and as a result, they actually are a larger city but have a much better handle on their rat populations than we do," Himsworth says.

"I think it's a neglected issue and partially because we've been living with them for so long, I think we're kind of blind to the issues and I hope it doesn't take an outbreak of a disease in order to bring them to the forefront and have a concerted approach."

Sponges for disease

The Vancouver Rat Project set out to determine the health risks posed by rat populations. Researchers trapped 725 rats from a total of 43 city blocks of the Downtown Eastside and the neighbouring port over the past year. 

Some of the rodents tested positive for C. difficile, Leptospirosis and the superbug MRSA. The rats likely picked up the diseases from humans by acting as sponges for bacteria entering the waste stream, says Himsworth. 

She claims that destabilizing the rat population could threaten the spread of disease.  

"And what is more disturbing than going into a stable family group and killing its members?" she says. "Currently, indiscriminate trapping and poisoning are used to reduce rats and rat-associated health risks. However, by using these practices, we could be causing the problem that we are trying to avoid."

Vancouver has seen sporadic reports of rodent infestations in the past year. Some blame the addition of food scraps to recycling bins.

Parents at a daycare beneath the Burrard Bridge complained that poorly placed backyard composting bins led to a rat takeover of a playground.

- MORE | Compost rats overrun Vancouver daycare playground

And last month, angry gardeners claimed a resident spreading birdseed caused a rat infestation in a community garden at 11th Avenue and Commercial Drive.

"I think the biggest issue right now is that we really have an ambulance approach to rats," Himsworth says. "We wait until there's an issue that's high profile and then kind of swoop in there and deal with it on a case-by-case basis. And we know that ambulances aren't a great way to deal with other health problems."

A civic election issue?

NPA leader Kirk LaPointe says he would increase services to tackle the rat problem if elected. He says diminished city services have led to more garbage on the streets and untended public spaces.

"It's not a trivial issue," he says. "We require a strategy to essentially clean this up. And if it means that in the short term we're going to have to increase city services at some expense in order to deal with it, I think that we have an obligation to deal with it, because it's an emerging health issue."

- City Votes 2014: Get all the latest civic election news

Mayor Gregor Robertson was not available for comment, but Andrea Reimer offered a comment on behalf of Vision Vancouver. Reimer is also running for re-election as a city councillor.

She believes the city's Greenest City Action Plan has not led to an increase in the rat population.

"We've been waiting to see the results of the research," she says. "Once the research is available to look at that, sit down with our partners at Coastal Health and of course a pro-active strategy is always preferable, so if there's new research that provides some guidance as to how to do that, we're very receptive to having that discussion."

Like LaPointe, COPE council candidate Sid Chow Tan believes city policies are causing a problem.

"This is a real important thing going on in our town," he says. "We have a civic government which doesn't seem to understand consultation and doesn't seem to understand community engagement. They're the rats. They're the rats we need to get rid of." 

Himsworth says no one actually knows what Vancouver's rat population is, because no one is counting rats. But she says rat numbers are likely rising alongside human numbers in the rapidly growing city. And it may soon be time to pay the piper. 

Watch the Vancouver Rat Project's report summary below.

On mobile? Click here to watch the Vancouver Rat Project report's summary on YouTube

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