‘Perfect rat storm’: Ontario cities look for ways to combat increasingly visible rats

Measures are being taken to combat the growing rat population in two of Ontario’s largest cities. The rodents, which normally live underground, are becoming increasingly visible due to a combination of construction and climate change.

In Toronto, the city’s infrastructure committee recently passed a motion asking city council to direct staff to develop an “action plan” to reduce the number of rats in the city.

The motion, introduced by Councilwoman Alejandra Bravo and Deputy Mayor Amber Morley, is in response to residents’ concerns about an increase in visible rats in local neighborhoods, Bravo said.

“People were talking about this in 2022 as kind of a growing problem. And then last year, last year and a half … it was something that bubbled and grew,” Bravo said, noting that residents in her neighborhood found themselves “overwhelmed” by the rodents.

“It’s a very critical quality of life issue when people are suddenly confronted with rats coming into their home, business or workplace… a lot of factors (come) together to create this kind of perfect rat storm.”

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Click to play video: 'Why is Vancouver seeing an increase in its rat population?'

Why is Vancouver’s rat population increasing?

According to Bravo, the city is experiencing a surge in construction activity due to public transportation projects and housing developments. This is disrupting the habitats of rats deep underground. They are now being pushed into open spaces where people can see them.

Longer periods of warmer weather due to climate change have also allowed the rodent population to flourish by extending their mating season, she said.

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“Cold winters helped us because it disrupted the rats’ reproduction,” Bravo said. “But because the winters aren’t cold enough, that means (the rats) can reproduce every two months.”

The motion filed by Bravo and Morley – which goes to the City Council for a vote later this month – also wants the council to ask the city manager to consult with other communities across North America about their approaches to rat control.

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In Ottawa, the city is investigating a form of rat birth control that is not yet legal in Canada.

The local council recently supported a motion introduced by Councillor Laine Johnson asking Health Canada to expedite its review of a product called ContraPest, which is already in use in Seattle.

ContraPest works by inducing early menopause in female rats, while decreasing sperm production in male rats.

Click to play video: 'Cat in North Vancouver cleans up rats as city park battles rodent infestation'

North Vancouver cat cleans up rats as city park faces rodent infestation

Johnson called it a better solution than rat poison because rats have the ability to “learn” which food sources are bad for them and adjust their behavior accordingly.

In 2019, a trial of the oral contraceptive was conducted in Washington DC, but the Department of Health said “the results were inconclusive” and stopped using the product.

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Meanwhile, the province of Alberta claims to have been a rat-free zone for 70 years. It has a zero-tolerance policy, meaning residents are not even allowed to keep rodents as pets.

The county says it does not allow rat populations to become established and while small infestations may occur occasionally, those rats are isolated and exterminated when they are found. Public vigilance, prevention of rat infestations through efforts such as rat-proofing structures and removing food sources, are essential, the county says.

Karen Wickerson, the province’s rat and pest expert, questions whether Ottawa’s proposed humane birth control strategy is sufficient on its own to address the problem in North American cities.

“They have to keep eating (contraception) to continue (the population decline), so I think there’s a lot missing from that strategy,” she said.

Wickerson has been leading the county’s rat control program for four years. He says a multi-pronged approach is necessary, but ultimately the county dictates an elimination strategy based on vigilant citizen reports.

The project, which began in the 1950s, has been so successful that many Albertans don’t even know what a rat looks like anymore, Wickerson said. Sometimes they even send photos of squirrels to the government’s official email address.

“If you’ve never lived outside of Alberta, you may never have seen a rat and therefore they are often misidentified,” she said, adding that muskrats make up about 50 per cent of the 400-500 annual reports of alleged rat sightings.

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In addition to public education and participation, Alberta has established a true rat exclusion zone. The Rocky Mountains to the west and coordination with neighbouring Saskatchewan to the east have strengthened rat-free boundaries that could be difficult to achieve in Ontario’s urban centres.

“For the province of Ontario, that rat is out the gate,” said Johnson, the Ottawa councillor. “So unfortunately we have to be reactive rather than proactive, as Alberta was able to do 70 years ago.”

Ontario isn’t alone in its struggle.

The mayor of New York City is hosting the Urban Rat Summit in September, which is expected to feature experts from cities including Boston, New Orleans and Seattle.

The first conference aims to bring together pest control experts, academic researchers and politicians to share best practices for controlling rat populations in North American cities.

Bravo, the Toronto councillor, said knowledge sharing and coordination between regions are essential in the fight.

“We’re part of a huge, ongoing megalopolis here, and collaboration is always important,” she said. “If there’s good stuff being done in Peel or in Ottawa or in Chicago, we want to know about it.”

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