The background of Saint Patrick’s Day is an interesting one. The story that Saint Patrick came to Ireland to drive out all the snakes is actually a metaphor used by the Catholic Church. Saint Patrick came to Ireland to convert its people (predominantly Celtic polytheists, also known as Druids) to Christianity. We know that the snake is a metaphor for paganism because Ireland is an island, and has never had snakes.
It’s sad to say that the highly entertaining visual of a man coaxing snakes away from an island is all a mythos; however, there is one tale of animal removal that is all too real, and it’s rather close to home. That tale comes from Alberta and its history of being rat-free.
The first rats were spotted in Alberta around 1950, and it wasn’t their natural habitat to begin with. Norway rats, the pests responsible for the spread of the Black Plague and many other illnesses, were introduced to the North American east coast around 1775 and made their way across Canada from there — wreaking havoc and destruction wherever their tiny paws touched.
According to the Government of Alberta website on agriculture in the province, when rats were seen entering the eastern border of Alberta, the provincial government was concerned with the spread of disease (particularly that of Plague) and the financial burden that comes with rat destruction. Because of these fears, the Department of Agriculture was put in charge of the rat problem, and the rat patrol program was put in place.
Phil Merrill, a provincial rat and pest specialist since 1971, says that the rat infestation numbers have decreased steadily throughout the years, and that the rat problem is getting consistently easier to deal with.
“We’ve been doing this for 65 years, it’s been getting easier and easier. In the ‘50s there were 600 or 800 infestations, actual families of rats that we had to eradicate. When I started in ‘71 we had 40 to 50 infestations. 2003 was the first year we actually had zero infestations, and now we only have one or two infestations a year,” says Merrill.
One of the key reasons infestation numbers have gone down is because of public cooperation, handling grain and transport more responsibly and allowing for far less accidental infestations by truck and train.
The province of Saskatchewan has also provided more support for keeping rats out of Alberta and done more to ensure shipments are rat-free, says Merrill.
The rat patrol program has evolved throughout the years, but a few things remain the same. By law, every county has agricultural fieldmen and a pest control officer. If counties fall on the Saskatchewan border, they are in the “rat control zone.”
The “rat control zone” is patrolled — or, bravely protected — by six pest control officers, for those six pest control officers, two to three months a year is entirely dedicated to rat eradication. The province of Alberta also has over 150 pest control officers, and although their job is not committed to rat removal, they do seek out and destroy rats when they encounter them.
Now, you may have heard stories about the “rat control zone,” where buildings are burned to the ground on the meer suspicion of rats infestation. However, that is not the whole truth.
“We don’t burn buildings at random. We encourage farmers and producers along rat control zone to get rid of old buildings,” says Merrill.
Old buildings that once held grains are at a much higher risk of rat infestation than a building that once contained tools or non-edible storage, so any building that has not held cereals is left alone.
Other buildings that are currently used for storing grains — or are made of steel rather than wood — are also left alone. The only buildings rat patrol officers encourage to be taken apart or burned are wooden buildings that are no longer in use and once contained some kind of grain or edible substance.
“If we say (a building is) a high risk for rat activity and encourage them to get rid of it, we assist them to get rid of it, but it’s the property owners’ responsibility to not have rats on the property,” Merrill says.
Outside of the “rat patrol zone,” the rat patrol program is just as involved in eradicating rats from the province. The toll-free number 310-RATS (7287) is put in place for anyone to call if they think they’ve seen a rat. When you call the number, an automated message answers saying:
“Thanks for calling 310-RATS. Please leave your name, phone number, and a brief description of your rat sighting. A pest control officer will be in touch for detailed information about your sighting. Public reports of rat sightings assist in keeping Alberta rat-free.”
After leaving a message, one of the many pest control officers in Alberta gets a more detailed description of the encounter, and determines if the spotted rodent is indeed a rat sighting.
The officer takes down all the information the person can recall — if you think you see a rat, make sure to snap a photo if possible, it helps determine if the animal is a rat or some kind of mutant mouse/gopher/whatever. The pest control officer also requests images of tracks, scat, the time of day the sighting occurred, where the rat was spotted, and what it was doing.
The pest control officers have a large understanding of rat behaviours and appearances, and, from the information provided, they make a judgement call of whether or not the rodent should be treated as a rat infestation.
If the pest control officer determines it is not a rat, then it is up to the person who called to decide whether or not to call other forms of pest control.
Typically, if a rat is spotted, it is alone. When rats grow enough to be self-reliant, they leave the nest to try and join a new rat family.
These “juveniles,” when crossing the border into Alberta, tend to die on their own because they have no other rats to join. The fact that Alberta doesn’t have rats makes it easier to maintain, because when a young rat tries to find a new place to settle, it has nowhere rat-friendly to go.
All these services cost around half a million dollars a year, and by keeping Alberta rat-free, the province saves millions of dollars a year on agricultural production.
It’s because of the rat control program that pet rats are illegal to have in Alberta.
Although a pet rat (especially the white rats that we often think of in labs) are not innately dangerous, when rat sightings are a common occurrence in pet stores and homes, the public is less inclined to report sightings.
“We’re not against pet owners having rats, it’s that we rely highly on property owners to report rats … we want the public to phone us if they see a rat.
(The risk is) if there are pet rats the public gets complacent and won’t phone us if they see a rat because they wonder if it’s a pet or not,” Merrill says.
Although some people enjoy rats, the province of Alberta has a much higher quality of living when it is rat-free. There is less risk of diseases being spread and less property destruction.
Instead of celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day and a lack of metaphorical snakes, let us all raise a glass to the fact that we life in a rat-free province.
Graphic by Milo Knauer.