Respirators, rat droppings and bait made from bacon grease are a near-daily part of Mike Kowbel’s life.
He owns the X-Terminators, which helps eliminate rat infestations from homes and businesses in the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley.
Last Thursday, he donned a suit to tackle a particularly “dirty” infestation at a home in Chilliwack, B.C.
“They’ve been there for a long time and so there’s a lot of droppings, a lot of urine,” Kowbel said, climbing down into a three-foot-high dirt crawl space.
Kowbel and other exterminators are on the front line tackling a massive rodent problem in Vancouver and surrounding area.
A substantial shipping industry coupled with a mild climate makes the Pacific Northwest a hotbed for rat infestations.
“Sometimes it’s sanitation issues. Dumpsters and alleys and that kind of thing are just breeding grounds,” he said.
The City of Vancouver handles some local rat issues, receiving 812 rat-related inquiries last year. Most of them were about construction sites — which displace rats that then go looking for new homes nearby — and the removal of dead animals.
Rat research in the Downtown Eastside
The city said it doesn’t have an estimate of the number of rats in Vancouver, but it is looking to do more to eliminate them.
One attempt is the Vancouver Rat Project, a multi-year project dedicated to identifying root causes of rat issues in the city.
“We have no estimate on the number, but anecdotally from pest control companies it seems that calls are going up. Whether or not that actually has to deal with increasing rat numbers or changes in awareness around rats is unclear,” said Kaylee Byers, a University of British Columbia researcher with the project.
The past few years Byers and her team have trapped 700 rats in Downtown Eastside alleyways, in the hopes of developing science-based policies to address infestations.
They’ve found the rats in the area carry numerous pathogens, like leptospira, bartonella and even some common hospital bacteria like C. difficile and the staphylococcus bacteria behind staph infections.
This year, one of the researchers is taking a new direction with the study and heading to major rat-dense cities like Chicago, New York and New Orleans to learn best practices for rat management.
“At this stage it’s very much what is done elsewhere, and how might we be able to use that to address our own rat issues,” Byers said.
Is rat elimination possible?
Even with a robust plan in place, rat elimination has proven difficult for other regions.
Workers at Gwaii Haanas National Park, located in Haida Gwaii off B.C.’s north coast, thought they had successfully eliminated rats from two sensitive islands in 2016.
However, the next year a new type of rat to the area, the Norway rat, was caught on camera on shore — a big disappointment to resource conservation manager Tyler Peet who calls the infestation “devastating.”
“We have seen the reduction of what was once robust populations of seabirds and other species on critical islands reduced to absolute zero in some places,” Peet said.
Rats eat the eggs and chicks of the ancient murrelet bird, which is listed as a species of special concern under the Species at Risk Act.
The rodents are not native to Haida Gwaii, but were introduced through maritime shipping.
Peet is focusing on making sure visitors to the island travelling by boat are taking measures to eradicate rats on board their own vessels, including providing a free rat kit to travellers and asking them to proactively bait for rats aboard.
“We spend a lot of time educating visitors and staff and also just the population of the other communities on Haida Gwaii, about how to best manage invasive species like rats on boats,” Peet said.
He’s hopeful that with more education and prevention efforts, the rats can be eliminated once more.
“I have a dream of walking down to the dock one day and and hearing some young fellow bugging his dad about about resetting the rat baits on their boats the way that he might bug his dad about putting a seatbelt on,” he said.